The black woman speaker, the deputy principal and a truckload of exclamation marks…

/, race vibes, South Africa, things to wrestle with, thorts of other people/The black woman speaker, the deputy principal and a truckload of exclamation marks…

The black woman speaker, the deputy principal and a truckload of exclamation marks…

Can i just start by saying that i absolutely LOVE the [majority of the] community who wrestle with me with aspects of race and privilege and poverty and more on social media. It is probably a wonder that more of you haven’t given up on me, but when you stick around and when you push back and when we seriously engage with the topics at hand [and those hiding behind the hand] we learn so much. 

You have probably seen the speech by Jeppe Deputy Principal Kevin Leathem that has gone viral in the last week… If not, click on the bold and go and read it and then return here for the dessert…

Some context: my friend Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi [i will name drop her name all day long cos she is such a legend and because i’m fairly sure she knows my name] gave a speech at Jeppe Boys high which caused some controversy or confusion or some kind of rumblings and so the deputy principal, Kevin Leathem, along with his wife Tammy Bechus, wrote this speech which he gave to bring some clarity and meaning to the message.

i saw it and read it and thought it was amazing, but something in the way it was presented didn’t gel with me and so i responded with a Facebook status that read like this:

i’ve been tagged by a number of people in a speech that the Deputy Headmaster of Jeppe gave which is a really amazing unpacking of privilege and how it relates to whiteness.

However, perhaps the biggest lesson on privilege is the fact that the original speech was done by my friend Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi [which, knowing her, was, i’m sure, amazing]… but it took a white male to unpack or interpret or reframe this black woman’s speech for it to hit the mark and go viral and after an incredible speech, the focus and attention is all on the white male… AGAIN!!!

CAN WE FLIPPIN GET THIS ALREADY!!!!!!!

To which is added this disclaimer vibe after some healthy conversation with friends in different places:

[This post has generated some good conversation and so i want to add a little disclaimer – this is not a rant against the deputy principal because it seems like the message for whatever reason caused some confusion/controversy and so it felt like he needed to do something – but more against the system and subtlety of ‘this message is okay if delivered by this person and not that person’ and how white people will agree with a white person saying what black people have been trying to say for years]

Journey down the Rabbit Hole

So much great conversation took place on my and others’ share of this response to the speech that i thought it would be helpful to document some of it so that you can hopefully learn as i was learning:

Jacqui Tooke: Do you have Lovelyns video or words? I’ve actually really searched for it as I wanted to see what she said to have inspired the deputy’s blog post. Having read his article though, I was really impressed with some of the metaphors and explanations he gave which really seemed to break through people’s defences. I hear what you are saying about the prejudice that people have towards black women that their message is not heard until it is said by a white male. I was wondering how much he has altered her message – is he just using her words and because it’s coming from a white male it’s “heard”; or has he been able to frame concepts in such a way that it’s understood by the privileged because he understands all too well the psychological defenses of the privileged?

Jess Basson: Brett, you’ve done a lot to help “interpret” and then communicate race issues to white people. Things that you’ve learnt from people of colour by listening and making space – and then you’ve amplified their voices and educated a lot of people. Genuinely, how is this different?

Me: Ha ha, great question… [puts on thinking cap]

Me:  i do think though that the space perhaps makes it somewhat different… if a black person posts a status and i jump into the comments and explain the status to white people and then they get it that would feel more like what has happened here… generally what i do or try to do is address white people on issues of race as the primary message more than an interpretive one… but will definitely give this some more thought – these things tend to be complicated and so completely nuanced and so ja. Thanks for asking!

Debbie Hemmens-Agates: Onion layers like Shrek is how I see this – a bit like as parents who say things many, many times and then a youth pastor or teacher or mentor says the same thing, and all of a sudden the lights go on. Ultimately the message getting across is what is important. It takes humility as the parent to welcome the other voices (the village) because ultimately their child benefits in the long run.

Mandi Smallhorne Kraft: Someone strange came along and gave an undoubtedly extraordinary speech which rocked the youthful audience. So someone familiar gave them some tools to think about it all. That’s how I saw it.

Jacqui Tooke: Yes, good question Jess. I also was also just wondering that? And so we have to examine the crucial question: How do we – with privilege – engage well to amplify voices but not replace voices that are not at first heard? How do we use our privilege of “being heard”
to challenge injustices without speaking on behalf of those experiencing the injustices.

Jess Basson: I know I’ve wrestled with the line between speaking for someone vs advocacy. I agree with Brett that it’s contextual. I also like some of the examples given. In this particular one, I see a man who speaks a lot from his own lived experiences. He knows his audience and what metaphors they’ll resonate with. And he doesn’t really say anything “new” if you’ve been around these convos but if you’re new to them, or young, or even quite defensive – it’s quite accessible. I think he is using his privilege and platform to humbly, contextually and personally elevate the message of white privilege to people who might not hear it from someone else.

Neale Christy: I think that’s a good answer, except that the original speech wasn’t shared on social media, was it? So this repacking and calling out of white people on what it means to be privileged feels, to me, a lot more like what you do on a daily basis.

And this comment i made next is one of the walk away with things of this whole conversation for me:

Me: i wonder if it’s maybe not both? Thanks all for the helpful thoughts and insights. i think it’s important to hear that i was not challenging the deputy principal but rather the audience. Agree with what man of you have expressed so well here that he seems to have done a really good job. 

For the kids though and maybe their parents and teachers, in particular, this is an excellent opportunity to ask some good questions, number one being, “Why do you think this was an easier message to hear from the deputy than Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi? Was it simply familiarity? Might it have been because it came from a white person and not a black person? Might it have been because it came from a man and not a woman? Was it because it was a familiar known trusted voice and not a stranger to you? 

