Why We Must Dismantle Sexism In South Africa’s All-Boy Schools

Consider the following conversation:

Man: Rape happens a lot these days because womxn have loose morals.

Womxn: Yes, I think it does happen more often today. But, I don’t think it’s because womxn have loose morals.

Womxn: But, even if they did have loose morals, did they deserve to get raped?

Man: Have you noticed how womxn dress these days? All those tight pants provoke us.

Womxn: Eh! But I am a grandmother and even I was raped.

Womxn: And my friend’s daughters was raped and she is 9 years old.

Womxn: Ayi, you people! My neighbours little two year old daughter was raped. Is she provocative?

My deep love for South Africa fills me with purpose and compels me to shine a light on the darkest parts of our society. I am a product of South Africa’s all-boy school system, often lauded for producing excellent education. My schooling should have, but fell short of, preparing me to fully embody values of compassion, equity, and justice. I have spent much of my adult life learning, relearning, and unlearning sexist behaviors gleaned from systemic patriarchy embedded in the school. 

During my student tenure in a semi-private all-boy high school in Johannesburg, a handful of teachers and students pushed back against sexism, and many educated us about the dangers of unchecked masculinity. However, when we boys grouped together, we bonded through displays of sexual dominance and expressed attitudes similar to the men in the above conversation. The physical school space itself did not foster patriarchy, although certain spaces such as locker rooms and hostels certainly did, but rather our acceptance of patriarchal actions strengthened its existence. All-boy schools are capable of, and do, nurture oppressive culture.

South Africa is the most unsafe place for womxn on earth. Every 3 minutes, men rape a womxn or a mxn, and every three hours, a husband or boyfriend murders a womxn. August 2019, which happens to be Women’s Month, was one of the deadliest months for womxn in South Africa. In thirty days, men murdered 30 womxn who were their partners. On August 24, 2019, a man murdered Uyinene “Nene” Mrwetyana, a 19 year old media student at the University of Cape Town. Nene went to the post office to pick up a package. The attendant told her the machine wasn’t working and asked her to return a few hours later. When she returned, he lured her into a back room, raped and tortured her, before killing her with a scale. He then dumped her body in a nearby garbage dump. 

Womxn, and some men, across the world coalesced in outrage. Social media was abound with #MenAreTrash, #IamNext, #MeToo highlighting the extent of sexual violence in South Africa. The rapists’ house was set ablaze by angry community members. Despite the overwhelming evidence, many men, and some womxn responded with denial, diminishment, and deflection to the presence of injustice. #WomenAreTrash, #NotAllMen soon trended, as men told womxn on social media: “she deserved it”, “what was she thinking going there alone?”, and “shut your mouth, or you will be next.”

I strongly aligned with the #MenAreTrash movement as I worked through what I read, what I watched, and what I experienced during this month. But, as a racialized white middle class cisgendered man who grew up in Johannesburg, I also saw a version of myself in the misogynists’ posts. When I peeled back the layers of association between who I am now compared to those times when I’ve embodied misogyny, I immediately reflected on my high school experience. During that period between 2003-2006, I subconsciously internalized the notion that my penis gave me status, power, and control over others.

How does rape culture explain parts of my schooling experience?

As I read through my high school journal, there is a particular poem, written when I was fifteen years old, which describes sexually assaulting a womxn. Reading it now evokes immense shock, shame, and disgust that I was thinking these thoughts as a teenage boy. As jarring as it is to read now, it was not an isolated text. My journal contained multiple accounts of older boys air humping me from behind, having pubic hair ripped from my scrotum while being held down, and assemblies when matrics would tell stories of their sexual escapades for all of us to laugh and cheer. I did not realize it then, but I know now, that I was deep in the bowels of South Africa’s patriarchal rape culture. 

In all-boys schools, we are taught how to reproduce the injustices of patriarchy. How we raise our boys determines the men we produce. Men determine the levels of social, economic, and physical violence in a society. We are more likely to leave our girl child with a womxn we don’t know rather than a male stranger because of the permeance of male violence. The levels of socialized sexism in all-boy spaces prepares us for inhumanity against womxn. It arms us to reproduce and strengthen the oppressive culture against womxn.

