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.

 

Conclusion

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.

References:

Ashcroft, B. (2009). Caliban’s voice: The transformation of English in post-colonial literatures. Routledge.

Biko, S. (2002). I write what I like. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bill Ashcroft et al, Post-Colonial Studies (2000) p. 187

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

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Rosabianca, A., & Kiesner, J. (2005). Why do women underperform under stereotype threat? Evidence for the role of negative thinking. Psychological Science, 16, 572 – 578

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

Jardine, Z. (2016). “Heralded heroine: Why is Charlotte Maxeke’s life such a blurry memory for SA?”. Analysis. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 19 September 2016 from, http://mg.co.za/article/2016-09-08-00-heralded-heroine-why-is-charlotte-maxekes-life-such-a-blurry-memory-for-sa.

Maluleke, T. (1999). The misuse of ubuntu. Challenge, 53(12-13)

Marks, S. (1972). Khoisan resistance to the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Journal of African history, 13(1), 55-80

Mishra, V. (2002). Bollywood cinema. p. 245

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

Peters, E. (2016) Why I Choose to Identify As a Womxn. HerCampus at University of Washington. Retrieved from, https://www.hercampus.com/school/washington/why-i-choose-identify-womxn

Statistics South Africa (2015). Labour market dynamics
in South Africa, 2015. Retrieved from, http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/Report-02-11-02/Report-02-11-022015.pdf#page=167

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D.; et al. (2007). “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice”. American Psychologist. 62 (4): 271–286. Retrieved from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life

(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.

White privilege: Guilt, Responsibility and Hope

naturebeauty-28I live my life steeped in various forms of privilege–unearned advantages bestowed on me through countless means. As a male, I exist in a world that affirms my manhood. Anything considered strong, rational or heroic is applied to my gender. Because I am able-bodied, buildings are designed for my easy access; toilet cubicles for my comfort and bar counters are always just the right height to rest my arm on. As a cisgender heterosexual identified man, I feel no insecurity in people asking who my “girlfriend” is. I never worry about whether there will be a toilet for my gender identification or whether I will be killed for being who I am. Because, who I am, exists in a world designed to affirm me, and nullify others. Not only am I bombarded with positive messages about being a man, subliminally accommodated because my body is considered the standard, or praised for acting according to my genderized norm; I am also advantaged by my white skin.

For generations, my white ancestors used political, economic and social violence to dispossess, dehumanize and nullify people of color. Political assets such as colonial and apartheid laws reinforced economic dispossession and exploitation of people of color. All this was threaded together by a social system that created a false sense of security in the minds of whites, and a false sense of inferiority in the minds of people of color. The vision of post-apartheid South Africa is to address these triple attacks on humanity. And, while the political laws have been overturned, and with them a shallow respite for centuries of violence, the economic and social aspects of white advantage remain stubborn.

For myself and many other white people like me it was easy to see how overt racial laws benefited me. It was also easy to differentiate myself from blatantly racist people. However, what I struggled to recognize was how my unearned advantages, my white privilege, had blinded me to an everyday accumulation of power-and my complicity to the continued economic and social inequality in our country. I realized, just as I am able to be thought of by others as a good person without earning it, that I did not have to be racist to benefit from my white skin. This understanding prompted a journey wrought with guilt, shame, responsibility, and hope.

Boston_Protester_White_Privilege.jpg

My fist response to guilt was denial of complicity, deflection of reality and diminishment of other’s feelings. I always held the view that I was a person of integrity. Being told that I was complicit in others oppression felt like accusing me of being an immoral person. I would act defensively, angrily, and often with intimidation towards person’s speaking this truth. I eventually realized that by behaving in this way I was protecting my privilege and maintaining the unequal status quo in my favor. After eventually accepting that I had privilege, I began differentiating myself from those other white people. By pointing to their racism, I felt better about myself and my position as a white liberal. Talking about them made me feel special, ‘enlightened’ and gave me a new blanket of privilege to wrap myself in. In denying and deflecting, I never acted in ways to actually diminish my privilege. I could hide behind it while acting like I was actually against it.

Being part of a mixed race family, I was eventually confronted with a choice that brought immense shame. In situations when we would be treated differently based on our race in public spaces I soon learned that one is either against the system of racial oppression or complicit in it. In working against it, I soon learned that my privilege became a double edged sword: on one side, my privilege could be used to fight the system, on the other it merely reinforced itself. In these situations, I felt immense episodes of shame, especially because I would often hurt others through my ignorant behavior. The blindness of privilege, matched with the naivety of good intentions reproduced people’s pain.

©SydelleWillowSmith_sunshinecinema_PRESS-13Given the guilt and shame attached to benefiting from a racist society and a strong commitment to fighting all forms of oppression I also felt episodes of paralysis- the sense that I had no role in this fight because at the end, I would always just be another white liberal. This would often be followed by introspection and humility. I realized that privilege tricks you into believing that if you set your mind to eradicating it you can achieve it like any other goal. However, this is not how tackling racism works. Whites have a responsibility to be part of the process by working on ourselves before taking the fight to the system. We can only fight the system in partnership with, and under the leadership of people of color. We have no right to ask people of color how to deal with our issues—we have to face our position in society and confront what we say, how we behave and the actions we take to dismantle racism around us.

I have learned that racism is a sickness in our society. Its roots are deep and its impact on our nation has been devastating. Racism rips families apart, turns friends into enemies, and drives us away from each other when we really need to come together. It is also systemic, it is in the headlines we read (or don’t read), the unequal make up of our economy, and the ownership of land. All of which are skewed in favor of people that look like me. Until we answer these real questions in a more just way, we are merely talk-shopping. Nevertheless, I believe we all can be part of building a vision of a non-racist, non-sexist and truly just society. With this hope, and through action, I hope to learn and do more every day. I thank you for sharing this journey alongside me.

To read another article, White Privilege and the Road to Building a United South Africa click here or the image below:

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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.

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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)

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White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa

Credit: Sputnik 58

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” (Mandela, 1996)

“You [South Africans] are the Rainbow People of G-d.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1991)

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the term rainbow to describe the project of building a unified South Africa, he began a discourse about the nature of racial reconciliation in the country. Given this grand vision of racial harmony, many ask how we achieve its realization. Some contend that what threads us together is a feeling of exclusion, that “regardless of who we are, we all feel outside the box of South Africanness.” (Mashile, 2013). They argue that the project of building a non-racist, a non-sexist and an inclusive society in the form of a ‘rainbow nation’ is only a pipe dream or a failed experiment. These notions are reinforced given massive inequalities along racial lines that stubbornly persist on a daily basis. Continue reading