Do Black Lives Matter?

“That justice is blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise:

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes.”

– Langston Hughes

Do you know what it feels like? It feels like it’s all been too much and I am tired. Daily we talk of death, of illness, of people without means to earn a living. The numbers climb, the effects of the pandemic gets closer and closer to home. Then to witness a death; images and videos that would play on an infinite loop. It was all too much.  Too much, so I hid. Too much, so I lied, but only to myself, the worst sort of lies. I would watch George Floyd die once, yet he would die a million times over in my mind. Everyone was speaking about it, everyone was outraged. Me? For me it was all too much. It’s still all too much, so I divert my thoughts. I can’t write or talk about it without the anger spilling over. It’s too much, so I hide, I believe in my invisibility and impotence.

We have seen the knee on the neck of a black man, we have seen his life brutally stolen from him, we have cried, we have rallied, and we have used social media to launch our protests. So shocking, so jarring was the senseless brutality, that no one could be unmoved. And so, we reacted. And so, we allowed our divisions and our privilege to emerge- as deep and as enduring as the laws that were once put in place to keep us focused on race as identity. In the blink of an eye, South Africans were transported to our own violent history, in the blink of an eye we were reminded of two things; the worthlessness of a black life and of our ability to deny blame. I wondered if those who responded to the situation with “All lives matter” and talk of the farm murders in South Africa, were the same people who believed that it was “God’s Army” that targeted, and systematically tortured and killed activists during the apartheid. I wondered if, in amongst everyone that took to social media, we genuinely believed in our collective humanity, or if after a post we would still look to black people and ask, day after day, for proof of their humanity. I wondered all of this because we did more than just revisit our history and open old festering wounds; we also created villains who would allow us to absolve ourselves of blame. And as Hans Rosling wrote, once we create villains, we stop thinking.

Would you villainise the police and condemn brutality? Would you villainise Trump and the hate that spews from his mouth? I would. I would do it because I was angry, I would do it because having a face to direct my outrage helps. It helps to name this feeling as anger, and it helps to shift that anger towards someone. Or would you rather villainise the protestors, the looters? Perhaps you knew all along that power at the hands of a black man meant destruction, perhaps the creation of villains had happened long ago in your mind. Whoever you chose, whichever side you were on, there were victims and villains. But where did that leave you? Because here’s what creating a villain does- it helps your anger, it turns your cheek so you can’t see your face in the mirror. Because if you did, you’d see your knee on the neck of a dying man, you’d see that you, just like me, are a villain.

I think of a South African villain, a man known as “Prime Evil”, and how he once said that all his acts of violence, the atrocities he committed, the deaths, were all for nothing at the end, “We all could have been alive having a beer”. Lives, families and to many, hope, crumbled at the hands of this man, “all for nothing” at the end. I have read numerous accounts of horrific acts that Eugene De Kock committed or orchestrated, and nothing jarred me as much as that one statement. To think of the destruction of lives, of the lost potential and to hear from someone whose hands could never be washed clean that it should have never happened, struck a cord so deep with me. No lives should ever be lost in this way and while we know it as a fundamental truth, we are slow to action. Perhaps what scares me is that when we look back years from now will we say that George Floyd died for nothing? That his death, while so public, so viscerally demanding, would one day mean nothing? It scares me that even though we’re shocked and appalled to watch a man die like an animal in the streets, we will still be the ones that keep our knee on his neck. It scares me because we don’t see our own culpability in this mess. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when all you do is put up a post on Facebook. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you believe in the lie that is white competence, when you say you didn’t hire black talent because you couldn’t find it. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you ask “Was the apartheid that bad?”. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you don’t pay your domestic or your gardener a living wage. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you propagate racist jokes or condone racist slurs. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when we rob people of opportunities to live a life they chose to value. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the visibility, I applaud those who have shown up in some way or form, but it is not enough. It is not enough to be act only when you’re outraged. Black lives will never matter until we internalise our role, until we see that the knee on the neck does not belong to one person but to all of us. If we do not acknowledge our privilege, if we do not truly condemn the systems that serve us, will black lives ever matter?