All-boy schools are a relatively small but significant stakeholder in South Africa’s educational landscape. Their prominence is layered by the high concentration of men they educate, their middle-upper class nature, and their often colonial and apartheid roots. Originally, these institutions educated white boys to take their place in the British colonial administration, and then the apartheid system of white patriarchal supremacy. In contemporary South Africa, the sediments of racial, class-based, and gender based hierarchies in these schools still operate largely unchanged. Boys, regardless of race and class who matriculate from these schools can often become men who embody the colonial and apartheid value system. In school I learned how to solve for x, but also, how to be white, how to operate in a capitalist economy, and importantly, how to perpetuate the system of sexism.

Education and schooling are not benign processes. Schools are a vision for society because they reflect our greatest hopes, and our most cherished values. Our schools expose us. They reveal who we think we are versus what we actually are and provide us with an opportunity for transformation. What is learned in school, both overtly through subject knowledge, and covertly through cultural behavior, can prepare us to challenge our position in the world: “…It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, and the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine…” But, because education, especially schooling, exists in an inherently unjust context, it can also teach us to be instruments that reproduce injustice. 

My schooling experience taught me to associate manhood with the false notion of sexual power. Sexual violence against womxn was not only encouraged, but expected. Teachers, parents, and adults in authority normalized this way of being through their implicit silence. I constantly heard and participated in sexist jokes, trivializing sexual assault (“boys will be boys!”), and discussions about why womxn should avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape. The fifteen year old boy who wrote the poem about assaulting a womxn grew into a man. Years after I matriculated, I bonded with my male friends over the extent of our physical dominance over womxn. Life after school was a continuation of school. 

I would be potentially dangerous to womxn were it not for trying to be a different man. My adulthood is defined by learning new ways of bonding with other men and womxn, relearning the value of feminine power and strength as nurtured into me by womxn in my life, and unlearning violent patriarchal behavior. Even though I grew up in a mixed race family in South Africa, I lacked comprehension of how racism operates until I studied under the leadership of an African American professor at a US-based university. In this context I confronted how I perpetuate oppressive ways of being and doing. Despite my growing awareness of race and class based oppression, I did not fully grasp the operation of gender. But, after contact with Kimberlė Crenshaw’s intersectional framework and my marriage to a feminist, I became conscious of how my adulthood is shaped by systems of patriarchy, racism, and class based exploitation learned in school. Despite my deep commitment to live through justice and equity I often fall short of these ideals. Regardless, I do my best everyday to listen, build relationships, reflect, learn and take action; understanding that I am always a work in progress.

What can we men do about it?

Men, we have a responsibility to combat internal and external patriarchy. As individuals, we can learn to listen and listen to learn. Do a personal and honest inventory of your behavior towards womxn. Ask yourself whether you make sexist jokes or use language that degrades womxn and sexual identities. How do you reinforce or challenge strict gender stereotypes among your children when you select their toys, delegate their tasks, or set their expectations? Do you raise your sons to respect the personal space of womxn? Do you place the blame on womxn when they are a victim of sexual violence, or respond to womxn’s experiences of patriarchy by denying its existence (“that rape is an isolated incident”), deflecting to something else (“we should be talking about this other issue”), or diminishing it (“her experience was worse, so stop complaining”)? If you are in a sexual relationship, do you always assume consent? What are your biases against womxn? 

In groups, refraining from bonding through the dehumanization of womxn is a start, but is insufficient. It is our responsibility as men to use our power and privilege to confront patriarchy at a systemic and interpersonal level. We can challenge sexist attitudes and rape culture among our peers, and model for others that these ways of being are socially unacceptable. We can teach our boys healthy ways to bond and define manhood as inclusive of womxnhood. To the men who value womxn, we need to mentor other men and boys to support their healthy development.

As schools, let us commit to shaping boys into full, healthy and compassionate human beings. We can do this through evaluating our language, institutions, policies, and symbols. The following questions may be useful: 

  • Do we normalize racist and sexist language, including jokes? 
  • What are our mokitas, those undercurrents that we don’t talk about, but know exist?
  • Do we, even tacitly, foster toxic masculinity in spaces such as hostels or groups such as prefects or matrics? 
  • When we scrutinize our policies, especially our curriculum, do we equip our students to critically evaluate their learning through the lens of intersectional justice?
  • Do we challenge racial and gender based symbols such as stereotypes?

Left unchecked, all-boy school spaces will continue to produce men who equate themselves with violence against womxn. Rape culture is pervasive in families, schools, and society at large. By challenging the roots of this culture in all-boy schools, which educates thousands of men every year, we will make South Africa, and the world a safer and more equitable place for womxn everywhere. 

