What I Learned About Being White When I Visited South Africa

During apartheid, the government of South Africa enforced racial identification through laws like the Population Regulation Act. The races are still broadly referred to as white or Afrikan, black or native, and colored for anyone of mixed heritage, although these terms no longer indicate inferiority to whites. 

Our black guide drove us through the streets of Soweto, one of many townships where, from the early 19th century until Mandela’s election in 1994, millions of blacks were forced to live in abject poverty under the heavy hand of apartheid leveled by the Afrikaners (white descents of the Dutch who settled at Cape Town in 1652). We visited Mandela’s home and strolled down the vibrant streets, alive with the sounds of drumming and gum boot dancing. When we stopped for lunch, I was surprised that the food on the buffet was almost identical to my favorite southern dishes, albeit with different names – fried chicken, sweet potatoes, turnip greens with pepper sauce, black eyed peas with relish, tomato and cucumber salad, hush puppies and pork ribs.

We saw areas of Soweto where thousands of people still live in abject poverty in corrugated tin shacks with no running water or electricity but we also saw areas with lovely brick homes, new schools, kids playing soccer on well-maintained fields. Even given the areas that still bear testament to centuries of oppression, Soweto is a thriving, alive and joyous place where you encounter smiling faces, music, dancing and the vivid colors of the South African flag on every street.

I’m an inquisitive traveller, not afraid to ask pointed questions so I can learn about different cultures.  Prior to my trip to South Africa, I read several books, including “A History of South Africa” by Leonard Thompson. I re-read “Long Walk to Freedom” and re-watched the movie. I re-watched “Invictus.” I had already asked our guide a million questions but as we left the site of the Soweto Uprising and headed to The Apartheid Museum, I asked him, “So, do you just hate white people?”

I asked this because I had to know…because I couldn’t imagine that his answer would be anything but a resounding, “Yes, I do.” Instead, he answered, “No, I don’t hate white people. Madiba taught us to look forwards, not backwards. Hating white people wouldn’t do anything to improve my future. They are my brothers and sisters now.”

There were times during the day when I thought, with outrage and moral superiority, “Apartheid was horrible!” but I would immediately remind myself that we had enslaved blacks, that before the Civil Rights Movement we segregated them in the same brutal manner and today, African Americans still experience disparity and discrimination, in both overt and subtle ways. I cried later that night when it dawned on me why the food at lunch had been so familiar to my southern palette; of course, our cuisine would reflect that of South Africa because it was us who kidnapped innocent Africans, sold them into slavery and made them cook for us in our plantations.

I thought that maybe the guide was an anomaly, just one person with a generous heart but when I posed the same question to our guide the next day, her answer was the same. “No,” she said, “I don’t hate white people. Apartheid is in the past.”

On the safari leg of our trip, I asked our Afrikan field guides about apartheid, expecting them to give me the same answer white folks here give…there isn’t a problem with racism anymore. I was wrong.

One guide said, “What my grandparents did to the blacks was abominable and I hate our history. But I have to acknowledge the reality of apartheid and its lingering effects. It’s my generation’s job to make sure that the mistakes of the past are never forgotten or repeated.”

A black field tracker told me, “I see a different future for myself and my children than the one my parents and grandparents had. I don’t hold today’s white people responsible for what was done to us but I’m not going to let them off the hook either.” Another white field guide said, “We have to make amends for the wrongs that were done to the blacks.”

The white people’s open acknowledgement of their culpability and the black people’s willingness to forgive stands in stark contrast to our race relations. Maybe part of the outrage African Americans feel is because white people have never fully acknowledged that we robbed them of their native African heritage, that we have appropriated those parts of their native culture that we like and discarded those that don’t serve us, and that they are still treated differently because of the color of their skin. Perhaps if we honestly asked them to forgive us we could move towards reconciliation. But people only ask for forgiveness when they believe they’ve done something wrong and apparently, many white Americans don’t think they have done anything – collectively or individually – that requires forgiveness.

I support our brave police officers and do not believe we should judge the whole of law enforcement by the actions of a few. I believe that black lives matter but I do not condone violence against others in the name of this movement. I believe that the racial disparity that exists in America is rooted in white people’s inability to understand the experience of racism and in black people’s indignation at our unwillingness to acknowledge it exists.

