The race elephant in the room

2014-06-17 10:00

Rereading Steve Biko, columnist Milisuthando Bongela thinks there is an overdue conversation white South Africans can’t keep avoiding

It’s difficult to talk about race within my generation of allegedly postrace, simunye, neo-Africans. It’s not sexy. It’s not funny. It always makes the circle smaller and the fake smiles bigger.

To fall into favour with the dominant Waspy ideology, the trend for racially diluted hipsters is to talk about racism in the past tense and find common ground with the truism that it “was bad”, as if it’s over. I have not been doing well with this pretence of late.

“What do we do?” was the reply an acquaintance of mine gave when I asked her how she, as a white South African, deals with the effects of apartheid.

I’ve been asking some of my white friends this question because race is always a trending topic in my life. Whenever my black friends and I get together, the discussion inevitably turns to race.

We talk about it in the interest of healing, in the interest of debunking myths about the politics of skin colour, and in the interest of personal and social edification.

“Honestly, we don’t really talk about race,” said another friend of mine when I asked her whether she and her white friends ever talk about it.

I found this admission quite phenomenal but not surprising. Our discussion centred on the fact that, in order to redress the racial wrongs that were entrenched in us as South Africans, surely we all need to address the problem that made us all victims in varying degrees.

Our discussion was sincere and mutually enlightening, but at the end she asked me the same question as the acquaintance: “What do we do, Mili?”

On the one hand, the compassionate human in me wants to take my friends by the hand and help them figure out what they can do to heal themselves as young white South Africans who carry the guilt of being the benefactors of apartheid.

On the other hand, the realist in me says there are too many problems in the black community that need my attention as a black person and they need to figure their own problem out with their white brothers and sisters.

The tendency of some of my white compatriots, whether it’s in response to Facebook and Twitter posts, newspaper articles or general conversation is to earnestly engage with what have become known as “black problems”: poverty, service delivery, crime, HIV, corruption and the lack of black economic empowerment.

As if these problems started in 1994 and as if they don’t all have the same ancestor – white racism.

In this classic deflection trope, all citizens contribute to the discussions around the effects of apartheid, trying to put out its fire without touching the embers.

White racism victimised all of us. Yet I have not noticed among my white compatriots a dedicated practice of healing themselves of the effects of apartheid and colonialism as a

group, in their own communities, the way my black compatriots and I do when we discuss, discuss and discuss these two systems.

My foray into this territory is inspired by Steve Biko’s writing on the tendencies of well-meaning white liberals to try solve black problems instead of engaging with the problem at the foundation of the black man’s problems – white racism.

“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself. If they are true liberals, they must realise they themselves are oppressed, and they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification.”

Biko’s words are cutting, uncompromising and shocking to a mind that has not addressed the problem of racism from this angle.

Have white South Africans as a group fought enough to end this problem from within? Where are the Bikos of the white community who seek to do what black consciousness seeks to do for the black person, which is to heal blacks of their psychological illnesses?

When I hear my friends ask me what they should do with their complex positions as post-apartheid white South Africans, it tells me there is a missing dialogue in the white community.

Talk to us: How is race discussed in your home?

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