Organizations tackling gender injustice in South Africa:

Sonke Gender Justicehttps://genderjustice.org.za/

Sonke’s vision is a world in which men, women, and children can enjoy equitable, healthy and happy relationships that contribute to the development of just and democratic societies. Sonke Gender Justice works across Africa to strengthen government, civil society and citizen capacity to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. 

18twenty8 https://www.18twenty8.org/

18twenty8 is an award-winning, women-led Non-Profit Organisation that empowers young women, from disadvantaged backgrounds, by developing strategies for their educational and personal development. They encourage young women, predominantly between the ages of 18 and 28, to view higher education as an attractive and necessary tool for their empowerment. 18twenty8 prides itself on being one of a few organizations in South Africa that is 100% led by young women who empower other young women.

Agenda Feminist Media – https://www.agenda.org.za/

Agenda Feminist Media is committed to giving women a forum, a voice and skills to articulate their needs and interests towards transforming unequal gender relations. They aim to question and challenge current understandings and practices of gender relations in South Africa. Through their flagship project, the Agenda journal, they raise debate around women’s rights and gender issues

Warren Chalklen, PhD passionately works for equity and social justice through education, advocacy, and cross cultural dialogue. He can be reached at warren@warrenchalklen.com or www.warrenchalklen.com


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


Lessons from Confronting a South African Microaggression

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save you. Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about your struggles is the key to your liberation. Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life. Your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we can all be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now. We need you. (Yolo Akili)


In this account I describe how my response to a microaggression (Sue, D. et al., 2007) incident at a South African wine farm stretched the boundaries of a close personal relationship and redefined how I frame confrontation and engage in dialogue. I learned that the framing of microaggressions determines whether they can be educative. These insights are valuable for those wanting to confront microaggressions and promote culturally sensitive leadership.

The South African context and the wine farm

There are few wine tasting experiences like the one at Blue Wine Estate (1) in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The farm is a blend of natural beauty and uneven power relations. Wine is symbolic of inclusion and exclusion in South Africa. Its symbolism overlaps with the heavy weight of slave-picked cotton in the United States, sugar in the West Indies, and coffee in Brazil. Wine can evoke the memories of lives, land, and dignity lost under the banner of profit in each of these countries, and around the world.

South Africa is a complex country. Its tapestry is weaved together by past colonial injustice, recent apartheid racial segregation, and contemporary half-freedoms. South Africa’s herstory/history/ourstory did not begin with, but is irrevocably influenced by, European settlers who arrived at the Cape in 1652. Their arrival initiated a binary ideological and material conflict as the settlers asserted their domination of land, people, and resources. Through the lens of social justice, the Ubuntu philosophy underpinning African life invalidates the ideology of colonialism because of the former’s emphasis on a shared humane-humanity (Maluleke 1999, pp. 80-82), and the latter’s reduction of human beings to an oppressed/oppressor relationship. In the end, the White colonizers shifted the scales using military power to force their political, economic, and social will on South Africa’s Black African majority.

Almost three hundred years later in 1948, the colonizers formally institutionalized their exploitation through apartheid, a hegemonic government system designed to enforce racial segregation and institutionalize White supremacy (Biko, 2002). It is due to the legacies of Autshumayo, who fought against the Dutch in 1658 (Marks, 1972), Charlotte Maxeke, who led resistance to colonial oppression since 1874 (Jardine, 2016), and many known and unknown individuals who sacrificed their lives for justice in South Africa since then, that apartheid officially ended in April 1994.

The political end of apartheid segregation promised full freedom, but the legacy of colonialism has persisted to deliver economic and social half-freedoms in contemporary South Africa. South Africans of color have the political freedom to enter former “Whites only” spaces, but the system still forces them to often occupy economic and social roles that perpetuate their position as half-free individuals. For example, a young Black South African womxn(2) can use her political power to vote, but still needs to travel into the city to access economic opportunity such as a job from predominantly White bosses who treat her as cheap labor. A Statistics South Africa 2015 Quarterly Labour Survey indicated that Black South African womxn earn an average of 23% less than their Black male counterparts, and 75% less than their White male colleagues (2015).

Another upper class Black South African womxn may appear to enjoy full freedom because she voted for those who enable access to economic success and social mobility, but she still needs to contend with society’s embedded patriarchy, racism, and gender-based discrimination which limit her to a life of half-freedoms. Liberation therefore, must extend past access to political, economic, and social power. True liberation, full freedom, should include transforming social relationships to reflect fundamental human dignity.

Who am I?

