Hi Linde, thank you so much for agreeing to try this with me. It started with you writing a blog post titled ‘For Blacks Only’ – https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/for-blacks-only-guest-post-by-linde-ndaba/#comments – although you did tell me that it was also a great post for white people to read and i fully agree with that. Then my friend Megan [who i know is totally genuine in her response and is someone really looking to be a genuine ally to people of colour and has understood these things for far longer than me], responded to your blog with this comment:
This is a challenging and deep piece. Thank you for sharing. It is the first piece that I have taken particularly personally as a white person. I am going to try and work out why. I think because it traps me in a certain thought paralysis of what to do. Generally I am outspoken and hardcore against racism and white privilege, whenever I see, hear or read about it. Usually I need no feedback for what I am doing, and I just avoid the trolls. You seem to be saying something else. What I should be doing is keeping quiet and actively listening to you, and yet I really want to reach out, only I don’t have the words. I will sit hear and imagine you know my heart, just for a moment.
i thought that would be a great springboard to jump into this conversation we’ve been planning. Which is similar in format to the Breaking Bread conversations i’ve had on my blog with Trevor Black [https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/breaking-bread-with-trev-listening-better]
Each of us will have five 100’ish word statements in which we will respond to what the other person has said and then i will publish the finished conversation on my blog.
Here is: Breaking Bread [with Linde]:
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Brett [1/10] Hi Linde, Megan mentioned a ‘certain thought paralysis’ she had upon reading your post, and i must admit i had a similar response. i think it was the point you made about what you called ‘Whitesplaining’ where you said, ‘to have individuals from this group as representatives of black voices against racism is a stark contradiction and only works to further silence black people and their lived experiences’. As someone who has been seeking to become a better Ally to the people of colour around me, this ground feels tricky. It should not be for the oppressed to have to show the oppressors how to stop oppressing on the one hand, but at the same time if i as a white person write a series on ‘How to be an Ally to POC’ aren’t i doing what you suggest there in terms of silencing black people and their experiences?
Linde [2/10]: I think this is really an important question and I’m glad that you and Megan are concerned about the role you play in all of this as I think we all should be. I’m touched by Megan’s comment to the blog post and think I understand where she’s coming from – the paralysis.
I definitely believe that it is everyone’s role to educate others about institutionalsed and systematic racism. I also think that allies play a very important role here in educating other white people about it as this is often quite traumatic, exhausting and maybe even dangerous for POC. However, I do think that this has its limitations when allies try to contextualise the experiences of POC in the complete absence of them in the conversation or in the background.
Also we don’t want to create a situation where white people get together to study “The Black Experience” while conveniently totally detached and removed from their genuine circumstance and at the end of their discussions walk away thinking they’ve done their bit and have learned about black marginalisation without leaving the comfort of their communities and social circle, which in most cases is absent of black people. In a country where over 70% of the population is black this is not only disingenuous, but also does little to build genuine reconciliation, cooperation and tolerance between black and white people.
I do believe that this line is not easy to draw. At what point is an ally simply explaining how black people can’t be racist (institutionalised/systemic racism) to other whites and at what point does that conversation evolve into the white interpretation of black experiences?. I think that allies need to constantly challenge themselves with this question and need to be mindful of the absence of black voices when engaging with others (black or white) about this subject.
Brett: 3/10: Linde, that is super helpful. What i am hearing you say is that we shouldn’t be engaging with this conversation in a white vaccuum? There may be times when we need to pull the white people into a separate room and explain some things and say, “STOPPIT”, but more importantly we [all of us] need to be engaging in deep, honest, trust-building relationships with POC. Is that right?
Which bounces me straight into another question. If there is someone reading this who does not have any genuine friends of another race or culture group, how would you suggest they remedy that? This sounds completely horrific, but is there ever space for a ‘token black friend’ in one sense in terms of taking the first step to building genuine relationships with people of colour IF the natural progression of their life has not led to that happening naturally? Or might it be about putting yourself into the kinds of situations and groups of people where those friendships might more naturally be fostered? And being intentional in terms of focus and opportunity?
Linde [4/10] Yeah Brett that’s exactly what I’m saying.
In a country where more than 70% of the population is black many white folks are just not taking the opportunity to genuinely engage with black people. BTW, talking to anyone under your employ shouldn’t be considered genuine engagement with people of other race groups for obvious reasons – power dynamics.
LOL, “Token Black”, in my opinion many middle-class black people whether aware of it or not may be considered to be token black friends in their white social paces.
I think its best that I define to you what this word means to me – our ideas of it might differ. I define a token black person as a POC who changes who they are or their level of “blackness”, (self-censorship) according to the expectations of the white group or individual in their environment. You can have more than one black token in a white majority environment whether it is socially or at work
So back to your question, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having that one black friend who can be frank and upfront about their views. This person can only be honest if they view themselves as equals and therefore feel empowered to share a different perspective.
Thanks Linde for some helpful term definitions. i think what i am suggesting by ‘token friend of colour’ is in the case of someone who has not naturally connected to people of colour for whatever reason. Being intentional about finding a black friend because i don’t have any black friends might feel like tokenism as opposed to genuine friendship, but i am wondering if, for some people that’s the step they may need to do to ever have the chance of genuine friendship. So like, “Hey, i don’t have any significant black friends, would you be up to hanging out with me regularly so that we can get to know each other better?” Or do you think that feels too forced?