Everyday Racism: The “Good Guy” aka the benevolent racist

Let’s preface this blog with a disclaimer; I love creating villains. To create a villain is to bask in the ideology that I am right and that I have been wronged. It truly is a beautiful space where absolutely no thinking occurs, and I can spend the currency of my intellect picking dirt from under my nails. Wonderful, right? So, it’s natural that it was these villains that I was drawn to when I first started thinking and writing about race. It was the guy in the two-tone shirt flying the old South African flag in his backyard. It was friend who used the “K” word. It was the woman who could voice her hate in hushed tones to me because even though I wasn’t white, I wasn’t black either. I am drawn to these overt racists for a reason; they’re easy to spot and they’re still arrogant and ignorant enough to not think about what is socially acceptable before they speak. They are the ones we love to hate because there is nothing to debate, the burden of proof falls away and we can look at them with disgust and horror from our vantage point of superiority. These are a special bread of human, no doubt. And that we take notice of them is great, we should. They should inspire anger and conversation. But I wonder about the rest of us, the everyday racists, the ones who navigate social settings carefully, the ones who know just what to say and to who. Never the villains nor the heroes, these are the everyday racists. And they’re us, all of us. They’re harder to spot because they’re good people, they are mothers, they are friends, they are you and me. Not ready to believe me yet? Let me introduce you to one character you may recognise, the “good” guy aka the benevolent racist.

What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person?

I’ve met him. I’ve been horrified by some of the things he has said. I’ve laughed at his jokes. He’s sat across the dinner table from me. I’ve been impressed by the compassion he showed his gardener and his domestic worker. I’ve thought he was a good guy. I’ve thought he was a bad guy. I’m beginning to believe he is both. Here’s the issue we have with the “good” guy, he actually seems to be one and we like him. So, he can’t possibly be racist, right? Racists are terrible humans, they are always the villains of the story, they believe that pigmentation should serve to create masters and slaves. They are ugly, mean spirited people. But what if that wasn’t all that they were? What if that was the truth, but only a part of the truth? What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person? What if that person you saw giving money to the beggar on the street was racist? What if the person standing next to you volunteering at the soup kitchen was racist? What if people you loved dearly, people in your family, were racist? What if you looked at yourself, examined your thoughts and actions and found bias because of race? Would you no longer be a “good” person? Would everyone stop being good people? Tough questions, I know, but it’s questions we must ask.

It’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions

I raise the point of the benevolent racist because it’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions and quite frankly, I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated because every time a benevolent racist is given benefit of the doubt, it is a missed opportunity to course correct. I’m frustrated that we’ve protected these benevolent racists in our social circles, in our families and at work. I’m also frustrated by people who tell me how “good” they are, or who try to prove that they “don’t see colour” when I call them out on their bias. It’s great that you’re putting your domestic worker’s kids through school, it really is, but sorry buddy, that does not automatically cure you of racism. I think it’s wonderful that you have a black friend, less wonderful when you use said friendship as some sort of a “get out of jail free card”, though. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person, you’re probably not, but I am saying that you’re ignorant or worst still, you’re arrogant enough not to know you’re ignorant. But I guess what I am most frustrated about is the well-meaning racist, the good guy who can’t keep the condescension out of his voice, the guy who tells you that if people weren’t so lazy, they’d be able to make something of themselves. It’s also the same guy who believes he made it out of “poverty” by sheer will and determination alone. It’s easy to pick this guy out. He’s often the one giving well-meaning advice, oblivious to the anger or blank stares he’s getting in return. It’s that guy that really gets me angry. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a benevolent racist always believes he’s entitled to weigh in on a conversation that he probably understands very little about. Maybe I’m just an angry brown woman and I should learn to listen when men talk to me lest I decide to form my own opinions. Apologies for making this a male thing, be sure the “good” guy was meant to refer to both men and women alike, I guess my recent interactions with white men talking to me about race and feminism has skewed my writing a bit (read flared my temper).

If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional

As I write this I wonder if there is a cure. Is there a cure for the “good” guy or the benevolent racist? I suppose to start thinking about a cure, one first needs to start by acknowledging the problem and I guess we all have a part to play in this cure. For me the message is clear, whether you think of yourself as “good” or not, whether you have good intentions or otherwise, outcomes and consequences matter. They matter far more than what we think of ourselves or what we wanted to achieve. So, I present to you this idea that is as startling in its simplicity as it is difficult to do, when faced with a situation where you see bias, confront it. When faced with a situation when someone calls you out on your bias, listen. When I say confront it, decide for yourself what that means, even if it is an acknowledgement to yourself about your own discomfort, it’s better than ignoring it. When I say listen, I mean, don’t defend yourself, ask the person talking to say more, maybe take some time to think about your actions. If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional. If someone says something that makes you feel guilty about your privilege that’s on you, not them. You do not get a get out of jail free card no matter who you are or what wonderful things you’re doing with your life.