I write this piece from the position of an English-speaking White South African male from Johannesburg who taught intermediate phase isiZulu, continued postgraduate studies in the United States, and recently returned to Cape Town. At a deeper level, I grew up within a family of various races. My unique upbringing shaped how I exist in the world and reinforced my strong commitment to social, economic, and political justice. My partner, who is from Texas, and I came home briefly to South Africa while I served as Executive Director for an education-focused non-profit organization for a six month period.

After living abroad for seven years, I saw South Africa in a new and more nuanced way during my extended stay in Cape Town. What was familiar also became unfamiliar as I revisited spaces through a lens of power and privilege. Systems of oppression such as patriarchy, racism, and gender-based discrimination that, because of my privilege, had been “hidden” to me in the past, now became much more obvious and jarring.

I analyzed my experience through linguistic, symbolic, policy, and institutional frames. I recognized language use describing where people of color live as “locations” rather than neighborhoods. I tried to make sense of why restaurants filled with only White patrons could be framed as symbols of economic revitalization rather than segregation. During our stay, Cape Town experienced its worst drought in recent memory. As the drought became more severe, I could not fully understand policy proposals seeking to restrict water usage for those living in perpetual water scarcity while merely taxing those who waste water on their lavish lawns. As I dug deeper into the institutional design of the city through comparing the public bus routes to the class-based nature of the neighborhoods, I found that the city cares more about tourists being close to the beach than marginalized South Africans accessing opportunity.

Peeling away the layers even further, I also became more sharply aware of the prevalence of microaggressions, the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults. These microaggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Sue, et al., 2007).

The wine tasting

Our tasting experience commenced within a beautiful, open-planned, floor to ceiling glass window tasting room next to a fire. Moshe, a close friend, and I visited Blue Wine Estate to taste delicious wines. Moshe is a powerful Black African man whose integrity, leadership and talent underpin his deep aptitude for justice. He is a few months away from graduating as a lawyer, and yet he took time off his busy schedule to visit me in Cape Town. We had not seen one another for three years.

Moshe and I are brothers. We do not share a mother but are bonded by the powerful strands of true human connection. We first met in tenth grade and have remained friends for over half of our lifetimes. Ever since we became friends all those years ago, our bond has spanned the length of time, the breadth of geography, and the alchemy of life events. It has also been shaped by neocolonial identity forces such as racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms”. As close as we are as human beings, we still recognize how our differences are used to divide us.

Paying the bill, swallowing the microaggression

Moshe and I reveled in deconstructing the space, tasting the beautiful wines, and reconnecting on lost time. Eventually we were ready to walk in the garden and signalled for the bill. Shawn, our wine connoisseur and a man of color in his thirties, walked over, followed by Linda, a White, blonde woman who was obviously the manager.

Shawn walked past Moshe and immediately handed the bill to me. Linda, armed with an iPad, walked over to Moshe saying, “How did my little boy serve you today? Please can you rate his service from one to five.” She handed the iPad to him, smiled at us and walked away. My heart sank. I felt a rush of anger and hurt. I looked up from the bill to see Moshe looking at Shawn with an awkward smile. I asked Shawn if he is always called a ‘boy’ to which he nodded affirmatively.

I reached over to the iPad and asked Moshe if I could fill in the comments section of the rating, into which I typed: “Please do not refer to any adult waiter or waitress of color as boy or girl, this is racist behavior.” Shawn, looked over my shoulder and chuckled. I asked him if this would jeopardize him, to which he shook his head. “Please make sure she gets this” I asked, before pressing submit and collecting my belongings to leave.

The blowout

As Moshe and I began walking out, he immediately motioned to me that he would like to talk to me outside about what I wrote on the review. I reacted defensively, angrily, and from deep emotion as I explained why I was right to confront her microaggression and humiliation of him and Shawn. Before Moshe could reply Linda interjected. She had followed us outside and was armed with the iPad.

“Are you the person who wrote that I am a racist? You don’t even know me, how dare you call me a racist! You are stoking division here. We are all a family here until you come here and make my staff think that I am a racist. How dare you!”

My blood began to boil. Being overwhelmed in the moment I replied, “Ma’m. I never called you a racist. As you handed the iPad over to my friend, you referred to Shawn as a little ‘boy’. As a White person when you call a person who is your age or older a ‘boy’ that is unprofessional. When they are a person of color that is racist. Please reflect on this.”

