White South African friends… i have so much love for you.
A number of you, when race conversations have been happening, have asked the question, “What can i do?” and as one who doesn’t have all the answers but certainly has some of the journey, i figured I can share some things that helped me to move further along in this conversation.
So for the next forty days, i am hoping to share an idea a day – some simple, some more challenging – to help you take some steps forward. Maybe there is a friend you can choose to pursue this journey with and so you can tag them in the comments or share this on your wall.
One a day, starting today…
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But What Can I Do: Tip #1
For starters, if you are a South African i would highly suggest you get your hands on a copy of the book ‘How can man die better?’ which is the story of Robert Sobukwe by his friend Benjamin Pogrund. You likely know some or a lot of the Nelson Mandela story, but learning some of the story and character of the leader South Africans were robbed of in Robert Sobukwe feels like an excellent way to start to learn some of our past journey as a country a little more accurately.
As a bonus to this starter tip, when you are done with that, get hold of Steve Biko’s ‘I write what I like’ and read that as well.
You may not understand black South Africans if you read both of those books but i can’t see a way of coming closer to understanding them much better if you don’t.
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But What Can I Do: Tip #2
You can call people by their name, or by the name they would like to be called.
A name is a powerful thing and is linked to identity and self-value and dignity and so much more.
In many spaces across South Africa [in particular homes where cleaning, child-care or gardening is done, garages and restaurants] people have been given ‘easier-to-pronounce’ names typically to make it easier for white people to pronounce.
The way i approach this when the guy at the garage comes to my car window and i see that his name badge says ‘Eric’ is to ask, ‘Do you have another name?’ followed by, ‘What would you like people to call you?’
If the name is difficult for you to pronounce, which may largely be because you are not used to the combination of letters or sounds, then practice it until you get it right. If you can handle ‘Dostoyevsky’, ‘Tchaikovsky’ and ‘gratuitous’ then Sipho, Andile and Ntobeko should be a cinch.
This does require a little bit of effort, but is actually one of the easiest things to do and can be a great platform for building stronger relationship. Start with the people who work in your home and office and then let this become a habit of curiosity and intention.
A name is a terrible thing to waste…
It is not always that straightforward though – sometimes there are power dynamics at play which require a little more work:
i stayed with some friends a year ago who had a woman called ‘Pretty’ who came and cleaned their house and helped look after their children. When they had asked what her name was she had told them it was ‘Hlengiwe’ but told them they could call her ‘Pretty’.
When i stayed with them i had a conversation with her and asked her what she wanted to be called and she said, ‘Hlengiwe’. So there was something in the working relationship that she had with them that likely made her feel like she needed to give them an easier name to pronounce. They had done the work and made the effort but there was this thing of power that was still affecting the outcome.
This stuff is not always easy, but it is worth pursuing. If we are intentional and make the effort, we will get it right a lot more than we will get it wrong.
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#ButWhatCanIDo Tip #3
As a white person in South Africa, one fairly easy thing i can do is some constant ongoing work at interrogating my words.
Some examples are:
# If you are using the word ‘boy’ to describe the fifty-year-old [or even thirty-year-old, or let’s be honest, in some cultures even fourteen or sixteen-year-old] who works in your garden [or any other context really] or the word ‘girl’ for the woman who looks after your children or cleans your house [or any other context] then you need to stop. This feels like such an easy one and it’s 2018 so that doesn’t happen anymore right? Except it happened last week in a conversation i was having [the person immediately corrected themselves but still it was out in a conversation where black people were present] and i know people [typically older people, although this was a thirty-something-year-old] still use it.
[This will be a separate tip, but it is on you and me to speak up when our parents or friends or even our boss says the same – you do not have a ‘tea girl’ at your office – STOPPIT!]
