No one is born into the physical world untethered by history and what has gone before. Where we are born, how we are born, the life and family we are born into and whether we even manage to survive the first few years, never mind hours, of our lives, all depends on what has gone before.
We are not a collection of gasses, fluids and bones held together by a skin, disconnected from fellow human beings. Each one of us is where we are because of collective forces of history and time, and none of us, no matter how hard we try, can live outside of this history and time. If you are white or have a light skin and belong to a class whose ancestors wielded colonial power from the 16th to the 19th century, then the chances are that, generally, time, history and economics have worked extremely well in your favour.
In modern history, our ancestors were not hunted, chased and captured, separated from loved ones and children, renamed or given a number and transported in the hot bowels of slave ships across the oceans. Those ships reached the shores of the Western Cape, not far from where Stellenbosch University stands today.
Our ancestors – while they lived and died in wars of their own creation – were not enslaved in their countries, disenfranchised, dispossessed, scoured of their identity and robbed of their freedom. This history of course excludes the persecution of Jews. And if you are forming the question “what about the Boers?” as you read, then yes, for that reason alone we should know better.
Our ancestors were not shackled in chains to be bought and sold on the open market. There is a tree in Cape Town’s CBD where this happened and not that long ago. It stands there for all to see, but how many of us look, understand and absorb this history and how it echoes through the ages.
This is a history unique to the black experience and to blackness and it is a shameful global one. So, when black people point out that what we have said or done is offensive, stop, listen, consider and be open to learning.
Instead, as Dean Hutton pointed out in a thread that developed on Facebook last night, “So many white people walking around blind to the insult of their words and their actions crying ‘why are you so offended?’ Wailing ‘they don’t understand’ but will not listen. ‘This one black person I know has absolved me of my racism. There is nothing I need to do. Racism is hard man, get over it. Why are you black people, queer people, female people so offended, it’s just fun?’ What they mean is ‘I can’t be bothered to see how this may hurt you, but wait let me tell you endlessly about why you hurt me with your stereotypes about ignorant, lazy white people who won’t listen’. ‘Black people must just forget centuries of structural inequality, cause 20 years…’ Whiteness is to forget, whiteness is to deny. Whiteness is the forever victim.”
You would think that two educated young men – university students – would be aware or mindful where they find themselves. That at some point in their life they had encountered the stories of the world, their own country. You would think that for a moment a young white child, coming to know these stories, would allow his or her mind to wonder and ask, “what if that were me or my family?”
You would think that while driving past townships, areas to which fellow black South Africans were forcibly removed, they might pause for a moment and wonder “how did this happen? Why do I not live here?” or “what might this life feel like?” and “why is this still here?”
Then you would perhaps hope that this young white person might also ask, “How did I become? What shaped me? Am I who I am through my own endevour, my own wit, my own unique talent or do I exist at the expense of the freedoms and human rights of others?”
These are not outrageous existential questions to ask yet it is clear, from the repeated public displays of deep unconsciousness, that many young white South Africans have no clue, no idea, no insight even of a recent history of deep structural inequality and racism. Perhaps it is easier then to just gooi another chop on the braai, we have mercifully all been forgiven after all, let’s all just get over it, it’s all just harmless fun.
It is important to hold in mind that many of the human rights and freedoms we today take for granted were forged and fought for in the fight against oppression. And yes, both white and black people fought for these freedoms. There was, among many, a common solidarity. It is not impossible.
You, white child, are free, because others were not.
How is it then that only 20 years after surviving a system that the world has agreed was a “crime against humanity” should so many of those who benefitted from it fail so miserably in understanding the deep and painful scars that still remain?
Instead we turn away from ourselves and shriek “corruption”, “affirmative action”, “reverse racism”, “Superman”, “Zuma”– anything to avoid looking in the mirror.
Each new event that is made public is dismissed by some white people as “small potatoes”, “an over-reaction”, “nonsense”.
But that is not what fellow black South Africans are telling you. That is what YOU are saying. This is YOUR response to it.
It is difficult to be part of a perpetrator class and to own what is and what was done in your name. To reflect deeply on your identity, your privilege, your power, your freedom. To own it for what it is. It can be shaming and uncomfortable. But it can and must be done. You can break the cycle. You CAN situate yourself outside of your white skin.
Until white children in South Africa understand our history and how it echoes through the ages, we will continue to be thoughtless, unconscious, unrooted and disconnected from fellow human beings.
I am a great fan of political correctness. Like teaching a child to be polite, it is a social tool that helps people to stop and think and engage their brain before acting or opening their mouths, particularly when the power still resides with them. Because of political correctness I am, as a woman, now included in humankind. I am a chairperson, a firefighter, a police officer, a spouse.
Being politically correct or living in a society that requires it, brings with it a moment for pause before you don blackface or women’s clothes as a joke, a prank, all in the name of a laugh and “harmless” party high jinks. Being politically correct means the joke is never at the expense of someone else. It means if you are going to try and be funny or criticise, you’re just going to have to be cleverer, you are going to have to understand the subtleties of the world and power around you, you are going to have to become “the other”.
There is a poem by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century, about “individuality” or the isolating of yourself from “the other” which, for me, encapsulates the work that must be done.
I have what you have not
I am what you are not
I have taken what you
Have failed to take and
I have seized what you
Could never get
Therefore you suffer and
I am happy, you are despised
And I am praised
You die and I live
You are nothing and
I am something
And thus I spend my life
Admiring the distance
Between you and me?