“Your very presence is violent!”

/, race vibes, South Africa, things to wrestle with/“Your very presence is violent!”

“Your very presence is violent!”

Words i heard last night.

Not the kind of thing that feels great coming from someone who has a history of giving you a hard time or trolling you on social media, but something you learn to get over quickly and pull out the thick skin for.

“Your very presence is violent.”

But what if it comes from one of your best friends? And what if you suspect they might be right? 

[Disclaimer: Now i imagine if you are white and reading this your Defensometer has literally just metaphorically exploded. So i want to invite you to breathe and even though you might read this and instantly think “Brett is advocating hatred of white people again” please please please just breathe deeply and give it a chance and try to listen to exactly what i am saying and imagine with me if it might not, in fact, be true. Spoiler Alert: i do not hate white people]

i have never quite understood it as much as i did last night. And it was a deeply sobering thought. Let me try to walk you through it.

My Presence Is Violent

There’s a Jack Handey quote which is quite dark, but it’s one of my favourites and i think it will help bring some clarity here:

Jack Handey offensive clown









So, if this was a true story and not just a funny and dark quote [or just dark if you actually did lose your pops to a circus clown in which case Trigger Warning!] it would make a lot of sense right?

Even if you sit with the obvious knowledge that not all clowns are killers, this one experience with a clown was so traumatic that it would colour all future experiences with clowns. Perhaps with excessive therapy you could move to a point where clown are no longer scary for you, but it would totally be understandable, if irrational, that you felt that way.

You still with me?

And by now i probably don’t need to join the dots anymore, but let me try, just to make sure.

So to give you a little bit of context around the quote, a group of us were at The Warehouse having an incredible conversation looking at Power which then kinda moved to exploring the words and terms ‘violence’ and non-violence’ and their definitions. My friend (who identifies as coloured) was chatting to me afterwards and he said something along the lines of: “Based on this conversation whiteness is offensive, to black people your very presence must be violent.”

Looking forwards through the lens of history

If white people and the concept of ‘Whiteness’ [as being seen as better than/more intelligent than/more worthy/up on a pedestal above other skin colours] were responsible for so much pain and death in South Africa then it makes sense that for so many black/coloured/indian people we who carry the white skin, are symbols and reminders of that oppression. And to a differing level or degree [likely linked to each individual’s or family experience] even just the sight of me is a violent reminder.

Can i just see that? Can i just acknowledge that? Just for a minute. Before we move on to “What does this mean?” or “What do i do?” or anything like that. Because maybe there is nothing i can do, not really. At least not until at the very least i seek to understand the possibility of this. That regardless of who i am and before i have said or done anything, my very presence can be a discomforting and even painful thing for those who have suffered directly and indirectly because of the actions and words and systems and structures put into place by people who looked like me.

Can i hold this without being defensive? Despite how uncomfortable and sad and angry it might make me? “But, but, but i’m one of the good ones” might be what i like to think and want to say… but can i just leave that alone for now and just acknowledge how severely the past continues to affect the present and the future? 

Actually i’m just going to leave this here. Much more to be said and thought and reflected on. But last night this hit me for the first time and i think as much as i am able to, i get it. It doesn’t make me feel defensive at all but drives me towards trying to understand it more and what this might mean for how i live and speak and where and how i go.

There are bridges to be built over turbulent streams that seem to be flowing out of control. And build them we shall.


By |2018-04-12T13:46:29+00:00April 12th, 2018|pain and Hope, race vibes, South Africa, things to wrestle with|2 Comments

About the Author:

Brett Fish is a lover of life, God, tbV [the beautiful Valerie] and owns the world's most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob (who doesn't bob). He believes that we are all responsible for making the world a significantly better place for everyone.


  1. Joe April 19, 2018 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Hello Brett

    This is an interesting piece, and I think there is truth in what you’re saying. I’m tempted to flip the script though, just as a thought experiment.