This made her angrier. She began yelling and accusing me of causing unnecessary harm. During this confrontation Moshe moved to intervene. He calmly tried to explain to her why her words caused him hurt, and also why he thought I was wrong to have attacked her the way I did. We completely ignored him as we continued to quarrel. Eventually, I asked to see her boss and threatened to get her fired. She stormed off.

The dialogue: Was the goal to win or to learn?

We all left the situation feeling unheard, frustrated, and angry. I felt my heart beating, my palms sweating, and my head racing. Confusion echoed loudly through every inch of my body. I could not understand Moshe’s perspective. Nor, could I fathom how Linda was angry with me for being unable to see the harm she had caused. It was like a mugger being angry at the victim. We walked in silence for a while. Eventually, Moshe broke the ice. His tone was measured and direct.

“Warren you needed to say something. If you didn’t, I was going to. But to attack her like you did. That was not right. She stamped on all of our dignity, but by chastising her and calling her a racist, what were you trying to achieve? You have to go back there. You have to talk to her. I understand what you did. It was right. But how you did this was wrong.”

I reacted defensively but Moshe persisted. He stressed how I had correctly read the world, but chose the incorrect strategies and tactics to transform it. Linda had committed a microaggression by diminishing Shawn to the status of a child. This subtle yet obvious snub has historical roots in the colonial gaze (Ascroft, 2000) whereby the observed find themselves defined by the colonial observer’s own set of value preferences, often infantilizing and trivializing what it falls upon (Mishra, 2002).

He asked me what my ultimate purpose was in confronting Linda. Was it to prove that I was right and she was wrong, or, was it to achieve genuine justice? He reminded me of the many times my blind spots have hurt others. I was challenged to review how much change I would have achieved if I was treated in the same way I moved against Linda. If my purpose in writing that review was to be proven right, then I chose the correct strategy. If my purpose was to promote human dignity for all, which may include a better working environment for Shawn, then I fell short.

At that point, all Linda knew was that I called her a racist, which she denied. What good does this achieve from the perspective of justice? True justice must include understanding of how one’s own behavior promotes injustice. Then, reflection on how this realization can be transformed into behavioural change. At the very least, if we are to be consistent between what we say about achieving justice and what we do in reality, then Linda must be included in the conversation.

We agreed that the best approach would be to return and try to talk to Linda. But before we set off, Moshe asked me to consider why Linda and I ignored him during our confrontation. I responded that I felt it my responsibility as a White person to confront the racism that exists in our community. Moshe reminded me sternly that he understood racism better than I ever could, and that he expected to be an equal partner in whatever events were about to unfold. Linda was not the only person guilty of a microaggression in this broader situation. I realized that by previously excluding Moshe, we had invalidated his voice in the conversation, and perpetuated exactly what we were arguing about/against.

Changing the frame, shifting the aim

We walked into the tasting room less confident than we entered before. I was ready for a squad of security to roughly escort us off the property. My heart beat rapidly as we walked. I did not know whether to be on the attack or defense. This time, as I looked around the room, Shawn was nowhere to be found. Linda was situated behind the bar area organizing receipts and talking to a customer. I walked over and asked if we could talk. Linda agreed and the three of us headed to a more private area.

Linda immediately began the conversation. Her voice was calm and her manner engaged. She expressed relief that we returned to talk about what had transpired. Never in her life had she been called a racist. Which in her mind was the worst accusation that could ever be made against anyone. My actions hurt her, because she saw herself as a good person and an advocate for inclusion on the farm. By calling her a racist, she felt personally attacked and acted from a position of raw emotion. She apologized for acting unprofessional, and reiterated that she had never considered calling someone a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ as racist or derogatory. But when she cooled down and thought about it, she saw how it could be seen that way.

It became my turn to speak. I began by thanking her for stepping outside to dialogue about what had transpired and apologized for acting in such an aggressive manner towards her. I explained how hurt and how angry I felt by her comment because I had heard White people use the term ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ to diminish people of color so often as a child. This is part of why I refused to allow her microaggression to continue uninterrupted. But, I could have used means that recognized the work that we all must do in order to be more humane towards each other. If we are who we are because of other people, then we have a responsibility to believe in others’ ability to change, while doing our part to facilitate that process, just as we hope they would believe and participate in ours. I explained that what was required of me in this situation was humility, not arrogance.

Moshe had been listening intently, choosing the right moment to enter the dialogue. He spoke slowly, choosing his words very intentionally.

