Whites need to sort out the white problem

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.

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The Boldness of Blacks

A few weeks back a friend of mine wrote a blog, an exasperated blog, stating that she was tired of white people being seen as courageous for going into black communities. I flippantly stated that actually the blog should have been about the courage of black people going into formerly mostly white suburban communities.

• Into communities in Cape Town where we are regularly seeing headlines about white on black violent racism.

• Into communities where people earn their livelihoods – such as they are. Livelihoods being a term I use loosely as it means being paid something that most people think you should be ‘grateful for’ & yet none of the people I know who employ others express “simple gratitude for at least earning something”; instead it’s mostly about the feeling of what we are entitled to in terms of how hard we work or the effort we believe we put in.

• Into communities where one man was sjambokked (whipped) while running in order not to be late for work but was assumed that he was a thief – because why would a black man be running through the suburbs (and obviously not in running gear)

• Into communities where at 9 ish in the morning a woman was beaten, en route to work, based on the assumption that she was a sex worker. Not only was there an indignation that she was black, there was an unspoken thing that it was okay to beat up sex workers too.

She challenged me to write something about this & I thought it might not be so helpful. Yet this morning, on opening up facebook, there is yet ANOTHER headline posted by a friend who wants to live in Cape Town, yet isn’t sure he wants to have to deal with the ‘racial backwardness’ of this enchanting city, of a YOUNG white woman who swore at a YOUNG black woman and then ‘tazzered’ her – over a parking space in a Hipster area of pubs and restaurants – and then told her to go back to where she came from. Really?! This white woman lived across the mountain in a different community altogether – how did she know where this black woman came from? So, some people are reading this and thinking that it was about road rage – my question is if it had been white on white would the tazzer have come out? Would the K-word have been used, multiple times and would the sentiment of ‘go back to where you came from’ have been expressed?

Cape Town, I love you. I love saying that this is where I grew up. I love that my head clears and heart breathes out because of the forests and mountains and beaches and water. I love how each day, I am grateful for the natural lifestyle that you facilitate. This has been a part of my identity as a Cape Townian.

I am also deeply saddened and angry by you. I was concerned about moving back here from Jo’burg (the city Cape Townians often claim to not understand how people actually live there). One part of what makes living in Jo’burg easy is this:

– I can go for lunch with any of my friends: black, white, coloured, indian and NO ONE stares – out of curiosity, labelling or for any other reason. It’s just lunch. Before you deny this, in December a Xhosa friend and I went for lunch in Hout Bay. We were the table of curiosity for a few people. She graciously claimed that perhaps they thought that our conversation was interesting – however, the staring had begun before the conversation got interesting.

– In Jo’burg there is an underlying energy and drive and awareness of crime etc – but there isn’t the same level of resentment that simmers in Cape Town. It feels- and yes this is a naive statement as I am sure that it’s not true everywhere – that this is the possibility of listening, befriending and doing life with others without the questions, glances and mistrust that Cape Town we seem to have.
Cape Town, our identity is a paradox. It’s of utter beauty and amazing things happening in different pockets and circles – for we are not all bad – but it also has the ugliest of things too as we really don’t seem to live like all people matter and have worth. There are people actively striving, in faith based and development circles, to see the beauty outplay the ugliness. Until we admit, until we own that the ugliness is a part of us it won’t go. Like an alcoholic who denies his problem, but the impact of it is felt often, Cape Town we have been denying our racism but the impact of it is felt often.

It’s time to own it. Just own it and then maybe we can find ways of being the mother city. The city of healing, of hope and of restoration.

Justice vs Selfishness

Is SOCIAL JUSTICE in some ways THE STRUGGLE AGAINST SELFISHNESS?

I recently had the privilege of attending a conference with various leaders seeking change in the area of poverty, inequality & unemployment. At this conference were leaders who had been involved in the struggle against apartheid as well as young leaders whose voices are loud in the current struggles that our country faces as a whole – by whole I mean people of all groups and (racial) backgrounds.
There were many reflections on things that worked, ideals that were and weren’t achieved and stories told of the political struggle that ensued to bring SA into a democracy. Rev Frank Chikane said the following which has sat with me and I have no concrete answers to this – other than we need to find this path through restitution and peace: ‘In the build up to 1994 the country was taken across a bridge in such a way that bought the country to a new place without destroying it; however the economic system wasn’t taken across the bridge’.

I sat listening to people speaking about their experience of growing up poor, of the struggle to escape an economic system that is responsible for much of the structural violence and neglect many people still suffer under and realised that this was the bigger narrative against which the smaller, personal narrative needs to unfold. As a South African who is white how do I find my space in the midst of this when I see what are emotional, angry and ‘you can’t possibly understand the other’ type responses on social media and news comments?

How do i listen to what needs to be said, but still ask or challenge or engage people to find an alternate way to that of bitterness driven responses? This morning I again saw a person of colour being allowed to respond to an emotional statement (which is allowed too) and yet when a ‘white’ person affirmed the initial response and asked the questions which I too wanted to ask was immediately shot down. It made me think that while we talk a big talk about creating a land of equal opportunity that in the midst of that we need to find ways of seeing each other – and that means looking beyond our own assumptions and stereotypes –regardless of who they are about.

Sivuyile Kotela said ‘that we need to find a way of talking about poverty and it’s link to race without being racist; that the church has a responsibility to talk about poverty differently to those who do so for political reasons and that as much as don’t want to talk about race often, in the context of poverty it’s a needed discussion’. This might not be radical enough for some of my more left wing friends. It might infuriate some of my more right wing friends that the race word has once more been used.

So in this context how does this broader narrative and story that is currently unfolding as a nation impact my personal narrative around justice? I have had FOMO watching friends engage in dialogues around this until I felt convicted that actually, justice needs to be about the way we live our lives – and yes the dialogues matter, but what matters too is actioning the things that we see and hear.

How do I acknowledge and what do I do re: my white privilege? No – that doesn’t mean I have a trust fund, it simply means that inherently if I listen to some of my best friends (who happen to have grown up differently based on their skin) tell stories of their childhood, do I acknowledge & respond to the wrongs or simply nod and move on?

Justice in my day to day life is about how I:
– Engage my community
– Engage my neighbours
– Engage those employed by me: whether at work or at home. Do I respect and value the person & her work, helping in my home enough to pay her a generous and living wage or do I worry that this will impact my disposable income too adversely?
– What do I do with disposable income and time?
– What do my friendship circles look like? Do I intentionally befriend people whose stories differ to my own so that there are bridges being built or do I surround myself with people who are like me and allow to not have to think/ talk or be the other?
– Is my faith & it’s actions private or is there a social aspect to it in terms of how I live it out?

I don’t have answers for all of the above – but when I start to ponder them the selfishness of aspects of my world are bought to light and it brings me back to consider where I need to shift again.