I don’t believe that we are either good or bad. We are entire beings who sometimes do good things and who sometimes don’t. We are more than the sum of those actions. But, for goodness sake, if you must insist on being the “good” guy or protecting one, then at least change your definition of what that means. A real good guy is one who is able to acknowledge his or her own bias. A real good guy knows that he will mis-step. A real good guy knows that she will get it wrong sometimes and who isn’t afraid of holding up the mirror to herself. Most importantly, a real good guy isn’t willing to hide behind being the “good” guy, he knows that won’t get us anywhere.

I think you’re pretty (ugly)

Husband is somewhere along the west coast of our African motherland and I find myself looking at his profile picture as we chat during what has become a ritualist nightly call. He has stolen my picture for his own and it features the two of us smiling stupid happy holiday smiles, you know the kind. It’s the kind of smile that will have you wishing you could kick us in the teeth whenever we start talking about how amazing our holiday was. It’s odd to stare at myself in this way and I’m soon distracted by the weird notion that I look nothing like the way I imagine myself to look. “I look like an alien,” I tell Husband, narrowing my eyes and pushing my head forward to be more alien-like. “I mean, have you ever really looked at me?” By now my head movements mimic what I assume an alien surveying it’s reflection must do while Husband happily ignores the sound of my imagination running away with me. He probably throws in the noncommittal “You don’t look like an alien” or “What are you talking about?” but I am persistent, and becoming more convinced of my alien-ness by the second. “Seriously, I think I’m an alien,” A dramatic pause before my transformation is complete,”I look like something Sigourney Weaver gave birth to.” It’s his laughter that distracts me and its only much later that evening I find myself unable to sleep with two thoughts running through my mind- what does it mean to be beautiful and perhaps more pressingly, can I stream any of the Alien movies on Netflix?

Body hang-ups and my naturally tendency to be self-deprecating aside, I’ve never considered myself beautiful. You couldn’t throw that word at me, it wouldn’t stick. It would bounce off my disproportionately large nose, it would be confused by my small eyes and be terrified of my frizzly hair, in much the same way my forehead is. It’s not a word I identify with, but I do identify with it’s absence. With it’s absence in my ordinary brown eyes, it’s absence in the darkness of my skin, its absence in my common features. I remember my first taste of Toni Morrison, a woman whose words would move me and devastate me in equal measure, when I read The Bluest Eye. The poetry in her words, the twisting and intertwining of race and beauty, struck in me a way that I will never forget. The book was published fourteen years before I was born, yet I read it and know that we still hold true, today, notions of white beauty.

I grew up in a community where everyone apart from domestic workers, gardeners and a few people I went to school with, were the same as me in as much as how the South African Government labelled us “Indian”. Who were the pretty girls at school? Who were the ones we called beautiful? They were girls with light skin and every now and again, they were girls who had light skin and  had “different colour” eyes. It is with a deep ache that I wonder if we were any different from Pecola Breedlove fervently wanting those blue eyes. To this day it upsets me when I see people mask the true colour of their eyes, there is a desperation in it that I cannot bear. To compare someone to a white person, to mistake someone for a white person was a compliment of unparalleled magnitude. We bestowed a ridiculous degree of value on anyone who did not have typical “Indian” features. We built and continuously reinforced the idea that there was no beauty in what we were born with, or if there was, it was only to be found in the exception. The mirror was your friend if it held the reflection of someone other than you, but perhaps with just the right light you could mask your inherent brownness. The sun was not your friend, after long, salty and satisfying days at the beach people would often look at me disapprovingly and tell me how dark I had gotten. A pretty girl with dark skin- the notion didn’t exist but perhaps you could like her if her parents were rich, you’d never totally think she was good looking but at least she’d throw great parties and buy you awesome birthday presents. I remember the first time I said someone who had dark skin was beautiful, I whispered it. I said it defensively, waiting for someone to disagree with me. My guy friend at the time just looked at me and said “Her?”, as if he didn’t even see her, as if she didn’t even exist to him. But she was beautiful, I bet she still is.

When we got older, the boys would boast about talking to/making out with/pretending to have carnal relationships with white girls. This story was so predictable it almost became boring. No matter what she looked like, she was a conquest, something unattainable, something more valuable than an Indian girl because she chose to bestow her white light on some stupid child dressed up as a man. While the other boys would be in awe of the one who had slayed the white woman, the message to the girls was clear, you’re good but there’ll always be better. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wish all of us married and had babies with people outside of the social construct that we call race. In fact, I think part of the “Indian Problem” is that we did not dilute our bloodlines once we got off the ships all those years ago. So, I don’t take issue with that. What I did take issue with was boys who believed in the inferiority myth that was sold to them the moment they took sight of their brown skin. What I take issue with is that it’s a myth that’s still be traded today.

