Race is a bit like the clothes we wear; it’s the first thing we see when we look at each other. We see it and come to certain conclusions about each other – basically judging each other. But, unlike clothes, race is something we can’t change or get rid of. So we might as well think and talk about it honestly and fairly. We might as well find different and maybe even loving ways of dealing with being called black, coloured, Indian or white.
In that spirit, then, let me talk to you about something I noticed a long time ago about how we, black and coloured people, still feel a bit uncomfortable when talking to white people. We don’t seem to feel completely free to talk to white people with the same honesty and authority that we talk to each other with in busses, malls, schools and taxis, for example. It sometimes feels like we care more about making sure not to offend them than we do about making sure we talk to them as equals.
When I look back to my childhood, I see how this mindset also had quite an effect on me. Since I was mainly surrounded by black and coloured people when I was growing up, I never had any meaningful interactions with white people, except my white teachers in Grade 1 in the Eastern Cape. I was honestly a bit intimidated by the idea of talking to white people.
I can remember the first time I talked to a white person that wasn’t my teacher. It was when I’d moved to Cape Town, in 1999. My family and I were living deep in the heart of Philippi’s biggest informal settlement at the time, Phola Park, so I didn’t encounter white people much. We had no electricity, I had no toys, and the only access to water we had was a tap we had to walk about 500 metres to from our house. These were all the things that I was told white people have easy access to, so it made me think being white was more special.
The only real form of entertainment we had as a family was an old Telefunken black-and-white television set powered with an old car battery. eTV had just launched and I remember watching James Bond movies on there and learning that there was a special-edition James Bond pen that was available from different stores. A few days later, on my way home from school, I saw this sharply-dressed white man walking to his car. And guess what? He had the special-edition pen I wanted! Once I’d figured out the English sentences I would use when talking to him, I mustered the courage to go up to him and ask for it. I remember feeling very impressed with myself when he gave it to me. I went around telling everyone I could that I’d had a conversation with a white man, and he’d been so impressed with me that he gave me his special-edition James Bond pen. In my mind, only the most intelligent of people could exist in the same space, speak the same language as a white person, and do it so well that they get a reward – the pen. I felt special.
Looking back now, I can see some of the things wrong with how I felt about that conversation. But why was I like that? And why are other people like that? Why do we make interacting with white people seem like such a big deal?
The most obvious answer I can think of to these two questions is: We feel poorer, less educated, less respected, and even less important. Apartheid taught us this, and it’s a mentality that all of us, including white people, have been struggling to let go of.
But if we feel like this, what are we doing to change the way we think, to change the way we talk to white people?
My way of dealing with it was by coming up with a list of rules for myself. I call this list of rules: “How to talk to white people”.
Rule no 1 – We’re equal!
If there’s one thing that we all need to start with whenever we talk to anyone, especially white people, it’s to accept that we’re all equally important as people. Just because one person lives in a mansion on a hill overlooking the beach, and I live in a shack somewhere in Cape Town doesn’t mean that anyone should like or respect me less than the other person. A lot of us might come from dirt roads, shacks, and non-flushing toilets, but as long we’re all people, I refuse to believe that being black or coloured makes us less important.
I do also know, of course, that for a lot of black and coloured people it’s very difficult to speak to white people as equals when white people are so often the ones who employ us or are in other positions of power. It’s often only those of us who have an education who find it a bit easier to speak to white people, because we can speak English and can qualify for similar jobs as those white people generally have. But it’s not only about being educated. I know many educated black and coloured people who still lack confidence and feel uncomfortable around white people, and even fear speaking to them.
Whatever our reasons are for feeling unequal to white people, I’ve found that in the new South Africa, we have a bit more power than we think we do. And it starts with us finding some confidence and seeing ourselves as equal. If we don’t do that then it doesn’t really matter how much education and money we gain, we’ll still struggle to co-exist with white people.
Rule no 2 – Not all white people are racist!
This one is definitely tricky. Where I grew up there were always people who told me that white people can’t be trusted. Hell, even when I was still at UWC a few years ago there were a few people that I spoke to who said they don’t like that UWC was accepting more and more white students. I had a friend, Sandile, who lived in one of the residences on campus and ran into a lot of these white students more than I did. He would always say that not only does he not trust white people, but that he’s ready to retaliate to anything they would do to him.
For me, Sandile’s attitude shows two things:
• There are a lot of us who still don’t trust white people, and
• That distrust obviously leads to us either not wanting to engage with white people or having bad interactions with them.
Sandile ignored one important thing about humans: We want to be trusted. I don’t think there’s any person alive who enjoys not being trusted by other people. His attitude would’ve clearly hurt the feelings of any white person that wanted to just have a human conversation with him. His attitude would intimidate a lot of white people who understand that one of the ways to defeat racism is to have honest and respectful conversations, and want to connect with us.
I haven’t spoken to Sandile in five years, and I hope wherever he is now he understands: Not all white people are racists! I hope he understands that even though there are obviously many ignorant, rude or pretty racist white people out there who would be unfriendly no matter how we interact with them, not every white person is like that. Distrusting all of them isn’t the solution. It’s just as unhealthy as me maybe thinking a white person’s life is more important than my own.
Rule no 3 – White privilege is real!
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what’s like to be white, what people would think about you, how they’d treat you, where you’d live, what you’d eat, what school you’d go to, how much education or money you, your parents or grandparents and family would have, you were thinking about white privilege. You weren’t crazy! White privilege is real. And one of the biggest problems we have in this country is that a lot of white people still refuse to accept that it’s real.
Another problem we have is that we don’t know how to address it. That’s why I’ve made this rule for myself. Whether I’m at work or anywhere else, I feel like I have to be honest with any white person I speak to about how I feel. If I come across a white person who doesn’t believe that white privilege is real, and I don’t say anything, that person’s beliefs will probably have a negative impact on not only me but others as well. Anyone who doesn’t believe in white privilege clearly believes that Apartheid and slavery didn’t benefit white people. Having these conversations is good for this country, I believe.
Rule no 4 – Not all conversations should be about race
This is a very important rule to me. We can’t expect white people or anyone else, for that matter, to talk about race or racism ALL THE TIME. I don’t think it’s fair. No matter how much we’ve been told that race is a big deal, we can’t forget that we’re all people. We all bleed, breathe, cry, laugh, sleep, and just live life. Yes, racism affects all these things I’ve just mentioned, but forcing white people or anyone else to talk about racism all the time is also not healthy. There are many things that can unite us in this country – art, education, fashion, food, politics, sport and even work. We can’t just focus on what tends to divide us. Yes, we have to be honest when we speak about race, but we also have to be fair.
Tell us: which rule of Sicelo’s do you think is most helpful/important?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.