As i was writing that question in my previous statement, i had the thought that maybe it is all about putting yourself into spaces where there is a greater diversity of people and then seeking friendship there [which might feel a little less token and forced]. i don’t think tokenism in and of itself feels like a good thing, but i’m just wondering on behalf of someone who might be reading this, who doesn’t have any friends of colour and doesn’t know how to change that? You have any thoughts on that? If i had said when i came back to South Africa, “Linde, i don’t really have any black friends, would you mind having coffee with me once a week so we can get to know each other?”, would that have felt good or horrible or somewhere in between?
Linde [6/10] I understand exactly what you meant. I think it’s important that white people make an effort to know black people, friendship or the pretence of it isn’t necessary to do this – honest conversations are. “I realise that I don’t understand the lives and experiences of black people in SA because of the absence of an honest relationship with a black person/s, would you mind having coffee some time so you can help me with this by discussing a few things with me?” Friendships are created through honest dialogue in any case, so the moment a black person feels they can be forthcoming to a white person without them getting defensive, it’s a good start towards that. But, don’t patronise a POC by asking for friendship, they might want to limit their conversation with you to honest dialogue about black experiences, and that’s much better than an engineered friendship/relationship.
That makes sense. It feels like a lot of the online race conversation slash arguments happen in a bit of a vacuum. i am often reading something and i think, ‘It is pretty clear to me that you don’t have genuine friends of colour or you would never say something like that.’ Which is why my wife Val and i have come up with the idea of what we call Deep Dive Conversation Dinners with the hope of moving potentially explosive conversations offline so that we can break bread together and then have conversation face to face. When issues are experienced through the stories of people then i find it is a lot harder to hold on to misconceptions and assumptions or even prejudices. When i start to recognise your humanity as a person, it somehow feels like there is a great chance that we will be able to press deeper and really engage with some potentially painful aspects of our lives. Have you ever experienced something like that with a white person where in a live conversation you felt something suddenly shift?
Yeah, Brett I see that too, and often chose to disengage with such people. I do think that your dinners are fab idea simply because, I think we say a lot of things online without giving them a second thought because we don’t have access to the person we direct our statements to. I think if one could actually see the effect their words (casual or serious) have online we would dramatically change the tone of our online engagement. I also think actually seeing someone get up and walk away from a public conversation because they no longer feel heard/listened to sends a far stronger message than simply not responding to the thread.
It’s unfortunate that although I’m surrounded by a lot of white people on a daily basis, I’ve learnt to mute and not respond to the subtle and obvious bigotry. I will admit I’ve felt more comfortable and much safer to talk about such issues online, because I feel judged everywhere else and either feel my social status may be compromised or my position in my work environment may be. A white male colleague who I am fairly friendly with told me to “fuck off” after I had called him out for being racist at the office, he later apologised, but we shouldn’t have to go through that.
I’ve seen a few shifts online though, and all have been from white women. Generally speaking white men choose to exercise some kind of superiority complex where they lecture, patronise and demean you into backing away. They seem to be only interested in racial conversations only if they’re the ones doing the talking – because of course they know so much about it. Quite often when speaking about racial bigotry white people deflect to talking about the ineffectiveness of the ANC. I find that the common thought amongst many white South Africans is that if you’re a black person and are pro-black or against racism, you’re an ANC supporter and support ANC ineffectiveness/flaws. Consequently you’re then attacked or isolated as a “trouble maker”. How can I possibly have a conversation about the effects white privilege have on my life when every response is a deflection about what the government does or doesn’t do, when it is fact that the government is only part of the problem and is a direct consequence of white privilege and racism.
You raise a lot of uncomfortable points there, Linde, and as a white male, i wish there was a way that any “Sorry” i would gladly give, would make any difference to your experience. But for the most part that does seem to be the way it is. What i can do, and have done, is to commit myself daily to speaking out against racism when i witness it in front of me, online or offline. If more and more white people would join the #NotOnOurWatch movement and actively start standing against observed racism, then you feel that we could gather some positive momentum. But the mountain is high. i imagine for a black person that Deflection must be such a difficult argument to be faced with. Any time you are trying to make a point someone throws ‘Zuma’ into the mix and feels like ‘Case closed’ as far as they are concerned. i would love to see us [white people] get to the place where we can acknowledge that as much as government might be flawed, there is still a LOT of work for each of us personally to be doing and we don’t need to point at government before addressing that.
Yep, I do think conscious efforts need to be made by all. We’ve grown so accustomed to bigotry to an extent where talking and challenging it is considered an act of pettiness, while many see racism as a POC problem and therefore see no need to get involved. I think it’s clear now more than ever that it affects all of us an attitude of indifference should be intolerable.
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BIO: Linde is a Cape Town based digital marketing strategist and copywriter. She is an unapologetic pro-black intersectional feminist who is curious about South African social culture. With a passion for the great outdoors, adventure sports, soccer, film and African literature, she’s constantly exploring something new.