Two weeks in a row I heard this said.
Once very succinctly and twice as the theme of a dialogue in a space where we were talking about race.
WHITES NEED TO SORT OUT THE WHITE PROBLEM.
Not who to vote for, not who was less corrupt; not who allowed for the coffee drinkers to access better coffee (pre 94 people might recall the chicory blend that masqueraded as coffee) but simply about this thing that is race.
Race as defined by a Xhosa friend in his 50’s “The concept that politicians made up to do what they wanted to” – this said enough about what it was and why he refused to define himself by it despite growing up in an Apartheid defined society.
This consistent theme reinforced for me, again, that as much as we talk about prejudice, as much as people want the colour blind illusion to be true (which it can’t be because then in essence we deny the fullness of the other person), that actually some of the ways that we think we are allies in the fight against racism effectively reinforces aspects of it.
The way in which we want people to share the stories of their pain, present and past, in order for us to understand why this all matters is one of the ways that we reinforce things. Yes, I get that as we listen to stories, the reality becomes informed and educational and real – but then I look at some of my friends who painfully have repeatedly engaged in this space and realise what it is costing them to have to retell a story that is still a lived reality, while I get to go home to my comfortable world to process it – and they get to go home to continue living it. In expecting this to be how we shift our spaces, we once more sit in a place of needing to be served, rather than asking what do we need to be together in this. Intentionally or not – and in response to this, I hear ‘Sisi Lex, we are tired of this – whites need to sort out the white problem, it’s not my problem that they don’t get it’.
A while ago I wrote about the narrative burden we place on people to talk about the thing that is ‘different’ to us – whether it’s being adopted, being disabled, being foreign, being …whatever – the expectation of them to tell their story. Maybe rather than asking people to tell me their story so that I can get it, I should be more intentionally creating spaces and listening harder in the present as to what matters in the here and now.
I do know that part of listening to each other’s stories is part of learning how we are all impacted by our life experiences and stories –regardless of the position we hold. Yet, if this doesn’t happen in a relational space with a commitment to more, than as the above friend said, it becomes about the emotional charge of the moment and not about commitment to shifting spaces.
I am starting to more and more realise what it looks like when some of us have been slow to engage with listening to learn and shift spaces, while others are still seeing people live without simply because politicians did what they wanted to do. Yes, I get that this goes all the way back to colonialism but the reality for people I know, respect, value and love is that this doing what they wanted directly impacts them still.
Our desire for comfort in the white community I believe is one of the biggest challenges to us sorting out the white problem. We don’t want to make other people uncomfortable or perhaps we are scared of being scorned, labelled, or seen as ‘something’ if we do speak up.
This week my mom called me, in tears. This short, going grey, perhaps unseen in some circles or prejudged in others based on her ethnic heritage and age, had once more confronted racism in her community. In the past 6 months alone, my mom has called me a few times to vent around the fact that people think that it’s okay to treat people as unseen, less than, or unequal based on their ‘race’. Some of the issues have been obvious issues, some of the issues have been more subtle and yet obvious enough to be seen if you are willing to see them. My mom has my respect in this. She lives in a small town. She & my dad are some of the most hospitable people I know – to anyone – you could visit them simply because you know me, whether I am there or not. Yet, my mom does not keep silent on this issue. There are details to the how things have unfolded recently that don’t need to be told here – beyond my parents’ challenging the status quo – not just in words, but also in actions and follow through. They are retired people. Not the youthful faces we associate with movements like #luister. They are parents and grandparents wanting people to know that they are valued, seen, heard and that their lives matter.
My 80 year old Ouma (Afrikaans grandmother) learnt to stop using racist and loaded language, because she was challenged. Was it comfortable for her? No. Was she the same person who was able to engage in radical ways with people when she felt convicted to? Yes. To the point of taking bedding off of her bed to give to someone, and inviting a stranger to sit at her table and giving him her plate of food ‘for you never know when you might be entertaining angels’ much to our discomfort at her vulnerability in this. Yet, she did it. She got that sometimes discomfort meant more than just being uncomfortable. I so want to see a life well lived in which I get to honour her and my mom’s chutzpah in this way – because they did and do the uncomfortable spaces.
I recently had an experience of someone telling a racist joke during a social event. Except that there is no such thing. We tell children in social skills, that it’s only a joke if it’s funny for everyone – else it might be a little bit mean. They get this. Yet, how often do we allow things to be pardoned ‘because it was just a joke’. I liked the person telling the joke. I liked their family. I didn’t like the joke or what it meant or said about people that I know and love. People whose race is different to mine. And so I said so. And there was an awkward moment or three that followed before there was a rythmn again in the conversation. In this moment I realised that doing this seems simple, yet this was the space that more than one of my black friends has said matters more to them than how comfortable I am in communities where I am in the minority whether through work or socially.
We need to become comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to become uncomfortable enough to voice, challenge and invite people to stretch beyond the status quo. South Africa has space in it for all who care about Africa and the people who live here. Else, we aren’t actually shifting spaces or living out the fact that we claim that all people matter. One way of being a part of this is for us white people to start owning that we need to sort ourselves out – as uncomfortable as this might be.
Onwards. Failing forwards at times when we don’t get it right but onwards in this.