Racism: stop shouting, try listening

This column was first published on IOL, where I worked until November 2016. It is republished here, using the same date.

Cape Town – If a young black woman told you she didn’t particularly want white South Africans as friends, what would your reaction be?

If you were white, you might be offended.

If you were black, you might agree with her.

If you were a commenter on an online forum you would probably already be reaching for your handy stock of anti-black (or anti-white, as the case may be) insults.

But if you were sitting with that young woman in a carefully facilitated workshop about race, you might wait to hear more, to find out where she is coming from and why she says what she says.

I was in such a workshop this last weekend (called “The ‘Colour’ Elephant in the Room” and run by Alexa Russell Matthews and Nicole Joshua), and the young woman was responding to the question: “Who sits on your couch?” , or what colour/class/creed are your friends, and what does that say about your life and perceptions of race?

The workshop, at the South African College of Applied Psychology’s Festival of Learning, did not have many attendees (perhaps because it was a Saturday morning) but we were a representative sample: black, coloured and white.

A young coloured woman said her friends were mostly white. I said my friends were mostly white people who were not born in Cape Town, since white Capetonians rarely venture out of their ancestral stamping grounds, and the young black woman said what she said.

We moved on to some academic theory about the formation of racial identity.

In a simplified and truncated way this is what I understood: For black people the developmental path goes from pre-consciousness (not being aware of race) to trying to fit in with the dominant culture. The experience of racism might push a person into finding white people hard to deal with, and the eventual position would be one of being “proud to be me”.

For white people the arc would go from the understanding that being white is the ‘norm’ to an awareness of privilege (“white guilt”). A desire to fight for justice might follow, which could lead to an experience of blame – “othering” – from both black allies and fellow whites. Eventually, a white person might see herself as a work in progress, as someone always working on this issue.

Taken together (and this is my interpretation), on both sides of our racial divide, there is a lifelong process of alienation and discomfort leading, perhaps, to self-acceptance.

And that alienation is perhaps at the heart of the black participant’s feelings about white South Africans. As we talked through the theories, we went a little deeper into her comment. It turns out that she has many white friends from elsewhere in the world, and is simply tired of being required to make things okay for white “Saffers”. They want so much from her, she says, and reckons they need to work on their own problems.

That seemed reasonable to me: in my life as a manager, I have often had that same feeling.

That this discussion was able to take place gently and openly was a tribute to the facilitators and to the rules with which they framed the workshop.

I quote those in full here:

Ten Words on Communication

1. Thou shalt listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

2. Thou shalt engage both thy heart and thy head, emotion and reason.

3, Thou shalt seek to like “the other”.

4. Thou shalt dance, not fight.

5. Thou shalt not blame, shame or demonise others, or victimise yourself.

6. Thou shalt play for win-win, not win-lose or lose-lose.

7. Thou shalt respectfully establish areas of disagreement.

8. If you hear an idea that is new or strange, try it on for size.

9. If you tend to be quiet, “step up”. If you tend to dominate, ” step back”.

10. Speak from your heart and experience, and keep in confidence what others tell you.

(Words by Brian McLaren and Amahoro Africa Gathering)*

In the light of the anger we have seen expressed on campuses around the country, and the racial incidents in the news all the time, and the social media culture of racist intolerance, rudeness and insult, perhaps we should take a deep breath and try to have our conversations in this frame of mind?

* Unfortunately, the reference website for this no longer exists.

Main picture: Korney Violin, Unsplash

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