LATEST COLUMN // BLACK PAIN, WHITE OBLIVIOUSNESS

I recently promised myself that I would stop trying to address the question of race and the rigmarole that is racism, to white people.   There is an acute sense of futility that I have experienced in the past when trying to educate or explain the myriad ways that racism is deeply embedded in life as we know it, to white people.  In the past, I have used all kinds of approaches to try to appeal to the white person next to me’s perception of themselves in the context of the new South Africa and the world.  Sometimes, in very rare cases, a person might truly understand the depth of corner that whiteness is in in the world today, and we are able to engage sincerely from two ends of one human plank.  Other times, it’s like trying to scratch the cataract from a reluctant and fearful blind person’s eyes. They want to be able to see but they can’t imagine life through another prism of seeing and being so the cataract, no matter how gently or violently I’ve tried to remove it, remains intact because it’s used to being there.  But most of the time, it’s a pure, dry, unfiltered waste of time.  And this, I have learned, is because of the assumption that this white person sees the world the way you, a black person sees the world – from outside of themselves. After one too many of my own white friends or acquaintances asking me questions such as ”but what do I do, what can I do?”, and me having to respond with ”it’s not for me to tell you what to do”, I gave up and decided to let sleeping beauties sleep.  It causes too much anxiety and a destructive perennial anger, it scoops your humanity cup by cup every time my black mouth has to hold its tongue and every time my ears have to flap and flutter a bigoted sentence away so that it does not stick. It takes up too much time and energy in one’s being just being conscious of one’s black self in an anti-black world. Your consciousness contaminates every morsel of your being, one can’t watch television or listen to the radio, enjoy a restaurant meal or look at a basic human interaction without thinking about race.  It’s a terribly taunting existence, one that I am still navigating. A black friend of mine, who read Biko in high school always dismissively says to me ”Hahaha oh you’re still in your angry phase, you’ll get over it”.  I resent her for this a little.  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m jealous of her seasoned immunity to bullshit or whether I find her blase attitude part of the problem.  My desire for universal love for all beings is constantly threatened just by waking up and remembering what I know, by looking at my bookshelf or scrolling down my Facebook timeline.  I don’t want to be so upset by every little thing. I won’t have a life if I’m constantly reacting to the way things are.  But sometimes, just to be able to carry on with life knowing that I raised a flag, sometimes I am arrested by the need to say something , even when I know it will fall on deaf ears.  What inspired my column last week was one of those moments where I looked at this situation and thought, but did nobody see the problem with this picture?  

This was published in City Press newspaper on Sunday 20 Septmber 2015:

Did you hear the one about the young white couple who got married in the Women’s Jail section of Constitution Hill? I wish it weren’t something I discovered on my Instagram feed. I wish the bride wasn’t someone I had once shared a meal with, somebody I liked from afar. They got married in a prison that can be compared to Robben Island or, and at this point I have to conjure the comparison that black people have to conjure in order for the gravity of such insensitivity to be understood by whiteness, they got married in the equivalent of what Auschwitz was meant to be for Polish political prisoners.

What was theoretically the happiest moment of their apolitical love, was framed by photographs and placards that carry testimonies of how black women were denied sanitary towels during their periods there, so they bled onto themselves. If Constitution Hill is a cold dark place that houses a cold dark history that is not to be celebrated with sparkling wine but remembered with sobriety and seriousness, why did this couple and their party or why did the administrators of Constitution Hill’s think it appropriate to have a wedding inside this site of historical violence? Could they have been inspired by the Pinterest popularized trend of young white heterosexual American couples getting married on slave plantations lately? Or could it be because of this less grandiose fact: there are no consequences for causing black pain. For even the most well-meaning white liberals who think of themselves as good people, their goodness need not extend beyond their personal happiness, their happiness need not be disturbed by a little contextualization, because black pain, even when it glares at you from the inside an institution, is inconsequential.

It would be easy to vilify the person who signed this off at Constitution Hill, and even easier to vilify that room of smiling white faces, but it would not resolve the context that created the mentality on both sides, that this was a good idea.

For that to be seen as the inappropriate idea that it was, we would have to violently crack open our minds in order to create a different climate, one where the provocation of black pain would have meaning and consequences.

First it has to be unacceptable.

But nothing is ever unacceptable when it comes to black people. You can do whatever you want to black people. You can give them names such as natives, plurals, kaffirs, niggers and newer pejoratives like black diamonds. You can be Anton Kannemeyer and insist on an endless body of work where black people are depicted as golliwogs and white people as humans because you know you can get away with blaming it on fiction, especially in spaces that promote your bigotry, spaces such as art fairs.

