We are heading towards the halfway point of this 40 tips for white people who are genuinely asking, ‘But what can I do?’ series and continuing with:
#ButWhatCanIDo? Tip #16
This is an extension of yesterday’s tip and is going to be another difficult one for anyone not committed to the work of transformation to hear and put into practice. And I’m not sure how often I even get this right or mess it up completely.
Don’t center yourself [or white people] in the conversation.
An example shared by my friend Tony:
‘I encountered a white gentleman on FB recently who felt aggrieved that I said that black people were the victims of apartheid. He then lambasted me because he did not want to be excluded as a victim because he could not travel abroad during that time and ‘expand his mind’.’
I mean that is such a ridiculous example anyway. As if there is any kind of comparison between not being able to expand your mind vs. what went on with black, coloured and indian people under apartheid.
‘This nonsense came out in a convo about a white lady feeling excluded at a business conference about empowerment. She felt that she was excluded as she was white and the focus was on black empowerment. This enraged everybody haha anyway just a thought about not making ourselves at the center of everything, even as a victim to apartheid.’
Where this plays out often is in the context of a movement like Black Lives Matters. A white person sees a trending hashtag and feels an intrinsic need to start a #WhiteLivesMatters or #AllLivesMatter hashtag as a response.
When I say ‘Black Lives Matters’ I am not for a second suggesting that all lives don’t matter or that white lives don’t matter. But the evidence of the world [in so many places and so many times and even still today] has been that black lives don’t matter or at the very most that they don’t matter as much as white lives, hence the need for a specific focus to remind black people and everyone else that you do matter just as much as white people, or you should.
Imagine a funeral for your uncle Steve. As you are delivering the eulogy, someone interrupts you by shouting out, “What about my Aunt Jemima who died. Why don’t you care about her. All deaths matter!” It’s quite easy to see the ridiculousness in that one, right? Yes, all deaths matter, but in this moment the focus is on those affected by this particular death.
Tony summed it up by saying:
‘Maybe along the lines of making everything about yourself as a white English speaker, about being in a public space and being insulted that the discussion is not about you or people like you but is actually excluding you, for good reason. It’s about white people not allowing space for others to express pain or emotion without the crying about having our own pain and emotion. I.e. about not making all about me me me.’
We are used to being the center of attention and much of this is the result of ‘whiteness’ [see Tip #11] having been raised and placed on a pedestal and seen as the thing to aspire to.
If we work on our listening skills, which should be a tip of its own, and if we can get to a place where we can be in a space and not talk at all but just be dedicated to learning and trying to understand, that will help us in this regard.
Say with me: “This is not about me.”
And then stop trying to make it so…
Edit: Literally the second person jumping on to comment said this and proved the point possibly better than most of what I had said above:
‘I find with myself (and I’m sure others do as well) that I am very conversational and I like sharing my opinion for the sake of putting it out there, but I also want others to engage me in the same way, but often people won’t unless they have been “invited” to do so. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing, but perhaps a platform something similar to the round table where everyone has an equal voice and it’s almost an expectation for everyone to engage no matter how uncomfortable a conversation may become useful?’ [Ross]
But What Can I Do? Tip #17
Push in. Stick around. And take some heat.
Many white people who have genuinely tried to engage with race conversation have felt verbally abused, silenced, attacked and made to feel bad [for stuff they didn’t even personally do].
That stuff is not fun. It is not easy. It is not comfortable. And a lot of the time it feels unfair.
But you know what else it’s not? It’s not being chased by dogs. It’s not having to pull out your pass-port every time you see a policeman on the streets. It’s not having to move to another far away suburb from where you’ve lived your whole life. It’s not living in fear of a raid or an arrest or a beating.
The fear we live with? That someone will make us feel bad. So really, I think it’s time to weigh that up against what black, coloured and indian people went through, but also what they are still going through [suspicion, assumption that they are not as capable as white people in many spaces, struggle to get access to money, jobs, neighbourhoods, the joy of having a white person label your activity in a neighbourhood as ‘suspicious’ when what they mean is ‘walking down the road’, and more…]
So maybe being on the receiving end of some name-calling, some suspicion, some frustration, and even anger, at the lack of significant change in twenty plus years is something we can agree to sit with.