    I’ve got the flu, by the way, if you don’t mind please read this in my flu voice.

    I’ve been mugged three times in my life, five times if you count the the instances where I turned and ran before being cornered. In all these occasions the perpetrators where young, black or coloured men.

    These would be my “clowns”, using your analogy.

    I’ve done some introspection and realized that I cannot live with that prejudice. Being black is one thing, being a criminal is another. The two aren’t married to one another. I also realised that I’ve grown up in a safe neighbourhood, in a safe town and haven’t suffered the scourge of crime in the same way that law abiding people in poor neighbourhoods have.

    The point is that trauma is something that an individual must process, and the conclusions a person comes to when they’ve been hurt is not necessarily in society’s best interests.

    My experience as a South African is that generally speaking there is a lot of good will and it transcends race.

    So why should I entertain the thought that whiteness is a form of violence?

    I can’t agree with the idea that white presence is violent. I don’t think that now is a good time to push that kind of narrative. It encourages white youth, who haven’t been raised with an Apartheid mindset to be ashamed of their identity. It also feeds the assumption that blacks are always victims even when the country is being run by an African party according to an African way of thinking.

    Brett, do you believe that identity politics makes a difference? Why does it seem so easy for you to compromise on white culture? How critical are you of African culture? Would you voice such criticism or suppress it?

    Those are not rhetorical questions, I’d appreciate it if you took the time to reply or comment on this.


    Your new pen pal


    • brettfish April 23, 2018 at 1:08 pm - Reply

      hey there Penpal Joe whose last name looks very familiar and makes me think of a guy i once lent my Lord of the Rings dvds to…

      Thanks for the message, flu voice and all, twas super good to hear from you and sorry my reply has taken so long in coming…

      Great food for thought and definitely worth wrestling with some more.

      i think we might be saying or thinking similar things though, perhaps? My point is one of understanding as a starting point not so much accepting or seeing that as something that doesn’t need to be challenged. So in your example one could understand quite easily why you might be nervous if a group of young black/coloured guys was headed your way. There is the natural link to past experience.

      So with the whiteness example, if locally and globally [media/colonialism/politics/war/beauty etc etc] whiteness has been a violent force against the bodies of those who do not have white skin, i should be able to join the dots and understand why my presence [as a symbol of that whiteness] might initially be seen as a violent or scary thing. The trauma that has been suffered will be triggered simply by a white person being there.

      With this in mind, there is no need for a white young person to be ashamed of their identity but to be aware that their identity is linked to the identities of those who have caused a whole lot of pain and suffering [both locally and globally] and hopefully the response is to be a bridge builder and help fashion a new narrative in the place of one that is unhealthy or unhelpful. How do we get to the point where black and white can be together and it can be a beautiful thing?

      i also don’t think it feeds the black people are victims thread because that assumes that in 1994 when power was handed over, things were made equal, which they very clearly weren’t – relationship in some sense was restored and mercy was granted but in terms of money and land and education and status and attitude a whole lot of things didn’t shift at all which is why now, 20 plus years later, there is still so much work to be done. Had that work been done back then and then a black government had failed to deliver we could probably ask some of those questions. But they began with a deck very strongly stacked against them and in terms of money and power in the country i believe you will still find that it is largely in the hands of a white minority. Thus whiteness continues to be violent, even given the opportunity to restore and make right and rebuild which we largely didn’t.

      i think that my role is largely to critique white culture because i am representative of at least a part of that and because it still seems to me like we have the furthest distance to travel. i will still critique black and coloured and indian culture in the context of relationship with my black, coloured and indian friends as opposed to publicly as much because this needs to be a space where in the national narrative white people take a step away from the mic which we have held for far too long with again the power and privilege that comes with that.

      We should do coffee though because then we can back and forth a bit more on this and then if you still have them i could get those dvds as i just found out this week my wife has never watch LOTR…

      much love
      brett fish

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