I am the beneficiary of white privilege. If you don’t know what that is or if you refuse to accept that it exists, read this post from my favorite blogger: How I Discovered I Am White by Janelle Hanchett at Renegade Mothering. Or watch any of the youtube videos of the famous “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” seminar led by Jane Elliott, a blunt and in-your-face exercise Ms. Elliott first used in her third grade classroom in 1968, after Martin Luther King’s death.

A few weeks ago, a white woman with Down syndrome told me that she “doesn’t like black people.” When I pointed out that there are many African Americans in my program for people with special needs that are her friends, she insisted that she likes them personally but doesn’t like black people in general. Her horrified parents say they don’t think this way or talk about black people in a disparaging way at home. So where did she get this message? Some people assume that because a person has an intellectual disability, they can’t understand everything being said in front of them. But they can. And she’s clearly gotten the message from somewhere. This example alone should be enough to convince even the most diehard, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore” defender that yes, it does. Big time.

I watched Michael Moore’s newest film, “Where to Invade Next” (if you haven’t seen the film, Mr. Moore explores innovative public policies from other countries). The segment about how the Germans teach the history of the Holocaust in their schools is particularly relevant, given the events of the past week.

The Germans don’t pretend that their country didn’t murder six million innocent Jews. Instead, they actively teach their shameful collective history in an honest and direct way beginning in kindergarten. Mr. Moore makes the strong argument that simply by acknowledging the truth of Germany’s history of genocide, every day and in every possible way, Germans are insuring that such a thing can never happen in their country again. He says that we as Americans should acknowledge the truth of our painful history, too. He ends this segment with this: (paraphrase) I am an American. I live in a great nation that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.

Why is it so hard for us to admit the truth of that statement? When the first settlers landed on this continent, the Native American population was over 12 million. By 1900, their population was barely 237,000. Our founding fathers built a great democracy at the expense of millions of native inhabitants. And then we allowed slavery to exist for 258 years. Our nation has practiced our own version of apartheid since the first European settlers arrived in 1607. Until we white folks can own up to that, teach it openly and honestly to our children and remind ourselves of these injustices every day, we will never be able to move forward from our shameful collective history the way the Germans have. We can do better than the white-washed version of history we teach in our schools. Just having Black History Month isn’t enough.

What can I, as a privileged white woman, do to heal the divide between black and white? I can be aware every minute of every day that I benefit from the color of my skin. I can look around my community for ways I can help level the playing field for African Americans, just as I do for people with special needs. I can ask the leaders of my area’s black community what they need people like me to do. I can use my voice, my influence and my many advantages to advocate for equality for everyone.

And I can pray for the day when the color of my skin won’t give me an advantage I haven’t earned.

 

 

 

Dear Candidates: The Minority Group You’ve Forgotten

Disclaimer: Except where otherwise noted (phrases appearing in blue are links to information that corroborates my statements), this post reflects my opinions. And we all know about opinions…

Dear Candidates:

You are presenting me with a huge dilemma. According to the polls, I’m not alone, as many of my fellow Americans are holding their noses at the thought of voting for either of you.

Mr. Trump, when you read from a prepared speech, you almost have me…but then you go off on a tangential rant or send tweets that make you sound like a school yard bully. You are definitely not a slick, teleprompter politician, which probably explains your appeal to millions of Americans.

Mrs. Clinton, you lost me back in 1992 with the “cookies and tea” comment and cemented my distaste when you “stood by your man” throughout his sexual exploits. You even went so far as to criticize Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old young woman who, had she been working in corporate America, could have charged her boss with sexual harassment and had him fired. Even worse in my mind, you are a career politician, someone who has lived on the government dole your entire adult life. That in and of itself makes you untrustworthy, to me. I think it’s highly doubtful that you would have ever been successful in the private sphere…or maybe you would have been the CEO of some huge corporation only to end up being charged with embezzlement or insider trading or some other scheme to defraud average folks.

Being stuck between two distasteful choices, I’ve come up with a challenge for you. Whichever one of you is able to tackle this challenge just might earn my vote, and the vote of millions of Americans who have been left out of our political discussion for far too long.

What is this game-changing challenge? One of you should reach out to the largest minority group in our country and win over their support. It’s surprising that neither of you has figured this out yet. I mean, come on…with all your highly paid operatives and advisors, how have both of you managed to miss the votes of this huge percentage of the population?