One thing we as white people can do is start to be more okay with difficult and at times painful conversations. Lean into the uncomfortable and awkward and insulting, because there may just be redemption on the other side.
We need to quit being so completely defensive. It is possible to listen to an idea without agreeing with it. It’s okay if someone is wrong in what they say about us – can we take a moment to consider why they might be saying it? What caused that place of pain or frustration for them? What is going on underneath or behind the words we are reading. Try and understand before we defend…
South Africa is going to be transformed through tough conversations and tougher actions – isn’t it about time we did a little bit more of the sacrificing? And committed to some of the harder work of pushing in, sticking around and being prepared to take some heat.
But What Can I Do? Tip #18
Recognise and acknowledge the dignity of those who do not look like you.
This is a really easy one and could quite possibly have been the first tip we did.
Look a person of another race in the eyes, give them a smile [not a creepy Jack Nicholson ‘The Shining’ smile] and greet them in an honest and friendly way.
When Amahle is ringing up your groceries at the till in the supermarket, make eye contact, greet her with her name if it is on her name badge [ask her if you got it right if you’re not sure] and say, “Thank you.”
When Thandolwethu arrives in the morning to clean your house, make eye contact, smile, greet her with her name [if you don’t know the name of the woman who cleans your house, slap yourself in the face three times right now, drop whatever you are reading this on and go and run around the block five times – shame on you!] and maybe offer to make her a cup of coffee or tea before she starts work.
When a person comes up to your window at the traffic lights and asks for money or tries to sell you a newspaper or magazine, make eye contact, greet them, let you know whether you are or aren’t going to help them this time [it’s okay if you aren’t] and maybe tell them to “Have a good day!”
When you are walking down the street and you pass someone of another race, make eye contact, smile, say “good day” or do a mutual “I see you” head nod and keep walking.
[Disclaimer: Apparently there is a semi-smile face white South Africans have when looking at people of another race which tends to communicate “I see you – please don’t steal my bag!” or something like this. Ask your black friends about it – it’s a real thing – you may need to practice yourself out of this.]
Now at this point some of you might be thinking, “But Brett, what you’re saying here is not specific to black, coloured and indian people. You’re just talking about being a decent human being… DING! DING! DING! We have a winner. This tip, when broken down, is really just, ‘Treat all people the same’ [unless you have a tendency to treat all people badly].
If you treat your dentist differently from how you treat the woman at the supermarket, then STOPPIT. If you treat a white stranger you pass on the street differently from a coloured stranger you pass on the street, STOPPIT.
Remember that this is not a tip about greetings and smiling, but it’s about dignity. Which is not something we give to someone but rather something we recognise and affirm in someone.
Cashiers, people at traffic lights, black people on the street and even those who clean our houses can quite easily become invisible to us which sends a strong message of, ‘You are not worth noticing.’ But they are.
Many of you will already do this – well done, keep on, not every tip is going to be a light going on for everyone – but for those of us who don’t, be mindful and intentional and start today. See people. Let people know you see them.
Communicating to someone, “I see you!” is one of the most powerful statements in the world. Apartheid was constructed in so many ways to help white people on so many levels to not see people of other races. One way we work towards finally dismantling the residue of apartheid is by refusing to ever again have someone be in our presence and not feel seen.
Recognise and acknowledge the dignity of those who do not look like you.
i asked my friend Silindile to help me out in terms of culturally whether looking black people in the eyes was actually a helpful thing and her response was super helpful:
OK cool. So some people that are much older think maybe 50/60 will be old school and shy. If they don’t make eye contact back please, I beg, don’t be offended. The young black South Africans are way more open-minded and if it’s a work environment like retail they’ve been trained so they will make eye contact etc. If you are confused like Brett said ask. Paint the picture to your black mates like me and we will help you. But mostly imagine how life for your kids and think, I need to do better. I need to be the change so that my son Tom and his mate Sechaba never feel awkward or unsafe in my presence.
We had big conversations re the ‘white don’t trust you smile’ in my social work (it was a small class) undergrad class & it was one of the most eye opening conversations. Politeness isn’t the same as dignified engagement and greeting was the take away for me.