“Linda, I have known Warren for a long time, he has this tendency to shoot from the hip when he gets angry. He should not have spoken to you like he did. He should have called you aside and spoken to you properly. But he was angry, and so was I. I think it was the right thing that he did say something. If he didn’t I was going to. But, when I was trying to intervene during your argument you both ignored me. What I was trying to say was that I felt incredibly disrespected as a man, and as a Black man, when you referred to Shawn as a ‘little boy’. That was hurtful. Especially because he can’t say anything because his job could be on the line.

But also, and this is where Warren and I disagree. It was not just Shawn and I that were dehumanised in that moment, but you guys too. Warren, you have never been referred to as a ‘boy’ in that way because you are White. So when that happened, you were automatically put above Shawn and me. Linda, the same thing happened. You pushed us down to raise you and Warren up. It was so subtle, so obvious to Shawn and I, yet completely unnoticed by you, Linda. Whenever that happens we lose the thing that makes us human. I also want to say that I am sad that Shawn is not part of our conversation.”

Linda and I listened intently. As Moshe spoke I felt heavy within the moments where his reflection revealed how my existence as a person with white skin operated to take away from him and others. There was this urge to interrupt, to try to explain away his feelings. It boiled beneath my surface. But, I tried with all my might to just listen. As I listened, I experienced this deep sense of awe. In the circle, as we dialogued and peeled back the layers of power and privilege I felt a stronger connection and compassion for my friend and a greater understanding of Linda. She was humble and vulnerable and truly trying to listen, and so were we.

Linda concluded that going forward she wanted to be more aware of how she could be affecting others, especially because she has been referring to her colleagues as boy and girl since she began working there. How our conversation unfolded, she asserted, lifted a weight from her because she understood why I reacted the way I did. But, it also added another weight, the weight of responsibility to rethink about other areas she may be unwittingly cultivating an environment of half-freedoms.

We hugged one another and thanked each other for the deep listening and learning we had just experienced. As Moshe and I walked out, Linda joked that she thought when we came back we would yell at her and make another scene. We joked that we thought security was about to escort us off the farm, to which she replied: “I promise you I thought about it.

What can be learned from this?

Why should we care about this event?

As ‘insignificant’ as Linda’s words may have sounded, or as well intentioned as they may have been, they still deeply impacted the conscious and subconscious environment of the space. There is nothing micro about microaggressions. Micro may describe the subtlety of delivery, but it inadequately characterizes the magnitude of its impact on human life. Microaggressions are prevalent across our society, have harmful medical and psychological effects on the human body, and reinforce systemic structures of inequality, inopportunity, and discrimination. To include microaggressions as part of the broader struggle against injustice is to enable a fuller, more fundamental transformation of our society to take place at the relational level.

Situations involving witnessing, or being victimized by microaggressions are prevalent across our communities and around the world. In universities, Blume et al. interviewed students of color at a predominantly White university in the United States and found that on average, each student experienced 291 microaggressions over 90 days (2012). In South African classrooms, Francis and Reygan (2016) interviewed 25 South African teachers who overwhelming framed their Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) students in deficient and negative ways. Even adult and children’s clothing brands can be guilty of dehumanising others. In 2017, global retail giant H&M made headlines for portraying a young Black child wearing a hoodie for sale with the slogan: ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’.

Microaggressions are more than just hurtful statements. Chronic exposure to microaggressions leads to ‘micro-traumas’. Montenegro (2016) demonstrates that overtime, microaggressions lead to feelings of anger and anxiety which, over time, result in long term health effects and ‘micro-traumas.’ Cadinue et al., proposes that the adverse health effects of microaggressions included high blood pressure, depression, feelings of isolation, and decreasing problem solving ability (2005).

Microaggressions are a symptom of the broader intersecting system of oppression which operates at multiple levels in our society. While not operating at the same level as discriminatory events such as overt name calling, intentional blocking of opportunities based on an identity marker, or the deeper context of asset dispossession; the microaggression acts to maintain the existence of superiority of one group over another.

What could we have done differently?

Juxtaposing our confrontations with Sue’s (2010) framework for confronting microaggressions is useful to understand what we could have done differently. Sue suggests that the first step is to define microaggressions so that there is a shared understanding between the perpetrator and the victim. Then, Sue suggests that a process of recognizing the words, deconstructing their hidden meanings, and acknowledging their effects take place with the intention of taking action.