And you know what the mind blow might be in this case? It might be different answers from different audience members. Cos onions.

In a separate response my friend Kristi returned after much thought with this:

Kristi Jooste: Returning to this after a few hrs, i caught myself thinking – ah kristi, what the fritz made you share Brett‘s post with it having so many capitals and exclamations (bro, thought id come clean as i figure you won’t give a rats rump haha.. Perhaps an interesting lesson on belonging too in there.. But i digress ) So, before thinking maybe i should just delete it, i took a little deeper dig at what was it that had resonated with me from your post Brett….and whats emerging for me is…

a call for continual self and corporate check-in when reading or listening to someone’s ideas, esp but not limited to virtual spaces (churchy spaces are another big one for me personally in this.. ). 

A ‘viral episode’ on social media seems to have a curious habit of either harshly vilifying or hugely elevating the poster. Whether unintentionally or naive misplacement of credit, it seems to be the nature of the beast. Perhaps its got to do with being received by beginners at critical thinking (i speak for myself – i didnt learn this stuff at school… id contend few did..but perhaps that’s another kettle) 

So 2 guarding questions are emerging for me… when reading or listening to someone’s thoughts, Am i listening to what X is saying because of X’s words, ideas, line of thinking OR because of who i see X to be?… Maybe mostly its a bit of both? maybe thats ok (?) but maybe i still need to do the innerworkstuff of recognising the weight that im instinctively giving to the words im reading/hearing based on WhO is speaking, just to check myself so that the balance never veres towards that dodge zone of ‘i listen to X, and take on board what X said BECAUSE of who i recognise X to be, without chewing for myself before swallowing’ And then to ask the flip side of this question-coin: ‘if Y said these same words, how would i have responded?’ 

Brett, questions like these 2 are what i understand by the self-interrogation that viral words offer us an opportunity to do (and as it so happens in this case, words that i have little difficulty agreeing with; ok, bar the two little words “Or don’t” somewhere towards the end..) or am I bobbing around in a synthetic floating island somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, playing to a different tune altogether?

What is said without being said?

So many helpful lessons and i super appreciate all those who stayed engaged until we all hopefully learnt something. i think it is important to remember that these black and white issues and seldom black and white [DYSWIDT?] and that intersectional is an amazingly helpful word that we have come up to remind us that these issues tend to overlap.

As i said in my last comment this could have taken place because people chose to listen to a man rather than a women. It could have taken place because someone chose to listen to a white person over a black person. It could have simply been that the learners listened to someone they knew and had relationship with over someone they didn’t. And most likely there could have been aspects of all three.

We cannot, however, refuse to interrogate our words and actions and responses, simply because the answers might be tricky or complicated or difficult or require much time and energy. We have to keep doing the work and as i responded to someone who took issue with my original post, i would rather err on the side of those who have been disadvantaged much than on the side of the privileged and comfortable.

However, as i was typing this post, one further thing came to mind and i pose this as a question rather than a statement.

Looking down the list of people engaging in conversation about my post and the questions it raised, every single one of them was white. But when i look at who shared the original post and who liked it, then i see black people, coloured people and indian people. Is there something there? Or is that simply coincidence? Again, it might be either. But i have found in my time on social media that the WHO of who shares your posts, who likes them, who comments on them can be quite significant. It can often reveal where bias or support is coming from.

Say for example Steve Hofmeyr writes a post and 2000 staunch afrikaans white males support it – can probably expect that there will be more of the usual of what we have come to expect from him. Steve Hofmeyr writes a post and it gets liked and shared by 2000 black people and suddenly we might have to ask if something has changed… right? #ThisIsAnExtremeExampleToMakeASimplePoint

What it suggests to me is that even if i may have gotten it wrong this time, this is a topic which resonates with black/coloured/indian people because it is something they have seen countless times and which is a very real thing. So if we can train ourselves to be aware of it and to be looking out for it and interrupting it when it happens then this has been a helpful exercise.

My friend, Wayne, as i was typing this [yes, yes, i’m easily distractable!] has this to add:

Wayne Eaves: Question/Observation – I’m intrigued by the number of people asking to see Lovelyn’s speech in relation to the school human. I’m intrigued if it’s as much about suspicion as it is about the issue? The nuance of this debate is fascinating.

And again, i would imagine there might be a Both/And rather than an Either/Or in there. We can only ask ourselves as we stand in front of the mirror and question motive and openness to learn.

Another friend Terence Mentor posted a much shorter version of my original post which gives a similar but different spin on it:

Terence Mentor: The irony of white privilege is that white people will only listen to a white guy talking about it

POCs: “Hey, white privilege is a thing.”
White people: “HOW DARE YOU?”

White School Principal: “Hey, white privilege is a thing.”
White people: “He does make some good points.”

This kind of backs up my last point and question in terms of the likes and shares. And gives us something to think about. And once again i think Terence is taking on the audience reaction, not Kevin Leathem because what Kevin said and achieved was amazing but why was it not listened to when black and coloured and indian people were saying it for all these years?

i hope this has been helpful – it really has felt like such great conversation all round and i super appreciate Jacqui and Kristi and Jess and Wayne and Terence and others who gently challenge my words/actions when they think i’ve got it wrong and who push me to do the work better and to continue to learn and grow and appreciate complexity and nuance more. i have learnt so much from so many of you and there is clearly so much work to be done. Shoutout to Lovelyn for continuing to speak truth with power and a shoutout to Kevin and his wife Tammy for finding super helpful language to go with what is a complex and at times uncomfortable message.

Let’s keep doing the work. Do you have any thoughts to add to this conversation? 

 

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.

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