You can be the aggressors that the University of Stellebosch’s black students describe in the documentary, Luister because you’re not about listening. You can be like the white man who interviewed me, Khaya Dlanga and Luvuyo Mandela during the ill-conceived Spike Lee Digital Edge Live conference last week. His response to Luvuyo Mandela, when the latter reblockquoted all of his Xhosa clan names during the interview, was ‘’Dumela, Sharp Sharp, that’s all I know what to say’’. You will not feel embarrassed because it’s no big deal that you call yourself an African yet you do not speak an African language.

Instead you will smile and wave because Dali Tambo gave you the right to take pride in your crimes when he introduced you as the honorable assassin, Dirk Coetzee in an episode of People of The South one day in 1994.  Nothing is unacceptable even when it comes to how black people treat each other. 44 white bodies would have caused the world to stop spinning had they been mowed over Marikana style. They would have been lionized by millions of petitions. Because black people’s psychological oppression is yet to be treated, there is no difference between a Mmusi Maimaine’s attempt to reblockquote Biko’s words instead of living them, and a powerful black person’s hatred of a powerless blacker person. Because black power has a new meaning in what poet and activist Mbe Mbhele calls post apartheid apartheid, a sentiment echoed by Vanguard Editor Panashe Chigumadzi when she says, ‘’That’s who you have power over, your fellow blacks who are also pummeled by and deemed subhuman by our post apartheid apartheid, so you will exercise your agency and pummel them because there aren’t any consequences’’.

Institutions, be they physical or ideological, don’t build themselves – people build them. They can also be destroyed by people as curator Thembinkosi Goniwe reminded the audience during a talk at last weekend’s FNB Joburg Art Fair. But for that destruction to begin, the lines that can no longer be crossed must be drawn clean and clear for no feet to miss. First, we have to make black pain unacceptable.

Ends

 

Unfortunately, this is just one symptom of an incapacitating social disease in South Africa. On Monday 21 September, the bride’s father called 702 to share his exblockquotement at the venue of his daughter’s wedding, citing the hashtag so that listeners may go and see the pics on Instagram for themselves.  And in went the nail in the hard wood of the truth of white obliviousness to black pain.  It’s not enough, Steve Biko said, that a black person is kicked in the knees every day in this country, one still has to explain to the kicker that ”hey, you know it’s sore when you do that right?”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

// Comments (6)
  • Sometimes all we need is a break from them to just let us carry on without any anger and actually hold the paint brush with them to paint this rainbow nation dream we all so want …wait actually need in order for our burden shoulders to relax as well .But then this monster that breathes within them called whiteness creeps up …What makes it hurt the most is that they wear this monster mask everyday and then blatantly tell us that it does not exist when they consciously know they have it on and that we can see it. As a young black male I’m starting too loose hope in us ever having an opportunity to just not be mad and angry…after all it does get tiring… For as long as they refuse to take off the monster mask we will forever be screaming in the dark and they know it ,so they keep their mental lights switched off just so they can keep their monster masks on

  • Pale1 says:

    Thanks for publishing this, its great to hear the other side, and unfortunately it is the other side, because as a perceived white person i don’t feel like i’m part of a local culture, i don’t speak the main languages and i Braai on heritage day .

    My views are that Black South Africa inherited a white house on their own soil and now they forced to live in it. it will never feel like home unless the house is torn down and built from scratch.

    I’m would like to think i would help on the construction and would hope i could call it home.

  • Steph Bekker says:

    I’m white and Afrikaans, I’m also sick of reading this shit of how I’m a racist because I’m white and some fucking idiot did some stupid shit. So because I’m the same colour as the idiot doing stupid shit now I’m just like him? I’m sorry but I can’t take that seriously. Luister the documentary, half of those interviewed are not students and one of the white, that part was not mentioned in any articles and so was the teacher… Some of the “students” where attacking students going to exams. Marikana was executed by a black government. Dali Tambo also gave South Africa R600m struggle theme park. Afrikaans is an African language.

    It’s not a racial thing whites hate whites and blacks hate black. It’s a mentality of greed not racism. I’m sorry but being called a racist by racists is something I won’t stand for.

    If this white couple did so much to upset you.
    Share the hashtag tag and name and shame them. Don’t come call me insensitive every time some white, black or coloured muppets does something to upset you. JESUS.

    It’s time to make yourself happy no one will do it for you.
    Wake up, get up, keep up and keep on finding reasons to be happy.
    The world is full of cruel and evil people. But there is also a lot of love.
    You choose who you want to associate yourself with.

