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:
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.