# ‘Non-white’ is an offensive term because it is upholding the notion that whiteness is at the centre and describing someone in negative terms as something they’re not is alienating and hurtful. i don’t think i have ever heard a white person described as a non-black. The notion is that white is right and everything else is less than. i know you don’t think that, but then you need to stop using the word. i once had someone at a workshop i was leading tell me he didn’t like the term ‘people of colour’ and while i think this is less offensive than non-white i can see how it can be similar. There are white people and everyone else is ‘people of colour’. Since then in South Africa, for the most part, i have tried to say the slightly longer phrase ‘black, coloured and indian people’ in conversations of race. Someone is busy typing ‘but we don’t need any labels’ and to some extent, i agree and long for that day, but in conversations when different groups have been treated differently and you are looking to move past that, labels are necessary so that everyone knows who we are talking about.
# Phrases like “these people” and “those people” when speaking about black, coloured or indian people as a collective grouping are also not good. Those generic grouping phrases tend to come out in especially negative contexts such as ‘those people are taking over the beaches’ or ‘those people have so many babies’. It is dismissive and judgemental and should be an easy one to let go of. For me personally, a phrase like ‘the blacks’ feels just as harsh and i would choose to use ‘black people’ in the same way i would prefer ‘white people’ over ‘the whites’. This is smaller and more subtle but think of a context where ‘the coloureds’ or ‘the indians’ was used and it was probably derogatory.
Words are important and these are just a few easy examples but maybe you can jump in and comment on some others you can think of. You might think it’s tiring to police your own words the whole time but a word or phrase can instantly help switch someone off and lose them from a space where you were busy building a bridge or seeking to work together. Combine this with using someone’s preferred name as we saw in the previous tip and you go a long way to creating a platform for friendship and deeper relationship.
Try to think of it less as ‘politically correct words’ and more as ‘choosing words that don’t hurt or belittle the person i am speaking to’.
A lot of this can be person-dependent. For example, in Cape Town i have friends who identify as ‘coloured’ and are proud and trying to figure out just what their coloured identity means and consists of and celebrate the fact that it is the group and culture they identify with. i have other friends who hate the term ‘coloured’ and want to eradicate it completely. So i learn to address people the way they want to be addressed or seen.
Some people in that context have chosen to be called ‘black’ as part of a collective group that is not white and was part of the marginalised peoples of South Africa during apartheid. But to some coloured friends of mine that is offensive because it feels to them like their identity is being taken away. When it comes to race which we can all agree is a construct, it becomes complicated quickly, but that is where relationship comes in. In friendship context we never refer to each other by race or culture and so it becomes unnecessary, but as we are doing the hard work of reconciliation and bridge-building and more, there are spaces and times where it feels necessary and so we try to be as gentle with each other as we can in what feels like an easy win.
This comment on the post by Nthabi Ndladla sums this up brilliantly:
There is so much that must be unlearned in order to learn anew in SA… the least white people can begin with is to acknowledge us as fellow human beings, next is to see individuals not just as a bunch of homogeneous species. Then it can be a little easier to want to know how and what each person rather prefers.
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#ButWhatCanIDo Tip #4
Today’s tip is an extension of yesterday’s watch your words one.
I was introduced to the concept of ‘the better black’ by a friend of mine. She told me that she was at a church in cape town which looks quite diverse from the outside but that both in church and in the weekly life group she attended – where she was the only black person in a sea of white people – she felt pressure to present herself as ‘the better black’ by which she meant someone who spoke with more of a white english accent and behaved closer to white western ways.
[I received a whatsapp message from a coloured friend of mine yesterday which suggests to me the concept of ‘the better coloured‘ and ‘the better indian‘ are also at play]
If you are a white person reading this and are confused by what it means, maybe the best thing to do is ask a close black/coloured/indian friend whether they know and can explain it to you…
But it comes about when we say things like, “You speak English so well” or when we are more blatant and actually say “You speak English well for a black person” where in both cases the insinuation is that most black people speak English badly, but you are ‘a better black’ than them (You know, “those people”) because you sound more like us.