    But I’m tired of the racist bullshit card.

    Thank you.

  • Lerato says:

    @Steph Bekker is tired of the race card!! Imagine how tired we are of being reminded daily that we are black and really don’t matter. Can you really imagine what it feels like to be a black person living in South Africa, a place we are supposed to call home but are met with hostility by the same we offered an olive branch to for gross crimes on humanity? I doubt. If you could do that, you wouldn’t be tired of us voicing our pain of always being ‘othered’, you’d also stop finding excuses for why black pain doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. All the things that Milli has highlighted are real issues that black people deal with, whether it’s one or two black students in Stellenbosch struggling with racism, the fact that they are voicing their struggles shouldn’t be a contentious issue for you. Hence Milli’s article is not an attack on white people but a factual observation of black people in general and her owned lived experiences. The fact that the holocaust is held with so much respect and apartheid is treated as some minor occurrence that we should get over is very problematic.
    Are we not allowed to feel pain, respond, retaliate – are we that sub-human for you to even comprehend that we, black people, are equally capable of feeling and reacting to how people react to injustice?

    For once, instead of always being on the defense of your privilege as a white person and pacifying us to “choose love, choose happiness”, Luister. Like really, luister!

  • Steph Bekker says:

    @Lerato. I have no more privilege than you or any other South African. If I do, please tell me what it is. I work 17 hour days 5 days a week and every single public holiday to pay my way. Yes it’s heritage day to day and I’m at work, where are you Lerato? My point is where is the hashtag of this stupid bitch that got married in this prison? Where is the photos? Where is it? Show the world, give me evidence and I’ll be the first one to re-post it to shame the stupidity of these people. But words without facts are just words… At Auschwitz they killed 1,1million Jews. I doubt Constitution Hill has anything on Auschwitz. Come with real tangible facts that are relevant to NOW!!! Otherwise you are just spewing words.

    My point is successful people do not cry about how life gave them lemons be they white, black, pink or green for that matter. They take those lemons, make lemonade better than any other out there and they succeed even if they fail 170 times over 10 years. When they succeed it was all worth it.

    Your point regarding the Stellenbosch students, they change what they are fighting for on a regular basis, protesting for the sake of protest to not go to class. Let’s face it they are in university enrolled and well ahead of my so called white privilege. I never went to university, I worked for what I have to day it was not given to me. I know what it’s like to be broke and not being able to afford rent and the banks are knocking at your door to take what you have because you can’t repay them. I did not go burn donw the bank because I was at fault I worked and pay my debts. If you are against the history of colonialism why are you fighting so hard for the right to education in the language of the colonialist. Libraries where created by rich philanthropist colonial white men. Afrikaans is an African language and it will take you far in the international markets. Germany, Holland, Finland, Belgium and I can go on Afrikaans is a great tool to learning all these languages. Holding on the pain will only create more pain it will not set you free.

    Thoughts become words and words become actions.
    If pain is all you have and hold on to, pain is all you will ever have.
    It’s called the law of attraction. Consciously try changing your thoughts for just one month every time you want to think of pain stop and focus on your success.

    We have a lot to be grateful for, we are not Syrian, Ethiopian, Congolese or North Korean to name a few nations who are dying daily and have real issues. Think about how many people are actually dying daily from war and hunger. NOW!!!

    I’m not a born free, neither was I apart or for the previous governments vision nor am I with the current governments vision. I’m self employed and I work my ass off for what I have. Stop crying about how unfair life is. The world is a cruel place with a lot of love, grab life by the horns and make something of yourself or you will still be crying in 10, 20 even 30 years from now. Nothing will get cheaper and life will not become easier. Deal with it.

    The world will not wait for you to catch up.
    This is survival of the fittest.
    This is the real world.
    Life it.

  • Anne says:

    I am a white woman and I am so sick of white people being on the defense of their privilege (I having also been taught to defend it, but really if there is really nothing wrong then WHY do we still feel the need to defend?)

    Steph it absolutely is a racial thing. Offering the exceptions to the rule and then suggesting the people who have literally been crippled by this system to sing ‘Kumbaya my lord’ and just ‘get over it’, because you or I weren’t ‘directly’ involved, is deeply insensitive and pretty much just echoes the sentiments of our writer and the white people who literally DEAFEN themselves to the pain of the black and coloured people who have been WHOLLY affected by this system (and continue to be, again, whether you choose to see this or not) That is the reality here.

    We are very, very lucky that we aren’t as affected by the race card, but to then respond as you just did, is a response I have had once too (and am now sick of hearing) because it is lazy, unhelpful and really insensitive.