A young white girl came up to me once and asked me if I was a witch. She just walked up to the table I was sitting at, starred right at me and asked me flat out “Are you a witch?”. I was thrown and secretly excited to be thought of as spellcasting, evil creature until I realised that she may have also associated ugliness with witches. It took me a beat to realise she may have been calling me ugly. Whenever I think too deeply about it, I remember that as a child I believed that an axe murder was waiting outside my second storey bedroom window (he was a crafty murder who carried around a ladder and an axe when he went visiting young girls in the middle of the night). I remember that a child’s mind is rich ground for the invention of stories and I remember that, despite their irrelevance, there are some stories children don’t outgrow. And as much as I wish I could retell those stories, rewrite those stories, I can only retell and rewrite my own. So, while I know I am no witch and I can happily cast aside the title of White Child Thinks I’m A Witch, I need to learn to love who I really am. Even if it is Brown Girl With Ordinary Brown Eyes. But that will come later, for now I’m settling for Alien Birthed From Sigourney Weaver. I mean even she thought her babies were pretty, so I guess that’s as good a starting point as any.

Talking to White People About Curry

Two things. One, this is a rant, its prone to be a bit snarky and sarcastic and boy am I going to over-exaggerate. And two, I get it, seriously I do. Even as someone who did not grow up eating curry, I can still appreciate the flavour and how the smell of a curry is probably one of the most comforting and enticing aromas in the world. So, curry is phenomenal, no arguments there. It’s not curry that I have a problem with, it’s not even talking about curry that I have problem with. What irks me is the unimaginative, lazy assumption that a brown skinned person such as myself is a chilli loving, curry munching, cutlery adverse Indian (for record, I am, happily so). It’s not so much that I am not those things, I am those things. But that’s not all I am, and the fact that that needs to be stated says something about how little respect is present during these exchanges. Now, I’m not saying don’t judge me, I’m not saying that you should short wire the thing in your brain that sees me and connects the dots to Bollywood movies, curry and my propensity to ask for a discount. No, go ahead do all of that, but please, for goodness sake, can you just keep it to yourself?

Most days, if we’re talking about curry, I’ll offer to give you a fool proof recipe, and if I like you enough, I’ll even share my spices. But what really gets my goat is how so very, very often, someone I’ve known for all of five seconds starts talking to me about curry. Whether it’s about a new Indian restaurant that opened in some obscure location that I’ve never been too (sorry my curry radar must have malfunctioned on that one) or about how they have a curry recipe book from Durban (with recipes from white people in the book-gasp). And of course, I am the “heat police” so these people are also often the ones who tell me how they love a “hot” curry but at how their son/daughter/neighbour’s cat can’t so much as look at a pepper without their eyes watering. Man, it frustrates me. It frustrates me that when these human-like creatures see me, they’re too lazy to do anything other than shove a stereotype at me and expect my gratitude. What am I supposed to say? Thank you, Baas, for even taking notice of me and talking about something my little Indian mind can understand- curry. I would be lost without your kind words.

Why does it piss me off so much? Maybe it’s because you don’t see me when you say those things. Maybe it’s because instead of being a fully formed person with all of the complexities beneath your white skin, to you, I’m just a cardboard cut-out, a one-dimensional creation capable of constructing delicious curries or dancing around in colourful outfits, but not much else. And maybe, just maybe, that version of me serves you far better than the real version, the real version that is driven and capable in a way that scares you because the world is no longer your playground. I won’t pretend that I fully understand what the apartheid and the years prior of colonial rule did for a white person’s psyche in our country. And I won’t pretend that I understand how the shifting power dynamics in our mythical rainbow nation has tampered with those deeply lodged beliefs. But I do know a fight for relevance when I see it, and I do know that it’s easier to find ways to propagate your own myths than it is to see to the truth sometimes. What frustrates me about this sort of judgement and the ill formed belief that you are entitled to spew your rubbish at me is that it is degrading and disrespectful. Your arrogant, small mind looks for validation of the norms that your ignorance has created, and you smirk and reward yourself every time you’re able to reaffirm your stupidity. You presume that all people who look like me must certainly fit a box. Why bother to see anything different, we are not such complex creatures, right? You probably have these boxes for a lot of groupings of people, even those that look like you. Except, I suspect that for those who fit the box wherein you find yourself, you’re far more generous in terms of acknowledging higher order intelligence.

