Once again racism is front-page news. Once again it threatens to upset the project of building a new South Africa, of undoing what has been achieved, of unraveling the sacrifices made by many.
At the South African Christian Leaders Assembly (SACLA II) held in Pretoria in 2003 thousands of Christian leaders, from all walks of life, identified racism as one of the seven giants that could destroy our new rainbow nation.
What has happened since then – did we fall asleep at the wheel? Is the rainbow nation dead?
During the Christmas recess I read two very interesting books, What if there were NO WHITES in South Africa by Ferial Haffajee and Run racist run: journeys into the heart of racism by Eusebius McKaiser.
They opened my eyes. I don’t agree with everything that was said but I cannot deny their experience.
It’s a perspective that – if I listen closely – challenges who I am and my place in this country.
I was struck by Markus Trengove’s comment as quoted by Haffajee. Trengove was one of the white UCT students arrested in the 2015 #FeesMustFall campaign).
He said: “I benefited from the injustices of apartheid. Although I did not choose it, my race, my gender and language have allowed me to inherit certain privileges. The right response is no longer to bury my head in shame. The right response is not to try to guard these privileges. The right reaction is to admit that there is an enormous injustice, but that my privilege has put me in a good position to remedy it. That is my privilege. That is my duty.”
McKaiser suggests whites should stop relying on their black brothers and sisters to solve their racial problems. Whites need to sort this out among themselves.
With these insights (being white, male and Christian) I decided to ask some awkward questions at a braai and around a restaurant table during the holidays. I wanted to test this “whiteness” thing.
It nearly cost me some of my best friends. I was even severely reprimanded for raising the subject.
The race issue was seen as “politics” and that wasn’t on the approved list of holiday topics.
I was amazed. My people seem to know very little about our history and the current challenges we face; about how others have experienced the transition and about what needs to change.
To me those were lightbulb moments. I agree with McKaiser, it’s time for white people to talk to other white people.
Whites need to own “whiteness”. We have to start by understanding why our fellow South Africans still experience racism as a daily reality.
We have to understand our personal role in allowing that to happen.
In my view, racism has to become a personal thing to whites if we are ever to deal with it seriously.
Nor can white people keep responding to others’ real experiences with the “yes- but” arguments – “its-not-me-its-other-whites”; “it’s-history-time-to-move-on”; “all-people-are-racists”; “blacks-are-just-as-bad”; and “economics/leadership/government/politicians-are-to-blame”.
How to move forward? I honestly am a bit clueless.
One thing I do know is that the situation isn’t getting better, fast. In fact, with the upcoming local elections we’ll likely see the race card played many times over in the next few months.
At the same time there is enormous goodwill out there. Project South Africa cannot be allowed to be derailed by ignorant individuals on social media or by cheap politicking.
My instinctive response was to act (we must do something); my first thought was getting white people together to talk about racism.
Let’s have a “whites only” workshop that addresses “whiteness”, “(un-earned) white privilege”, “decolonisation”, “guilt”, “reconciliation”, “inequality” and the other associated concepts and practices that need unpacking.
However, every time I play out the “whites-only” idea I hit a dead-end.
Yes indeed, whites must talk about why our brothers and sisters still believe we are racist. Yet such a conversation (whites-only) excludes the very people who are telling us that they feel nothing has changed.
Would we not be perpetuating racism, just in another way?
What a challenge! Clearly it is time to think out of the box. How exactly to do that I am not sure, but at the very minimum let’s begin a conversation.
Let’s begin to talk about “whiteness” irrespective how upset you are with the status quo and how much you disagree. Let’s START the conversation.
I still believe our country will become a light to the rest of the world. This is a unique opportunity to extend the struggle and find ways to embrace our diversity and deal constructively with one another.
We have work to do. As citizens, Christians and the church, at both a personal and community level, we have to wrestle with this issue and find a way forward.
Trevor Jennings is from Transformation Christian Network firstname.lastname@example.org