But What Can I Do? Tip #19
Learn how to pronounce Umhlanga. That is all.
It feels like this alone could ease some of the racial tension in the country.
Hint: There is no ‘s’ in Umhlanga… so it is closer to um-gh-langa than um-sh-langa!
If you know how to say ‘Hambe Kahle’ without an ‘s’ then simply transfer that sound, because it’s the same ‘hl’ sound.
Okay, so this one is a little tongue-in-cheek [well, not literally, it’s more tongue-in-roof-of-mouth] and only half put to see my Durban black friends use the love icon response, but actually, it’s the tip behind the tip.
The tip itself is, ‘Stop being lazy and do the work!’
If I am getting tired of explaining the simplest of things to white people supposedly trying to get it, then I can’t imagine how tired black, coloured and indian people are of trying to help us not to be racist.
Allan commented on my blog:
‘I am a little concerned. If we had to follow all your instructions, we would be a walking mess. Running around with a notepad, tallying points and analyzing everything, seeing racism everywhere. So I don’t think this is a good way.’
My friend Christie Mae Roberts helped sum him up:
‘But it’s too hard!’
No Allan, and everyone else, it is not too hard. Just make some effort, do some work, a lot of people have written about these things – privilege, allyship, microaggressions, white saviourness and more – do some reading, ask some questions, spend some time, make some effort! Learn how to pronounce Umhlanga.
Living as a black, coloured or indian person under apartheid? That was hard. Dismantling the systems and structures that were put into place for decades to raise white people to the top and keep everyone else down in varying degrees, that is hard.
Saying ‘h….l….h…l…h..l..h.l.hl….hl…hl..hl.hl.umhlanga…’ is quite easy – oh, look, you just did it. Now try something else.
A comment from my friend Vezi Mncwango:
Point well made Brett…what some people often miss however is why this actually matters.
You see the degree to which I invest in my relationship with a people, their language, and their history is indicative of the degree of regard for them.
So if someone cannot invest in pronouncing my name properly, let alone speak my language, it is symptomatic of their unconscious low regard for me.
And the thing about this seemingly innocuous symptom it that reveals so much about our unconscious biases. If you have high regard for anyone you will learn to say their name correctly; if not you won’t care if you don’t.
My friend Innocentia Kgobane shared this:
My son speaks SeTswana at home and isiZulu with his friends, still needs to communicate in English at school and ace an Afrikaans class so he doesn’t fail the whole grade, and an adult is worried about running around with a notepad and being amiss. My 68yr old mom did not even get to high school or through all of primary school due to abject poverty but still managed to learn English through having to speak it at work spaces and can now even write it as decently as can be. No complaints at all. It can be done.
Stop being lazy and commit to doing the work! If you really mean it.
But What Can I Do? Tip #20
This one might require a bit of work for you to get your mind around… stick with it. [The cartoon will really help!]
Sometimes everyone being treated the same is not justice. Wait, what?
This is an extension of the white privilege we spoke about in Tip #12 in some ways – unearned benefits or opportunities or access gained simply because of being white.
A different analogy to help explain white privilege is that of a race like the 400m sprint where a black and white person are both in the same race, but the white person is starting at the 200m mark. So the black person would have to put in so much effort and have so much luck and for everything to go their way just to end up at the same place as the white person. The white person would just need to not fall over to win the race. They both still have to run, but it’s been made a lot easier for one of them.
Sometimes everyone being treated the same is not justice, particularly when people were not all positioned at the same starting line.
White people often point to BEE [Black Economic Empowerment] hirings as unfair or quotas in sport – the term ‘reverse racism’ is hauled out which this quote speaks to quite well:
‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.’ [Anonymous]
Because of the legacy of apartheid and the devastating consequences, many of which continue to play out to this day, plans like BEE and quotas were implemented [and most of the time not that effectively, unfortunately] to try and level the playing field.
All of that to help you understand the why more than the what of this ‘But what can I do?’ Because by now you should be able to take some of your own initiative. Look at the cartoon and take some time thinking of all the boxes you have that a black, coloured, indian person or family you know might not.
What can you do with your time, money, skills and stuff that can help someone you know have a better view of the game?
Then we can move on to, why are those guys not inside with everyone else watching the game.