So I’ll be the one to break it down for you:

17% of the US is Hispanic
13% of the US is African-American
5% of the US is LGBTQ
5.6% of the US is Asian
2.2% of the US is Jewish
1% or less of the US is Muslim

What minority group have you missed?

19% of the US has a physical or intellectual disability.

Yes, you heard me…19%. That’s 56.7 million people or 1 in 5 Americans. Add to that their families, their friends, their employers, their caregivers and more…and suddenly we’re talking about a significant portion of the US population.

And the beautiful thing about this minority group is that is crosses all other minority boundaries. Disability does not recognize gender or race or religion or sexual orientation or socio-economic group. Disability appears in poverty and in wealth, in black and in Asian, in gay and straight. If either of you can figure out how to bring this minority into your camp, you might win an election. More importantly, you could direct our nation’s attention to a minority group who could elevate the dialogue for everyone because they have the power to unite groups that might otherwise be divided.

To explain, take a look at this picture:

Two beautiful moms of kids with special needs

Two beautiful moms of kids with special needs

I have no idea what their political affiliations are, nor do I know what religion they practice, how they feel about gay marriage, what their opinion on immigration reform might be, how they feel about our nation’s trade policies or what, if any, minority groups they may belong to other than the obvious one of their race. What I do know is that they have formed a bond because of the minority box they both have to check…the minority of people who have a family member with special needs. I’m sure these women have firmly held political beliefs about all the above issues and they care deeply about public policies that could benefit all of us…access to public transportation, access to affordable housing, an overhaul to the Medicaid system and more.  If you can convince them that you care about their children and the challenges they face then I bet you’d win their vote…and mine and the votes of the millions of other Americans.

Decorian and Bill

Bill, on the left, with his friend Decorian

Or take these two young men. They are both 22 and they have been good friends for about six years. And guess what, candidates? Both of them are planning to vote in November. Both of these young men will listen carefully to the advice of their parents before making their decision on who to support. Bill belongs to one minority group, while Decorian belongs to another but their minority affiliations are not mutually exclusive. Decorian may just be a friend to Bill but he has been profoundly changed by their friendship and takes the needs of people with disabilities seriously…and will take that concern with him into the voting booth. And Bill, because he knows what its like to be discriminated against, will carry his concern for Decorian into the voting booth as well.

Ever since I started working with people who have special needs, I’ve wondered why their voice doesn’t matter more and why we don’t hear about them. Where are the lobbyists who advocate for public policies that would benefit the disabled? Why don’t we hear Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly talking about which candidate is ahead with disabled voters the way they tell us who is ahead with the black vote or the hispanic vote? Where are the pundits who ask questions like, “Would you support government programs that offer tax incentives to employers who hire people with intellectual or physical disabilities?” Where are the commentators who hold your feet to the fire on issues like the IDEA Act, the ABLE Act and other federal programs designed to improve the quality of life for people with special needs?

There was one recent politician who had a chance to bring this minority group to the forefront…Sarah Palin, the woman who, to paraphrase Robin Williams, seems to be the secret love child of Ronald Regan and Barbie. She has a child with Down syndrome and could have used her political clout to advocate on behalf of this huge minority. But alas, as most politicians, she just pandered to the same old insiders and operatives…Wall Street, big pharma, insurance companies…we all know the list. Will one of you be the politician who will finally give voice to the 19%…the forgotten minority? If one of you will truly and sincerely address this forgotten minority, you may find that you connect even more significantly with the minority groups you are already wooing.

There are so many vitally important civil rights issues that should matter to all of us but they become contentious when we put hashtags in front of them or associate them with one minority over another. For example, it isn’t just black men who have been brutalized by the police…it happens to people with intellectual and physical disabilities all the time. It isn’t just black and hispanic people who face institutional discrimination because it happens to people with intellectual and physical disabilities all the time.

All of the hot-button issues in this election cycle are issues that matter to the disabled…immigration policies, common core, unemployment, economic issues (by the way, 28% of Americans with a disability live in poverty), marriage equality and all the others.

But here’s the magic difference between the disability minority and the other minorities…once you’re a member of the special needs minority, that membership trumps (no pun intended) any other demographic group a person might identify with. And with the alarming rise in autism spectrum diagnoses, this forgotten minority will continue to grow.

So, which one of you will take on my challenge? Which one of you will care enough about the forgotten 19% to reach out to them and win their vote? If one of you does, then I guess I’ll know who to vote for. If neither of you does, then I will probably stay home on election day.