Yeah sure, you don’t know any better, of course there is that. Of course, there’s no intended malice, of course you’re a “nice person” and it’s not as if you called me a “Coolie” or anything. Of course, your belief in your superiority is so deeply entrenched that conjuring it is as easy as breathing for you. Of course, it is up to me to be open minded and to show you the error of your ways even when you will not see it. But can I just, if only for today, be sick of this? Can I just, if only for today, be an angry brown woman who is frustrated by the split second judgements and by the stupid comments? Can I just, only for today, not talk to White people about curry?

Why I am (still) writing about race

We’re almost a month into a new year, we’re a quarter of a century into our democracy and it’s been two weeks since my last chocolate. I remember when I started this blog, my very first post dealt with race and even though I’ve covered a vast and maddening array of topics since, it seems like the race one is slightly stickier and more persistent. I have written people off for being racist, I have argued and shouted when I shouldn’t have, I have wept with despair and I have forgiven under the embrace of understanding. In so many ways, we have made wonderful, profound steps forward and I have tried to use my voice, sometimes in anger, sometimes with compassion, sometimes in disbelief to try to quell the fires of prejudice and ignorance. I have not always succeeded. But through success or failure, one thing has become alarming evident, we must continue to try. If we do not first acknowledge the problem, we can never attempt to resolve it. We are not a racially blind nation, we are not without bias, overt or otherwise, and as much as it is exhausting, we need to keep talking about this. I am unapologetic for my persistence in this regard and if you are one of the many who are tired of talking about race, then know, so too am I, but I am far more tired of how racial dynamics play out and of our refusal to see certain uncomfortable truths. So, I am still writing about race, and this is why.

Was it that bad?

It is one of those wonderful South African afternoons, where the setting sun brings with it a light of possibility and serenity. I have always loved the part of the afternoon that creeps into evening, it’s light forgiving and gentle. The beer in my hand is perfectly cold and I find myself sitting under an old tree that embraces the picture-perfect sky. I don’t quite remember what strange turns the conversation has taken around me but at one point the person sitting next to me says “Was it really that bad? I mean look at you, you obviously made it out okay.” I’m not so much angry as I am surprised by his comments. I have never heard anyone utter those words about the apartheid. “Was it really that bad?” I heard what he said, but I also heard what he didn’t, Do we have to always talk about this? When will people realise that the apartheid also brought infrastructure and development? And finally, I don’t think you’re black enough to be complaining. I could not answer, so I shut my mouth and frowned at him. The question kept playing over and over in my head while he looked at me as if to confirm his initial suspicion that I was no match for his intellect. What could I have said in that moment when faced with someone who could think of the gross human rights violations, the indignity of apartheid and feel apathetic? Was it really that bad- beyond the subjugation, beyond the senseless deaths, beyond the fact that to be black was not be human? Was it really that bad? It was in that moment that I left as though I had no language with which to communicate with him. It was in that moment that I felt deeply sad. Maddeningly, I know that he is not the only one who feels this way.

I wonder if apathy is a form of violence, to see someone, to know the horror of a combined past, yours and theirs and simply think, That did not really happen, It wasn’t really that bad. You see me, but you cannot hear the truth in my words, they are an exaggeration. You are blinded by your privilege, so you do hear my truth, it was never your world and maybe even then if you are forced to consider that part of what I am saying is the truth, you probably think that I deserved it. That my skin made me less than you. So, you dismiss me and with it you dispense of accountability. It is my problem and clearly it is time that I got over it. In a way, that dismissal is so much more than trying to prevent a discussion on racism, it is a dismal of a person, of their experiences and of things that shaped their identity. There is sorrow and a deep, deep hurt in that refusal to acknowledge another, in that refusal to see another’s humanity.

And so, I write for the man who asked if the apartheid “was that bad”, I write for the people that you know who are like him, for the people who ask, “What do you expect from me?” for those who refuse to acknowledge the part they play, the unearned privilege bestowed upon them. I write for those who will never read this, those who continue to struggle with ill-begotten superiority that has proven to be fragile in our new democracy. I write, because it wasn’t that bad, it was far, far worse than anything I could shape with words. I write because I must.

The curse of the Charou and the “civilised” blacks

A weird thing happened to me when I moved out of my hometown a few years ago; my perspective changed. Also, it was the first time in my life where I lived in a neighbourhood where almost no one looked like me. Well if I’m being honest, it was the first time I lived in a neighbourhood so white I’m shocked the whole community didn’t glow in the dark. I was surprised, hurt even, when racism and prejudice started to rear its ugly head. Hadn’t I moved up in the world from growing up in an “Indian area” to now living the high life in a “White area”? Wouldn’t my granny talk with pride when she said that I had White neighbours? I was quick to complain, to talk of the ever evil White Man and I found sympathetic ears in my family who shared my outrage and roared at the injustice of It All. I read anything and everything I could about our country’s history, I spoke to anyone who’d listen and of course, I sought solace in writing. Maybe I was too busy doing all of those things to actually see the wood from the trees, maybe that’s why when I heard the phrase in reference to Black people “They’ll always have one foot in the bush” at a family gathering, all I could do was feel shame and anger.