Our initial conflict began as a result of a framing and misunderstanding. I framed the conversation from the perspective of attack, rather than the perspective of learning. Our misunderstanding came from how we understood the word’ boy’ being used in this context. I and Moshe interpreted this word as a racialized slur. Linda understood the word as a term of endearment. It is at this juncture that the misunderstanding arose and led to the aggressive conflict.

When Moshe and I returned to dialogue with Linda, we unwittingly revisited the framework by ensuring Linda understood how the word ‘boy’ had led to the event. We shared how the word embodied a range of hidden meanings that triggered feelings of degradation. The power of our dialogue is the shared understanding of how using these words negatively impacts others and finally, how this understanding changes practice.



The above account describes two main microaggressive moments: Linda’s description of Shawn as a ‘little boy’, and our exclusion of Moshe from the conflict. By outlining the full sequence of events I attempted to demonstrate the complex nature of how the confrontation of microaggressions can play out. These events are centered on my experience and are open to multiple perspectives and interpretations. My hope is that through this event, and its subsequent analysis, a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how we arrive at moments of oppression shapes the outcome. While we need to act against injustice, we also need awareness of our strategies and tactics. As is the case in this situation, my actions regrettably led to diminishing the humanity of my closest friend and not fully serving to promote the interests of Shawn. Armed with these lessons, I will continue to confront oppressive practices and humbly align with all who work at the frontline of justice in our communities, countries, and the world.


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Blume, A.W., Lovato, L.V., Thyken, B.N., & Denny, N. (2012). The relationship of microaggressions with alcohol use and anxiety among ethnic minority college students in a historically White institution. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(1), 45-54

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Francis, D., & Reygan, F. (2016). ‘Let’s see if it won’t go away by itself’: LGBT microaggressions among South African Teachers. Education as Change, 20(3), 180–201

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Montenegro R. (2016) Microaggressions During Medical Training—Reply. JAMA. 2016;316(10):1114.

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(1) Not the estate’s real name. I used pseudonyms to replace the names of locations and people’s names to protect their identity.

(2)See Peters (2016). “Womxn” isn’t a typo. I chose to use this label in order to encompass a broader range of gender identities other than only “woman” or womyn.” The x allows space for individuals who identify as transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or non-binary.

What I Learned About White Privilege and Racism From Buying Bread

I love Portuguese rolls. Especially the ones from the bakery on the corner. These rolls are famous enough that they are greeted by many customers as they emerge at 10am, fresh from the oven and ready for an after breakfast snack. The half or full dozen rolls are prepackaged by the baker while anyone wanting loose rolls can manually put them in a packet. As I stood third in the queue with my three rolls waiting to checkout I noticed a white woman at the front with what looked like six rolls in a loose packet. “How many? the Black African cashier asked, not even looking up. “Five” came the reply. The item was rung up among other small items in the basket and the lady went on her way. In front of me was a Black African man who clearly had two rolls and a slice of polony in his hands. “How many?” the cashier asked grasping the rolls from him. “Two” he replied. The cashier looked down and counts the rolls before ringing it up with the polony. Without flinching, she administers his change and greets me with the same routine. I had a basket full of items, many of which were loose items. The cashier simply asked me how many of each item were in each bag, without removing them from my basket as she inputted into the register. I smiled, paid and left the shop.

Halfway down the block on the way home I realised what had just happened. How, despite constantly trying to be aware of various forms of my privilege, and take active steps to undermine them, had I completely missed this? Why was I (and the white woman in the front of the line) trusted to provide the right number of rolls to the cashier? Why, when it was so much easier to see the Black African man in front of me only had two rolls, would he have to be subjected to having it counted-was his word not enough?

As a young white multilingual South African committed to building South Africa, I was convinced that because I had family members who are Black and Brown I was exempt from racism and white privilege. I was often heard asking: “How could I be racist if I did not see colour?”;How, if I worked hard could I be accused of benefitting from apartheid?” or the classic: “I am not like those white people” (read: my racism is not as obvious as theirs). As I began to truly be honest and reflexive, I faced the reality that I am a benefactor of a racist society designed to affirm people that look like me, and dehumanise those who don’t. 

Despite the silence around race in our family, I found it particularly difficult to reconcile my love for my sister of colour from within a society that taught and rewarded me for being hateful towards people that resemble her. I eventually concluded that I could not be both: fully loving to my sister while being hateful towards people that resemble her. In this conclusion, I began to slowly face the realities of my own privilege and how these played out in the daily life of people around me: differently abled, women, immigrants, gay, lesbian, people of colour. The process began to shape my understanding of myself and the country I grew up in.