    The ‘Racist Bullshit Card’ – this is a convenient way to basically say ‘OK, OK we were shit, but stop nagging me about it, I don’t want to deal with your pain, your pain is inconvenient to me, because I am privileged enough to not even be able to comprehend the pain you are going on about, and because of my privilege I feel entitled enough to tell you to stop whining and just get over it. What do you want me to do about it anyway?’

    This response is not OK. I am white, and I want to firmly say how NOT OK I am with white people saying this. This is the point of the above article! You literally became the white person the writer is exhausted by, from having to deal with, because you are making it about you… (There it is again, that feeling of entitlement. Why? Well because of that privilege…..)

    The reason we defend is because we KNOW deep down things are still very much in our favor. The defense ensures we can keep what we felt entitled to unfairly take in the first place and to deny that with anything else but the gas lighting defense you just offered would actually require a complete (and lets face it, extremely uncomfortable) shift. This would affect pretty much EVERY aspect of your day to day life in South Africa (to the point that I as a white woman, wouldn’t even be able to adequately detail to you – because the point is WE HAVE BEEN PRIVILEGED HERE SO CANNOT POSSIBLY KNOW.) Needless to say I think we both know it wouldn’t be very cushy, but we can guess enough that it’s better to defend it -than to have to sit with the truth of it – this may force us to identify how wrong and unjustified the system here continues to be, and that just complicates things so why should we? We would then have to take responsibility for our entire community (not just our neighbors who live in the house behind the other enormous gate next door….and that’s a kak load of work!) and maybe consider the extremely harsh reality of working at the Shell Steers in Claremont, or McDonalds…and have to deal with ourselves in all our privileged, entitled, insufferably nauseating glory (I am not kidding, all the staff I have met at both places are my absolute heroes….the amount of patience and grace to deal with myself and my really narrow mind a few years back..to still have a sense of humour when some jock makes fun of your THIRD fluent language while he is ordering his rave burger and got as far as ‘molo – ‘ then starts clicking at you….whilst simultaneously abusing the 1000 island dressing dispenser…..NOOIT BRU. Sies. NO. And all the while you remain composed and calm and polite. THAT is strong and admirable, but also not something I see a whole lot of white people do when having to deal with inequality, injustice, imbalance of power…racism, sexism….

    To literally disregard another persons pain, their life, their history, their entire experience of life and reality in South Africa because we are ‘tired’?

    This Steph, only highlights our ABSOLUTE privilege. It has also been my privilege, but I honestly don’t want it anymore (and that in itself, is my privilege….Because I get to choose to disassociate with the entitlement I have been born into). I am ashamed that I have not questioned all the bullshit responses I have peddled out in the past, but I also refuse now to not tell the truth and be uncomfortable for it, I honestly feel like in my heart inside my heart it’s the right and fair thing to do. The exasperated cries of ‘but what can I do?’ are the not so clever tactic of seeming to care, just not enough to actually inconvenience ourselves…Le sigh, right?

    Your response is the easiest response possible, and pretty much the exact same response I hear from my peers, my father, the guy at the pharmacy and that I myself once uttered – etc. etc. etc. because we are TAUGHT this response and then too lazy and frankly, comfortable, to probe it further when our sense of entitlement starts to feel uncomfortably challenged. But really think about the implications of this and then maybe reread this entire column, because it sounds like you got two sentences in and decided you were bored of that shit – but that shit is the whole point of this column and just because it makes you uncomfortable this does not give you the right to then demean another persons entirely different life here in our country, because that would be (surprise surprise) our PRIVILEGE. Most of the people living in Cape Town are leading pretty fucking shitty lives. When a group has all the power, the money, the comforts…well what do you think happens to the other groups? Pretty much what we have in CT. Lavender Hill, Khayalitsha …. not exactly Bishops Court ne? Le Chateux townships is I think a lekker example of the ‘race card’ being pretty fucking on point. And still very much alive and swinging!

    I think about this every day and I am ashamed of myself, my circle, my spheres, my family at times, but purely because we have also been blinded and not questioned the load of shit we talk about living in this country. We complain about crime (but literally ignore – and there can’t be anything worse than this) people, children, the elderly living on our streets. They are the ‘problem’, you can say behind your gate and fence, alarm system and burglar bars. But what are you defending yourself from? The fact that whether you are honest with yourself or not, you have too much and you know it. People are starving but you still feel entitled to have the job you have and your woolies microwave meal ‘because you worked hard for it!’. But know that when a race is rigged for you to win, that isn’t hard work. There is nothing ‘fair and square’ about that. We aren’t all starting the race at the same point, but I can tell you right now – we were far higher up the ladder and to deny that is like denying your maid didn’t have to travel 4 hours just to get to you on time to iron daddy’s work shirts!