Now, I don’t intend to make excuses for my family, but here’s the backstory- not unlike “the boy who can’t be named”, it’s ugly and not something I like talking about. I grew up, as did my mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents, in what the Group Area’s Act labelled an “Indian Area”.  When people tell me that the past is the past, I often think about how long-lasting and crippling the effects of such segregation really is. Outside of my racial grouping, I met poor Black people who were maids, or “boys” (who did garden work or any other kind of manual labour required) and I saw White people on TV so, of course, they were special and to be revered. I would live a childhood where Black men were referred to as “boys”, irrespective of age, they would never be men. Black women had no voice other than the one their Madame gave them. For the maids or “boys”, we would have special crockery and utensils, often chipped and placed far away from the normal plates and cups we would use as if it was permanently unclean. We would take our leftovers and pile them high on those chipped plates and say “Here you go Black person, look how generous I am to you!”. I remember competing with a White school at some event and giving up even before we began because I knew I would never be as good despite topping my grade in my Indian school. A hierarchy had been developed, clearly isolating “us” from “them”; white was right and black was bad. For the Indians caught in the middle, sure times were rough, but we never forgot that the White Man thought better of us than the Blacks. Sure, I’m oversimplifying and I know that many Indian men and women fought to bring about change during the dark days of apartheid but this isn’t about them, it’s about the rest of us.

The apartheid had served to denigrate and dehumanise our Black brothers and sisters and you know what, some of “us” were happy about it. Some of “us” looked on and thought, “Well, that’s great because the White man is good to me, and they belong in the bush in any case”. Better them than “us” right? Yes, our Indians are hardworking, they’re clever and those Blacks are just lazy. No matter what, dear self-esteem, no matter how lowly and horrid of a human being you are, you will never be as bad as “the Blacks”. Why do some of “us” need that to be true so desperately? Do we believe ourselves so unworthy that we need to place an entire race beneath our boots to feel better? I am selfish in writing this because what lies within my anger at this kind of talk is shame. I am ashamed that people in my family still tell me of how “some Blacks are different”, how they met a Black person who “was so civilised and well-spoken” and how worried they are because their neighbours are Black. I wonder sometimes if the ideals of a non-racial society that I thought I was raised on were just a myth, a bedtime story. How can I even believe that we’re making progress as a country if this exists within my own family? All the while I had been growing and changing and somehow, I left parts of my family behind. Is it not the responsibility of the younger generations to challenge our thinking, to break the mould? I had failed those closest to me.

I know that I’m probably going to make a few people angry with this post and I deserve that but South Africa deserves more from us. Change takes time, but we will never move forward until we start being honest. If I’m being honest, I am disappointed with some of my family and with some people close to me but I am probably more disappointed in myself for not making my voice heard. I’m disappointed with myself for thinking that change would happen without me being actively involved in it. So, if you are a Charou like I am, or if you’ve identified with what I’ve written, I urge you to do what I am doing. That is; start the conversation, disagree with your elders or peers, speak up even though you may not be heard at first. And whatever you, do it gently, everyone knows how proud “our Indians” are.

What if I was born white?

There are things we don’t say, there are things we are too scared to talk about. We tip toe around sensitive topics because we don’t want people to feel bad. Hey Mr White Man, I know you didn’t earn everything you have in your life but don’t think I’m trying to make you feel bad about it, it wasn’t your fault. We create islands of politeness and steer our conversations carefully around them. All the while we still seek acceptance, we fear the rejection that the truth will bring. Don’t treat me differently, I’m just like you Baas. I’m just like you. I’m just like you, apart from the fact that I’m actually not.

Had I been born White, I would have been born to a land that favoured me. I would have been born to a country who stacked the odds in my favour. In a country where over 50% of our population is poor, I would have been born to a race that doesn’t equally share that burden. As I entered the world of employment, I would know that of all the races in our country, I belonged to the only one with a single digit unemployment figure. I would have entered the world of employment never once having to prove that I was more than just the “employment equity candidate”. Had I been born White; my skin would have been the same colour as every single person I have ever reported to throughout my career. In meetings with my non-white counter-parts, people would turn to me for answers irrespective of seniority. Maybe when my non-white colleague tells me that prejudice exists and that even unconsciously, racial biases are prevalent in the workplace, I could chalk it down to an exaggeration. I mean, weren’t there more people of colour in the workforce now than 20 or 30 years ago? I may not get the point, but I may be eager to talk of how biases exist against white people in the workplace, providing a wealth of examples, all the while not realising that at it’s core, I am strengthening my non-white colleague’s statement.

