A while ago I got into some interesting discussions with some friends. These friends of mine happen to be people of colour – more specifically belonging to what South African’s understand as Coloured People – this is a “stand alone” cultural group in South Africa.
Recently two of these friends returned from an international conference where they had had to explain to people that they weren’t white – they aren’t “black” looking so some of the conference delegates had placed them as being “white”. I love the fact that these friends are able to clarify and confront and explore social constructs such as race and gender, and yet I know that part of this process means confronting some of the pain of the past too.
A few months ago, one of these friends mentioned to me that whilst black South African genealogies are tracked, and white genealogies are nicely archived, the coloured communities genealogies are in boxes – if you want to know your family tree, you need to go scratch through boxes. When this was told to me, I got very weepy. See the fact that our old social system of apartheid, denied many people their right to their language and thereby made them submit to the dominant, ruling culture and expectations I was mindful of. I had never thought that about the details of what this meant in terms of family histories and stories and recognition.
This weekend we were chatting generally over a braai, talking about life and catching up – and in passing a (coloured) friend made a comment that due to the fact that one of their great grandparents was the result of an affair between a white parent and a parent of colour, the genealogy, my friends genealogy, on that side of her family just ends. It stops – dead. Simply as beyond that, no one was allowed or able to access more information due to the old social system. In contrast to this, our family holidays always included exploring old graveyards (yes, I thought this was weird as a kid) to confirm family details for my uncle who wrote up family histories and assisted people writing up other branches.
I have a strong sense of where I come from and what makes me “me”. When children are adopted, we do our best to make sure that the family adopting, as well as the child will have a sense of history – as much as is possible. (One of the crises that may happen for some adopted children is: “Where did I come from originally?”)
And then I listen to some people who I respect and love, and value that I get to call them friends whose written history is untraceable or oral history ends in places because a social system said it had to.
We may be addressing the structural injustices of the past – but sadly, there are nuances of things that I am always going to be able to access that some of my friends aren’t – simply because I was born into the “right” people group. This is white privilege. I didn’t choose it. I still got it. I still get to witness friends work through heartache of some of the past.
The privilege I can choose is this:
The responsibility that comes with supporting my friends in a way that they choose and ask for is a privilege, as we seek to see hearts and homes healed where history was “dismissed”.
*a braai is the equivalent of a barbeque with a wood fire*