Climbing the mountain of Cape Town’s whiteness

2015-01-19 08:00

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Martina Dahlmanns blew the whistle on racism encountered by her friend Tumi Mpofu, who recently tried to go to dinner at a restaurant at the Twelve Apostles hotel in Cape Town. Mpofu asked Dahlmanns to make the booking, which was confirmed. The booking was subsequently denied when the visitors turned out to be black. This is Dahlmanns’ story of finding a diverse space in the Mother City

I have believed all my life that I am not racist. Growing up in Germany, I had struggles like everybody else. Our family wasn’t rich, but I am the white liberal, middle class woman who has lived most of her life blissfully unaware of her privilege. To tell me that race matters would have raised my eyebrows and my defences because, in my world, it didn’t.

Then, I adopted black children. I did not specifically ask for black children. And for the longest time, I really did not notice my child was brown. Sure, I battled with her hair and wondered how to care for the dryness on her little legs – but I managed and did not think I needed much help or advice.

But inevitably and oh so slowly, something dawned on me. So how come, I asked myself, there are no black dolls for my children, no black princesses or black heroes? Why did white people call me “race obsessed” or “crazy” when I brought up these things? Why did they turn away, or change the subject?

Later, when my children started speaking, another dimension opened, threatening to swallow me whole. My daughter, aged three, asked if a person her colour could drive a fancy car? I cried and ranted. I realised I needed help.

I desperately searched for something that would make all the difference, so my children would not grow up damaged and hating me, but knowing that their horizons were endless.

I read a lot. I learnt about white privilege, institutional racism, racial bias, cultural belonging and racial awareness. Those were all new terms to me and my consciousness grew. Until then, I genuinely had no idea.

But when did I learn to close my eyes to injustice and suffering? When did I harden my senses and assimilate the concept of “othering” – other people’s suffering, other people’s problems, other people’s children – to preserve my bubble?

Growing up, anybody not my colour was on the far periphery of my reality as “not really our kind”. “The poor children in Africa” was a story my grandmother told me repeatedly to get me to eat pea soup. “Who is afraid of the black man?” was a game we played in the school yard. And “10 little negroes” was a song I was taught, to learn how to count down.

We white people all have stories like that, stories we are ashamed of and stories that to this day hold power over us, mainly because we don’t allow them to surface and push them back into our subconscious.

Inevitably, they come out though.

They come out when I walk at night in my predominantly white neighbourhood and the black man walking towards me threatens me by nothing else than his existence; when the beggar at the robots doesn’t touch my heart, like a fellow human being should; when the pictures on the news showing black people’s tragedies don’t scare me as much as if they were showing white faces contorted with grief.

This doesn’t mean we are bad. It just shows our complacency, where we can’t be bothered to connect with a wider humanity. And even if we sometimes wish we had a more diverse group of people in our lives, we don’t know how to get there.

I knew that this was not what I wanted my children to grow up with. But I had no idea what to do about it. So I went on a mission to make black friends.

I lost white friends and gained a new perspective on life, friendship and rice. Why rice?

There was an awkward moment with our six dinner guests, all black new acquaintances. I had made rice and luckily some pasta, as one of our guests upon sitting down said he hated rice.

“Are you a rice-ist,” I quipped. It was a lame joke said in this too-loud, jokey voice I employ when I feel insecure. But it broke the ice. After a moment of silence, everybody burst out laughing. That was the first of many dinners, where we sat until well after midnight, children sleeping on laps and couches, discussing race and all the uncomfortable things we never knew how to talk about. This was when I started waking up.

No book on white privilege and no amount of introspection could have opened my mind and my heart, and at the same time challenge me in a way that my friendships do.

I still tread carefully. Will I not notice someone being racist towards my friend? Will I mess up by not defending her? Will I patronise her by stepping in and using my whiteness yet again to speak for her?

This is where the beauty of a living friendship outshines the set politically correct behaviours we largely live by in this society. I can ask my friend and she can let me know.

It has been a liberating journey and it’s not the end. We have a mountain to climb, but I believe we can.

This is an edited version of Dahlmanns’ blog, which you can read here

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