Maybe if I was born White, I would tell you that Henrik Verwoerd was a misunderstood man because I had never really experienced Bantu education and somehow, I still fail to see the link between a crippled education system and who are considered skilled labour in this country. Maybe I would like to quote the exceptions; the young Black woman who excelled at school even though her mother was a domestic worker and she never met her father. Maybe those exceptions would make me feel less guilty to the plight of the masses in our country, it would make me feel less guilty because when I quote those exceptions, I would know that we live in a land of opportunity and all one had to do was to seize that opportunity. I would not always know that gaining access to that opportunity is open to the few and not the many, because like the generations before me, I have been part of the few. Maybe I would talk of progress and in same breath bemoan the fact that South Africa is not a place where “White men can work”. Maybe I would tell you of the incredible White candidate who my company simply could not hire instead of considering why everyone I interviewed for the position was White.

I am writing this now, irrespective of race, as a privileged person in South Africa. I was raised in a single parent home, I understood what an overdraft was, I knew what it meant to buy groceries using the budget facility on a credit card and I started working, as early as I could, so that I could worry a little less amount money, so that I could help my mother out. But make no mistake, I was privileged. I went to a school where I had resources at my disposal; we had toilets in my school, we had books and desks, we even had a library. I never went hungry, neither my older sister nor I were the first in my family to get a tertiary education and my mother had a car so I never had to take public transport. So, I live with that privilege and I live with everything that privilege has afforded me. I live with the knowledge that while I feel like I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve earned, my fight was not the same as a significant portion of young people in our country. I see that. I see that my path may have been easier and that because of that ease, and because I believe that South Africa belongs to all of us, “united in our diversity”, that I acknowledge that I am part of the solution that our country needs. I do not write this now as a plea for White people in our country to see me or to see our Black and Coloured brothers and sisters. I write this now instead, for my White brothers and sisters, I write this now for you to see yourself and for you to see your place in the solution.

What if White people were criminals too?

Now before you think I’m throwing stones, let me first remind you that I do live in a proverbial glass house here, I too have deeply ingrained prejudice that is at times very difficult to shake, so I write this now more to explore my own thoughts than anything else. But before I get ahead of myself, let me first set the scene. It is not too late on a Saturday evening, my hand is curled comfortably around an oversized glass of wine, two sleeping dogs fit themselves into the shape of my bent legs, emitting a groan of happiness when an ear is scratched or when a more comfortable spot is found and Johnny Clegg plays in the background. It was a still, quiet night with but without preamble, the calm is broken and the dogs are mobilised, an errant paw finding the softness of my leg to spring off from, leaving me muttering under my breath and rubbing my leg as I follow them to see what the commotion is about. The dogs are on high alert, barking and eager to be let out and when I reach the gate I see two people running away. The sight chills me to the bone, I make a hasty retreat towards the house calling the dogs and locking the security gate once we’re all safely inside. My eyes are fixed outside as I hurriedly tell Husband what I saw.

In the moments before I can take any decisive action, Husband is bounding through the door shoeless and armed with nothing other than his wit. I call after him in vain as the darkness envelops him. Before I can locate my phone to call the police, Husband is back inside the house. He tells me that there were some youngsters running around in our complex. Three white youngsters to be exact. I pick up my phone to check our complex WhatsApp chat and there is a frosty silence. Yes, these are the same people who said that my mother was a “suspicious person” when she waited in a parked car outside the complex. Yes, these people are the same ones who posted about similarly “suspicious” people seen driving around our neighbourhood. And yes, in all of these instances, the people under suspicion were people of colour. Maybe that’s just a co-incidence but I can’t possibly be that naïve. Clearly my neighbours are always on high alert, but clearly this level of “alertness” does not cater for those who are blatantly not of criminal disposition. And of course, for those of us not able to understand the criminal mind, we can always use race as a proxy. A bunch of white teenagers running around was not cause for concern but what would happen if I took the word “white” out of the equation?