    White people have had too much for far too long and it’s time now to listen. Listening, after everything that has happened and everything that still continues to happen, is all our writer is even intimating we do. (and we are guilty because we are human – and we know the R2.00 Pritt stick just isn’t gonna cut it for piecing back together our totally shattered and fragmented community so it’s pretty much all we CAN do…) I want to try my hardest to do this with grace and with the knowledge that we literally have no idea how hard life can be here,but to somehow have the courage to listen to the victims of the imbalance of power gracefully. I say gracefully because we are not actually ENTITLED to anything, so it may serve us to start listening, you know, just to the MAJORITY of the people living in our community who are living in a way you and I can barely comprehend, or having to deal with trauma from the past system, and emotional wounds we won’t allow to heal by telling them to get over it but only because we KNOW we were wrong (and so we viciously defend our privilege by not listening – FULL CIRCLE!)

    Yes taking this all in makes me feel ashamed and absolutely after really allowing myself to see the truth of life here, of the people I am surrounded by it has absolutely changed my life and yes, maybe even alienated me from a lot of people in my social sphere (read white, middle class) but I cannot not see reality now and therefore be humbled by what the people in my community go through and the least I can do is listen. It’s hard to hear, it’s uncomfortable – now try experiencing that your entire life. Sadly, again, your comment about choosing who you associate with, you see how that has been our privilege right? The checkout girl at Checkers doesn’t really get to do that. Neither do the guys working at the back of pick n pay. Not everyone gets the luxury of being able to choose their associations…we didn’t choose to be born white, but denying how much easier life is being white is like pretending all the shacks you see coming into CT from the airport are sparkly sea shells or ‘an eye sore’ and not someones ACTUAL mode of survival. We need to be way more aware of this when making comments of how easy it is for US to shrug off others pain and suffering, of how not listening to the truth is dehumanizing (and a whole bunch of other rather heavy Sunday night Carte Blanche tear inducing emotional specials that we would rather watch than actually have to experience for ourselves….)

    I would take community over the way I see my peers live any day. People should be afraid, crime here is bad, but it isn’t rocket science. When people are starving, or silenced, or suppressed, the crime we experience here is a pretty normal reaction. I have no doubt in mind I would be hustling hard core if I had to spend time in the shoes of the guys I chat to in parking lots or on street corners. These aren’t evil people by the way. I am in awe of the guys I chat to who somehow, experiencing life the way they have had too, are so positive, kind, humble. It’s funny how as a white girl growing up I was told to be afraid of ‘black & coloured men’ – Why? Well because they had no money, of course. And we weren’t about sharing back then…and don’t look homeless people in the eye and ‘I can’t help everyone!’ (despite at my age of 28 – not being part of apartheid or that structure kind of still, or anything) The point is apartheid isn’t over. We are, like Milisuthando said, experiencing an apartheid apartheid. Until we all start actually living in reality were we fully acknowledge other people’s life experiences (ESPECIALLY their suffering) as just as important as our own, this will continue to be the case and it will continue being bad. Until we fully let go of this privilege and this ghost sense of entitlement (even if you don’t FEEL it – your words are giving you away and so did mine) then the people who need healing won’t be able to heal. How can a person heal if you deny them even getting hurt in the first place? This just doesn’t make any sense right? It just adds to the pain and makes the hurt go deeper…

    Milisuthando thank you for writing this, I am so happy I got to read it and please continue writing. I think myself and pretty much every white person I know needs to read more of these posts. And often. Please also know it isn’t futile and that I really am listening. And for what it’s worth my heart sings (and cry’s) for you, and also I am so sorry. For all the times I responded to a friend callously or dismissively, without actually just sitting with their pain. It feels enormous to me on a daily basis so I can’t pretend to comprehend how being on the receiving end of it must feel, or the intricacies of the pain you must feel, but please know I am and want to continue to listen. And that yes, most of the time I feel like a total tit when I realise some of the painfully entitled or privileged blunders I have made, but without posts like these I wouldn’t know I was doing them, and from being totally unaware to slowly seeing little prisms, to then having my ass handed to me, it’s the single most important and meaningful experience I have had in Cape Town (and I have lived here since I was four!)I fully support anyone who is down and brave enough to tell the truth about their experiences and I can also imagine how just writing this post (a post you feel like you are endlessly having to broadcast with no reprieve of being fully heard) takes (I want to say balls, but – hard pubic bone? 😀 You know what I mean!) COURAGE! <3

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