Thoughts on what it means to be a white South African

In the past few weeks, every United States email newsletter that I subscribe to has sent me some version of this: “We know about George Floyd, appalled, saddened. We promise to do better.”

I’ve read them, wondering if every single one of them is sincere, filtering them through my usual scepticism. I have also read them though a South African filter. And after thinking about it a lot, I have decided to try to express what I’ve been feeling. And what all this could mean for my fellow white “Saffers”.

Here, we have had many George Floyds, in a deeply troubled and brutal history going back centuries. We all live with racism hovering somewhere in the foreground or background of our lives.

Because I am a white South African, the circles I move in tend to be more pale than colourful. In that context, I try not to get involved in discussions about race, because they aren’t generally all that useful. There’s a lot of “what-about-ism”, and a lot of denial. Often people are defensive, or angry, or stuck, and you can’t make progress when those barriers are up.

But if I did speak, if I thought people could properly hear it, it would be to say this, gently: white people, you are all racists. And I am too.

What racism is

That viewpoint has taken years to evolve. The genesis was a workshop I attended many years ago, when I worked at a progressive NGO in what was then the darkness of apartheid South Africa. I am over-simplifying here, but I had been raised in a household that was against the Afrikaner government. In South African terms, I was “left-wing” and at the NGO to do my bit in the struggle against apartheid.

The workshop leader was there to help the NGO and its staff deal with their apartheid demons. She gave us a view of racism that went like this: it is the founding principle of the colonial project, and part of a world view in which white people oppress black people. Therefore, it is impossible for black people to be racist. They can be prejudiced and discriminatory and general idiots, of course, but they can’t be called racist. (I am aware I am condensing a complex argument here – for more, this is a good introduction.

After my initial shock and denial and bargaining, I began to think about that concept. In the end, whether it is “right” or “wrong”, I adopted it as my own way of working through a horrible, tangled mess. (Many years ago, a friend described the process of beginning to solve a problem as finding the end of the string in a tangled ball of wool. It’s a metaphor that has always worked for me).

Unpack and repack

I find it personally helpful to accept that I am racist (because I was raised in that context), and to work every day on questioning my assumptions about people and my interactions with them. Every time I react to something in ways that reflect the worldview in which I was born, I take a step back and unpack. And then pack that suitcase again, differently this time.

To give the smallest of examples: I was raised in a house where we did not have a domestic worker but we did have a man who came to work in the garden once a week. In the cupboard under the sink, there was a separate cup and plate for him. Later, when I was sharing a house as a working person, we employed a domestic worker. When it was time for her to have tea and a sandwich, one of my housemates put out one of our own plates and a mug for her. With a profound jolt, I remembered that separate plate for the gardener, saw how dehumanising that had been and never again put out separate crockery for anyone in my house.

My life as a South African is full of such jolting moments, and always will be.

Part of the “unpacking” in this journey involves looking at white privilege and at guilt. I think it is guilt about privilege that lies at the bottom of the stuckness I see all around me. When I can, and when there seems to be space, I say: if you accept that you are racist, you can start to think about how you have been and are privileged, and you can start to work through the guilt.

(I’d also say: Accept that black people are not interested in you explaining how you feel about your privilege or in your endless “yes buts” and “what abouts”.)

What to do?

In the end, my sure-to-be-unpopular advice to white people is simple: Take personal responsibility for your part in things. Talk less. Keep your eyes and your ears and your heart open. And, when appropriate, ask: how can I help?

And – a (small) place to start

In recent years, I have had the pleasure of shifting my worldview even further. I work part-time at a website called That means that I spend a lot of time immersed in news from countries around the continent. That news overwhelmingly reflects black Africans going about their business – in ways in which you don’t often see (yet) in the South African media. It has been a subtle and yet profound on-going jolt to my brain and to my feelings. I recommend a daily visit to the site as a challenging starting point in an ongoing listening project.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

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