The connections and disconnections between white privilege and racism

As I deconstructed this bakery situation I saw the connections and disconnections between white privilege and racism. What happened in the bakery was an example of my white privilege playing itself out. That the white woman and I both received trust without earning it, compared to the fellow Black African shopper is a form of white privilege. McIntosh describes white privilege as the unearned advantages one receives because of the colour of their skin[1]. In the bakery, what separated our three experiences was not largely our gender, our language (we all spoke English), our overt socioeconomic status, nor our frequency to the bakery (I have seen these two at the bakery at least four times prior to this incident). Race appeared to be the deciding factor in this situation. Race determined who was trusted and who was not.

I cannot leap into the mind of the Black African cashier to understand why she counted his rolls and not ours. Nor can I ascribe any malice to the white woman or myself. I can, however, point to the fact that regardless of whether I or the white woman would admit, acknowledge, or take responsibility for (as opposed to deny, deflect or diminish) our white privilege, it still operated for us. It ensured that we were immune to similar experiences of human degradation in the form of a microaggression experienced by our fellow Black African customer. When I spoke to my best friend, who identifies as Black, about the bakery incident he was unsurprised. “Warren, this happens often when we are together, you don’t see it not because you are racist but because you have white privilege”. Lesson learned: Not all white people are racist, but all white people possess the advantages of white privilege.

On race

I came to realise that skin colour is not a neutral thing. It is not like eye colour, hand size or height. These things are not given the same meaning as what someone looks like. Skin colour means something in the world. It has power. What someone looks like determines how they are responded to (even so called colour blindness is purposefully emphasising a person’s race). In a country like South Africa, were racism is baked into the cake of our society, racism is our ‘normal’. It is the most normal thing about our abnormal society.

When we think of racist people, we often question people’s moral integrity. Racism, that is, discrimination against someone or a group because of the colour of their skin is often thought of solely as a matter of attitude. But, racism is not only about people. It is also about resources. Imagine that with a magic wand all interpersonal racism was destroyed and South Africans were able to have honest conversations with each other, what would we say? My hunch would be, and not only is this backed by people’s lived experiences and reams of data, that our conversation would be about how people of colour are still marginalised from resources in their own country. That despite how they may feel about us on an interpersonal level it still does not change how unfair the current status quo is.

If we were honest with our brothers and sisters of colour, we as white people in South Africa would admit our lack of genuine humility for our position in this society. We would admit that if true racism is about resources, then it is impossible for a person of colour to be racist. Think for a moment about the Black African cashier: was she racist or discriminatory? In the act of counting, she was discriminating. Even if she was overtly discriminatory towards myself or the woman, could she be considered racist? She may be considered discriminatory in that moment, but because she lives in a system that systematically deprives her of resources she cannot be considered racist. Although we all inherited this system that distributes resources unevenly, we as white people have a greater responsibility to play our role in building our country by working to diminish our privilege.

What can we all do?

Although not all white people are racists, all white people possess white privilege. Once we acknowledge this, what then? How can we as white South Africans play our role in building a united South Africa? It is important to recognise that because racism is a sickness in the white community, we as white people need to educate our white brothers and sisters–it is not for South Africans of colour to guide us on how to take responsibility for our own issues. If we truly love our fellow South Africans of all races then we need to be brave enough to interrupt symbols, conversations, practices, and institutions that foster oppressions of all kinds. Finally, we need to learn to listen to people of colour. Fighting for a more just society is about connecting to the humanity in all of us. Recognising our privileged position at the table, we as white people can learn to play our role without reinforcing the oppression we are advocating against. One cannot build the necessary society alone. Joining communities that can support your journey such as Awake SA and others is vital to continue the learning process necessary to build a country all our children can be proud of.

[1] McIntosh, P (1989). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peace and Freedom (1)


To read the article: White Privilege and the road to building a united South Africa, click here.



April 2015 in South Africa

Chapter 1: Azania House

It came down on the 9th of April 2015. A wrought, red iron crane wrapped around its arrogant body and lifted it from its mantelpiece. The singing crowd elevated as phones were lifted to capture the moment, blurred by the shoulders of fellow students. Amateur footage, real. A plastic bottle flies over the crowd and hits the dislodged statue with force, ricocheting into the distance as a group climb the fence, board the truck, and further deface it’s smugness with paint as it is driven away. Paint is better than faeces I thought. On second reflection, throwing faeces provokes talking and feeling. Today, shit palpably shifted the dominance of my history.