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.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “What I Learned About Being White When I Visited South Africa

  1. You hit the nail squarely on the head! If we individually refuse to acknowledge our past actions, we can’t begin to make amends for them. Therefore there is not an honest basis to come together to form a new future.

  2. I understand and appreciate all that you’ve said, it is just so hard to swallow as a struggling poor white person the notion of being privileged. I grew up as a poor white minority. There were very few white children in my school. I have been on the other side of racism. Not just with name calling and ridiculing although I have been Called a white devil, cracker, blue eyed devil etc… With no provocation. In school it seemed all we did was hear about all the great things African Americans have done. They got their very own month, TV station, magazine etc… I was made to feel hated for the color of my skin and the deeds of people who shared that same color. I won’t say ‘my ancestors”, because not all white people owned slaves so who’s to say that my particular ancestors did? Anyhow when you grow up made to feel less than because the color of your skin, it’s very hard as an adult after scraping by and making sacrifices to concede that I am in fact privileged. Also, as far as helping black leaders in your community, who has time when you’re busting your but at work, at school, at home all while raising children?

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