White people asking the question, ‘But what can I do?’ when it comes to race and transformation.

It has been super exciting to see how much dialogue and engagement has been happening around these tips. If you have not yet read the first five which started this series or the next five then click on those first and bring yourself up to speed. But this post is going to be bringing you the next five tips in the series, starting with:

But What Can I Do? Tip #11

It will be helpful to do some work on understanding the difference between ‘whiteness’ and ‘being white’.

When we talk about ‘whiteness’ we are talking about an ideology in South Africa and many places across the world where being white and being associated with cultural things linked to being white was elevated above other things.

In summary, the view that white is better and must be ascribed to.

White skin being seen as the standard for beauty for example. This was perpetuated through the media and through Hollywood and advertising and really was all over the place. So much so that people who are not white have sometimes done damaging, painful and harmful things to their bodies or hair to try and appear more white.

The idea that white is right and best and anything else is ‘less than’ to differing degrees. Which is ridiculous! But because white people typically had the power to go with this belief they were able to create a world where this appeared to be so. The way a lot of history was written to make it seem as if white people had invented and discovered all of the things as one example.

Another example is education in South Africa during the apartheid years where, in 1982, for example, R1,211 was spent on each white pupil on average whereas R146 was spent on each black pupil. So the end result is a white graduate who has been much better educated than a black graduate and so we can easily point to the conclusion that ‘white people are more clever than black people’ when the whole system has been skewed that way.

“White” only exists in relation/opposition to other categories/locations in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness. In defining “others,” whiteness defines itself.

‘In the U.S. and European contexts, whiteness marks ones as normal, belonging, and native, while people in other racial categories are perceived as and treated as unusual, foreign, and exotic. Sociologists believe that what whiteness is and means is directly connected to the construction of people of color as “other” in society.’ [Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.]

‘It shapes how white people view themselves and others, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned’ [Frankenberg, 1993]

This is such a huge topic and requires you to do a lot more of the work. But understanding that ‘whiteness’ and ‘being white’ are two different things is helpful as we need to dismantle many systems and structures associated with whiteness but people often hear that as ‘we hate white people’ or ‘white people need to go’ which is not the case.

It is also important that you can live your whole life as a white person without being aware of this – this is the Matrix red pill – but completely benefitting from it. This has caused so much hurt, pain and confusion for black, coloured and indian people and others around the world who have lived their lives feeling inferior to something they could never attain.


Two  helpful articles to get you started:



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But What Can I Do? Tip #12

Well, if you’ve made it this far, then maybe i can write the next phrase without you running away…

Do some work in understanding your white privilege?

Let me rush to a quick explanation of what i’m NOT saying when i mention ‘white privilege’ cos it is a widely misunderstood term:

# i am NOT saying you had lots of money or things or even adequate food to eat while growing up or that life has not been hard – you may have, but that’s not the definition

# i am NOT saying you didn’t work really hard to get everything you currently have – you may have, but that is not the definition

The concept of white privilege as i understand it, is the acknowledgment that certain benefits, opportunities or access has been granted to me purely on the basis of being white.

The cartoons below explain this well. All the shapes, if they work hard enough and maybe adapt or change themselves enough and lose a little of who they are on the corners, can make it through the hole, but because of the present context being a wall containing a round hole, it is so much easier for the circle to make it through.

white privilege tip white privilege tip

This post will hopefully help explain it a little further in depth:


# i am also very much NOT advocating that you feel guilty for white privilege – it was beyond your control – you can’t change the colour you were born with – don’t feel bad about it. White guilt is not helpful.

But what i AM saying is that once you realise that you have it, and can speak it out, then you have so much opportunity to leverage/use your privilege to assist others who don’t benefit from the same things.

Another way of looking at it, is that if you and a black/indian/coloured person both lost absolutely everything [including your network people connections] and had to start from the bottom, then definitely during apartheid, but also for the most part today in most parts of the country you will find it easier as a white person to lift yourself up and move forward.

– getting a bank loan
– finding a place to stay
– not being regarded with suspicion
– access that your language brings

And a number of others.

Recognise. Acknowledge. Leverage.

This topic of white privilege needs a lot more conversation and engagement and i [and many others] have written a bunch of stuff about it on my blog and other places and will leave some links below… but if this is a new concept for you or if you are struggling to get your head around the way i see it, then please ask questions and let’s have some conversation around this until you do understand.

My friend Sean shared this quote which i think says what i was trying to say in a different way and is really helpful:

‘Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can’t help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can’t remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one’s life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can’t.’ [Eric Reitan]


What resources, stories, pictures have helped you understand white privilege better? Share the links in the comments…

Here are some links that you might find helpful, with the first one being super eye-opening on this topic:





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But What Can I Do? Tip #13

Visit a township.

It boggles my mind that there are still people in South Africa who have never been to a township. i don’t believe you can have any kind of honest understanding of what South Africa is about without having had this somewhat eye-opening experience.

Speaking of experience let me hugely disclaim this particular Tip. i am not suggesting you jump into your car and drive into the nearest township and ‘have a look round’. i also don’t think doing a more touristy kind of township tour is going to be the most helpful.

What will, in my opinion, be the most helpful is for you to visit a township with a friend you have who lives in a township. Which, i realise, will disqualify a number of you with this particular Tip and that is okay because it highlights an area you need to work on which is building genuine friendships with people who live in townships. Which will not happen overnight.