This is problematic on a number of levels, one being that it takes no consideration that for the black person you are speaking to or about [this is no better if you are speaking about someone else who is not present “she speaks so well”] there is the strong likelihood that English is their second, third or even fourth language and when you compare that to your one or possibly two, who is doing a lot better now?
The main problem though, as i see it, and this will cover a multitude of these tips, is that it puts whiteness in the centre, or English in the centre, and makes it the standard by which all other things must be compared, and everything else comes off as less than or inferior to.
Rachel Kinloch had this one to add: “if you closed your eyes and heard them speak, you would think they were white”.
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#ButWhatCanIDo Tip #5
Invite someone of a different race out for coffee and ask them if they would mind telling you some of their story living as a black/coloured/indian person in South Africa. Pay for their coffee.
[The ultimate point these tips will conclude with is to intentionally prioritise and deepen friendships you have with people from different races or backgrounds but i realise for some of you, you might not have any to begin with]
Taking this tip a step further, invite a black/coloured/indian person, couple or family over for a meal at your place and get to know them better. Val and i did this a year or so ago after she spoke at a thing with a guy called Mahlatse Winston Mashua. We wanted to connect for a long time and when we eventually got round to it we stepped into a best family friendship and have been hanging out ever since.
Is there someone at your church or office or sports team or gym that you can invite round for a meal? And if it becomes a friendship and continues past that, then all the better.
If we look at this the other way quickly, if the last ten people you went out for coffee with and the last ten people who sat across from you at your dinner table were white then don’t pretend you are serious about change in your country.
This is such an easy one.
Edit: This was a super helpful comment from a black friend of mine, Zamaswazi Hlophe: From a black person’s perspective, being invited for “coffee” is just a recently discovered phenomenon, for lack of a better word. We don’t just leave our homes to go drink coffee. It’s just one other weird things that white people do. So expect your invitee to give you a stunned look if you were to extend this kind of invitation. That is, if your invitee does not normally hang around white people long enough to know that going out for coffee in an actual thing that happens in the real world.
Who added: Depending on who you are inviting, I’d suggest a more informal environment (restaurants, coffee bars, etc can be a bit restricting in terms of how one would behave/conduct themselves). Rather choose the park (that was an awesome choice by the way) where discussions can be animated, free, with no worries about people at the next table overhearing, etc). And when you extend the invitation, tell them you would like to take them out for a picnic and they don’t have to bring anything. This may lighten the burden on your invitee a bit because even bring a drink could be a bit of a challenge. You don’t want them having a sleepless night worrying about whether to bring Coke Zero or freshly squeezed orange juice to the picking. And they won’t know whether to tell you that buying said drink will mean sacrificing a few important items from the grocery list back home. If you were really sincere, you wouldn’t mind footing the bill for that first outing, Then if all goes well, you can discuss how future meetings will be structured. Oh, and also, don’t be too quick to want to invite yourself to your new friend’s home. The pressure of having to repaint your house because there’s a white person coming over to visit is real.
Another helpful comment from Phumlani Ndelu Shinga : It would be interesting to know if you have any interest in any activity that black people dominantly embark on, because that would be a good start to a conversation. Ask to be taken to that event/activity. If not, ask the person what do they normally do instead of “coffee”, request rather to join in on that activity. When one shows an initiative to move from their comfort zone, it’s easy to open up for them, curtain barriers get broken.
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Five tips down and 35 more to come. Some of these are really quite easy and others might take a bit more time, effort and intention, but if by the end of this series you have started doing some of these that you were not doing before, South Africa starts to have a little bit more hope. These are not tips that should happen in isolation so please SHARE this post, tag your friends, bring a tip up at a dinner conversation with your family or next time you are at a braai. Let’s see how many people we can pull into this conversation which has South Africa’s best interests at heart…
Were any of these an eye-opener for you? Have you committed to doing something new that you were not doing before? Please share your thoughts and story in the comments.
These are what you can do.