QUESTION // WHY ARE MY WHITE FRIENDS CALLING ME INSTEAD OF EACH OTHER TO TALK RACE?

Six months ago, I got a phone call from a white girlfriend of mine. Well…we are not friends friends but we respect each other’s work from an internet manufactured distance. We like each other’s Facebook posts, comment on each other’s posts from time to time and have an unspoken sisterly connection based on our feminist beliefs and practice. She’s cool.

During our one and only phone call, she hesitated before finally asking ‘’Mili, how many of your friends are on antidepressants’’? There was a short, comfortable silence before I answered her, ‘’As far as I know, three’’. She then asked, ‘’how many of those are white women?’’ ‘’Two’’, I told her. ‘’What if I were to tell you that nearly all of my friends are on antidepressants?’’ she asked.

I was in a lift at Rosebank Mall, en route to pay for a parking ticket. I decided to go straight to my car instead of paying for the ticket. A long conversation ensued. She went on to explain how antidepressants, medication in general is pretty standard among women in her community. That her aunts and people’s mothers have been going to therapy and taking pills for as long as she’s known them. Why, was the answer she was getting to. ‘’I feel so lonely with my feminism in Cape Town. Nobody wants to listen when I want to talk about real issues. My friend literally said to me ‘just get a boyfriend’, when I tried to have a conversation with her about this subject. White women are so oppressed; they don’t even know they are oppressed. I’m sorry that I’m crying. I know you don’t need my white tears in your life but I’m just so relieved to be talking’’.

I listened and commiserated as she explained that for a long as she can remember, middle class white women have been silenced by medication and patriarchy in their homes as well as in public spaces. How they have been drenched in leisure and comfort to stop them from having something to complain about. How when a woman becomes too expressive of her opinions, there is a lexicon for suppressing the source of those opinions, sometimes established and maintained by other white women. How there are very few spaces where white women in South Africa can sincerely be heard outside the rooms of a therapist. And how silence and repression are an art form in their daily lives.

What does this mean for race relations on a larger scale if the white woman has no real power in her own home, I wondered? Upon whom does she then exercise her power on the social ranking system? I thought about the proximity of white males to other persons on the social and economic hierarchy in our society. As a black woman, I’m three-persons removed. A black man is two-persons removed. A white woman is not removed. If the white male body represents the proverbial oppressor – she is sleeping with him. She is fathered by him. This is her boetie. What does oppression look like so intimately?

I felt for her. As a Xhosa woman, I do not feel this kind of powerlessness in my community. Historically, I can only name a few figures, white women who have articulated through writing and art, the position of white womanhood in South Africa, but without explicitly singling that identity out and unpacking it. Antjie Krog. Ingrid Jonker. Maggie Laubscher. Irma Stern. Sue Williamson. Penny Siopis. I’m reaching as I try to imagine the white South African female version of Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children.

In contemporary South Africa, where is white feminism for young white girls who are not starting groups at their schools about the things that are troubling them? Are they still concerned with Ryan and Jared and Luke as my white friends were in high school while the black girls were starting a Xhosa society? Has enough work been done by white feminists to address these identity issues so that my friend doesn’t have to apologize to me for giving her the space to be heard? Beyond individual actions, is there even a white feminist movement in South Africa?

I have friendships with white women that are bonded by our conversations about racism and feminism as much they are by our love for particular authors or lovers. But when I’m not around, I doubt that these conversations, about race and gender populate their Shabbat dinners and gym sessions the way my black friends and I discuss race and gender issues during every lunch break, every park walk and single day of our lives.

Since that phone call, I’ve had this (unsoliblockquoted) conversation over bitter Americanos with other white women, most recently in the flatlands of the Free State. And my advice is always the same: As a black woman, I can’t give you the answers you need because I do not live your experience. But your feelings are valid. You are not the only one. Find another white woman who feels the same and have regular meetings. Maybe even start a group. Maybe then I might be able to share the identity unpacking starter kit with you. Patronizing? Maybe, but it comes from a place of identification with other women in an age where their identity is being virtually silenced and reduced to the loaded moniker ‘’Becky’’. Beyond that, white women’s relationships with black people are very important to examine when it comes to understanding how racism and power function in private and domestic spaces: how madam speaks to ”Mavis” and ”Wilson”, how white women assert their power over black employees / subordinates in corporate South Africa and of course, my favourite – how white women have been socially positioned as more desirable than black women in the realm of sexual relationships.

// Comments (6)
  • Lili says:

    When I read the headline of this my was thought was: “Honestly? Talking about race is almost exclusively what my white friends are doing. But because many of us feel if we just talk about race by ourselves without being inclusive, we might negate or misunderstand or marginalise other race’s realities. Which is something that white people have been very guilty of for, like forever.”

    But then I read the post, and I realised that Miss Milli is asking a bunch of questions of the white female experience in South Africa. Questions asked with great sensitivity and compassion. Why do we not answer? Why do we not talk about it? For me, I fear it is because I will sound petulant. In comparison, my problems as a white middle class woman simply doesn’t compare to a young mother struggling to feed her kids. Millie asks whether there is a white feminist movement in SA and I say I don’t know if there should be. As a white feminist I regularly and often rightfully hear white feminism being criticised, and I feel bad for not being intersectional enough.

    And when I do sometimes open up about the difficulties of growing up and living as an Afrikaans woman in SA with all the historic and patriarchal bullshit that entails, I often get told I have #firstworldproblems or that I should stop crying white tears. And yes, mostly I agree. So having a young, powerful, black woman tell me that my feelings are valid means a lot. And as the author says, we need to start understanding how “racism and power function in private and domestic spaces” and maybe talking about it is the only way we will ever understand? Talking and retelling and asking for help to understand and dismantle these structures of power. But I think talking about it in white spaces instead of mixed ones, might just lead to the same isolation and misunderstanding that is currently at the order of the day.

    That said, I totally understand that black women have no desire to be the shoulder for white women to cry on. I mean, seriously, haven’t we taken enough?! I am not sure if I’m making the sense I’m trying to make, but I want to say thanks for an excellent, thought provoking piece.

  • This has given me much to think about. You’re so eloquent and so wise. Having lived now in the UK for 8 years the difference between white women in South Africa and here is distinct. And sometimes I forget the pervasive nature of the patriarchy in my home country, especially in more recent years where over here feminism has really taken hold and is a regularly discussed topic among my friends of all races. I’m not sure I have much to add really (this is a bit of a useless comment) because my thoughts are still fomenting, but this has really given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  • Claire says:

    Youre article is great and thought provoking. When i think of being a feminist it is not specifically isolated to ‘white’ feminism or ‘black ‘feminism. Its a humanist idea of getting all human beings to the same level of respect and understanding. Our experiences are different yes -and thats a big part of how we process it, but the root of it should be inclusive.

  • Makhosi says:

    Great topic, but shouldn’t the article heading replace ‘race’ with ‘feminism’?

  • Zimasa says:

    Fantastic read, as always, Milli

  • Great read & food for thought. x

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