But there are also other more helpful ways of visiting a township such as attending an uJamaa event or a show at the Makukhanye Art Room [Khayelitsha’s Shack Theatre]. Val and i do that fairly often so put your hand up and come along next time we say we are going to a thing.

I have a friend whose desire is to see townships transformed to become productive and vibrant suburbs. I have another friend who describes townships as literally hell on earth. As with most other things, there is no one experience or understanding or picture which will give us all the information.

But if you have never ventured into a township then you are very likely cut off from some of the deepest areas of pain and fear and desperation that exist in our country.

Perhaps an intermediate step – and friends who live in townships can help me on whether this is appropriate or not? – could be to have a conversation with someone you know or work with and ask them to share a picture of what life is like for them where they live.

Kat Gensicke: My dad and my mom both work for an NPO called VPUU (Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading) and they work in more than 5 townships and allow for opportunities to volunteer at community events.


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But What Can I Do? Tip #14

Make an effort to learn the basics of the predominant black African language in the area you live in.

The idealist in me would simply put “Learn a black African language’ here, but [knowing my own attempts and journey there] i imagine that can feel overwhelming to some and cause paralysis which leads them to not doing anything. So this is an ‘At The Very Least’ Tip and should only be a beginning, but start here with something manageable and quickly attainable

[And before you even start, pause for a moment to consider that so many people in this country are forced to address you in their second, third, fourth or even seventh language and how dare you correct them or make fun of them or refuse to take that into consideration instead of imagining how that conversation would be going if you were trying to do it in isiXhosa or isiZulu]

Here is a starting point i would like to suggest which is more than manageable and really quite easy and fun.

# Learn a simple greeting – so ‘Hello’, ‘How are you?’ ‘Goodbye’

# Learn how to ask someone’s name and to tell them what your name is

# Learn how to say ‘I only speak a little bit of [insert language]’ and ‘I am still learning’

# Learn how to say ‘Thank you’

Do that this week. Else it won’t happen. And my suggestion is to do it through a person. Ask someone you know how to say/write those things in their language.

Once you have started your journey, there are many places that do ‘Intro to black African language’ courses – Val and i did Beginners I through XhosaFundis in Cape Town but there are many others. There are free apps like Memrise and others which will help you with vocab building. There are people who will be super amped you are trying and who will gladly sit with you once a week to help build your language [maybe grab a group of friends and then collectively pay someone to teach you]

We have words written on the inside of our car windscreen so we can learn while stuck in traffic or at traffic lights. We have words written on items in our house so i have no trouble thinking of what ikofu and iswekile is early in the morning when i wake up.

This may not be the end point. BUT i think this is a huge point. Because even a simple greeting in someone’s language tells them, “I see you!” So once you have the basics above, start practising on people. Don’t expect commendation for learning the basics of the majority language in your province [although you will likely get some – people appreciate effort!]. But when someone is ringing you up at the supermarket or you are thanking the car guard for watching your car or the man who is filling your car with petrol, engage with them in THEIR language. And watch as connection happens.


Unjani? Ndiphilile.

Ngubani igama lakho? Igama lam ngu Brett Fish. Ndiyavuya ukukwazi.

Ndiyafunda isiXhosa. Ndiyayazi kuphela isiXhosa kancinci.

Oh, and if it’s isiXhosa you are learning, learn and practice those clicks. You can do it. And it may take a while. And that’s okay.

Starting to learn someone else’s language is putting the major framework in place for a bridge to be built. This is something that is easily within reach for you to do, at least to a beginner level.


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But What Can I Do? Tip #15

Be aware of your loud white space in the room

Bonus for white men: Be aware of your loud white male space in the room.

This is huge and probably likely to bring out the defences… so if you are genuinely asking, “But what can I do?” then take a deep breath and choose to honestly listen to this Tip and ask if and how it applies to you.

I am a white male and acknowledge that this stuff is hard. I am used to having my voice heard. I am not as used to stepping out of the way to create space for other lesser heard voices. [And Spoiler Alert: We can’t give people a voice. Everyone has a voice – some are just silenced. We can help make space for people’s voices].

During the apartheid years, the white voice was the only one that mattered. In terms of the law and the general disposition of the country.

One day the laws changed, but it wasn’t as if hearts and systems and structures, that had been worked on for decades, changed overnight. Many didn’t much if at all. Which is why there is still so much work to be done. Unlearn, dismantle, re-imagine, build.

Do this test: next time you are in a business meeting with a diverse group or at a conference or meeting A and A time, take a good look at the first three to five people to talk.

Score 20 points for every white person. Score 50 points for every male. My, what a lot of points you have. Bonus points if the person delivers a statement and not a question.

The truth is that white people have owned the Mic for so long that we struggle to let someone else hold it.

One thing you can do is hold back from speaking in a space where that increases the likelihood of a black/coloured/indian person having a chance to speak. If you’re a man, do the same for women.

Another way to champion lesser heard voices, especially if you are running the meeting, is to defer to your black/coloured/indian/female colleagues, not in a way that puts them on the spot, but that invites and shows that you value their voice.

This can be a hard new habit to learn. And it needs to come with the basic true belief that, ‘What I want to say is not the most important/clever/wise thing to be said here.’ For many of us we have to act our way into believing that. Cos we honestly tend to believe the lie that we always have the best to give.

Be aware of your loud white space in the room. And then do what you can to quieten it and listen and learn from the wealth of others.


[To move on to Tip #16, click here]

[To return to the start of this series, click here]