I think I know why this one incident is something I wanted to write about. Because at the core of this matter, something bothers me. Something bothers me when we associate “right” and “wrong” based on colour. Right: White teenagers having fun. Wrong: Black people livings their lives (driving a car, parking outside a complex). I know that I said this was not about throwing stones, and it isn’t. If I walk the streets of an area known to be particularly unsavoury and a Black man walks towards me, I know that I am more likely to clutch my bag closer to my chest than if it was a man of any other colour. Why? Well I can rationalise this to say that statistically we expect more Black criminals than any other race group because Black people form over 80% of our population, but there is a hollow placation in that. The truth, as we hear our parents and grandparents speak it, is that prejudice runs deeply in our country. Apartheid media taught many people that Black people were savages, turning to violence at the drop of a hat and that in actual fact Black people could never really fully be integrated into a “civilised” society. If you listen carefully to the embedded prejudice of those from generations before, you will hear it in their words. I am not making excuses for this either, none of us should. It upsets me this feeling, living amongst my colour fearing neighbours, this feeling of being less than. As if I have to catch up, as if I have something to prove, every interaction a test to see if I am human. I don’t know what the solution is but I certainly know that it does not start with silence.

1991: The first Black children are allowed into White schools


I want to say that the 90’s was a weird period in time, but to use the word “weird” to describe South Africa during the 90’s seems insipid and trivial. Of course, to describe myself and my experiences during the that decade, insipid and trivial hits the nail on the head. So, let’s go with weird for now. As a child of five, I entered the decade with predictable ignorance. At the beginning of the decade that would see Mandela released from prison, the abolition of the apartheid, the development of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world as well as South Africa’s first taste of democracy, I busied myself over grave concerns as to whether I could wear my Ninja Turtles watch to school and if my sister would be my “friend” during lunch breaks. To the concerned reader, on both of those latter matters, it would turn out that I would receive a disappointing and irrefutable “No”.

I found an old class photograph from 1992 the other day and apart from laughing at my hairstyle, I realised that in my class full of other Indian children, there sat a solitary Black boy. Another thing that the 90’s would mark is that Black children were allowed to go to White schools and in my case, an Indian school. From then on out, the number of Black students in my classes would grow, but they would be nowhere close to the majority. In 1992, change was happening in my classroom and all around me and I remember with startling clarity that it scared me.

About a year after the first Black students joined my school, the teachers thought it best to try and teach us some cultural sensitivity. My class was summoned to the library, the only place in the school that had a TV and we found ourselves sitting cross legged on brown scratchy carpets in front of it. Before we could watch the video that was planned for us, my mother, a teacher at my primary school (the horrors of that would easily fill 100 blog posts), asked us one simple question. She asked “If four people stood in front of you, one Black, one Coloured, one Indian and one White, who would be the cleverest?” My reaction was intuitive and when I shouted out “The White person”, it was with complete conviction. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment and sadness in my mother’s eyes; she had the look of a mother who failed her a child. Somewhere along the way, even before I had spent a decade on this planet, I had developed a hierarchy. Whites, Indians, Blacks. I don’t think I knew enough Coloured people to fit them into the picture. But what did I know? I knew that Whites were better than us in every way, why else would they get access to things no one else could? I knew that Black people were the domestic workers, the gardeners of the world and I knew that Indian people fitted somewhere in the middle. Indian people were to respect and revere White people, and to employee, and pity at best, Black people. I learnt this bias from the world around me and not from my mother’s words, for she taught us that every person should be treated equally. So strong was the contradictory evidence around me that, I had, in an Orwell-ian sense, started to think that some were “more equal than others”. Everything in my parents and grandparent’s lives had set them up well to propagate this myth. From the cold, calculating malevolence that was Bantu Education, to the forced separation of the races, these ideas were deeply entrenched in the minds of the generations before me. So deeply entrenched that their action spoke words their voices could not.

The 90’s seem like such a short time ago, a long time in my lifetime, but otherwise short for our young democracy. Otherwise short to start to undo the damage that was done to our country. What passage of time is enough for people to unlearn the “truths” of our past? What passage of time is enough to start rewriting the scripts that govern our thoughts and behaviour? The talks of freedom are long gone yet the shackles remain, in our hearts and in our minds.

Diversity? I think not

We are sitting around the table when a colleague makes a remark about how diverse we are as a group and how this is indicative of how far we have come as a country. I go from calm to fire breathing dragon in a matter of seconds. I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did, or why this comment angered me so vehemently but maybe we should look at the facts before I go any further. The race best represented by the group was White, with a Coloured and Indian minority. Males outnumbered females but by a small margin so maybe I should concede a point there? Sure, we had some sort of mix but how was this group meant to be representative of “how far we’ve come as a country” if it excluded 80% of our population? According to the most recent Statistics SA report, in South Africa, women outnumber men, just over 8% of our population is White and nearly 81% is Black. I am incredulous until I find my words and then I am foaming at the mouth when I start to speak. How can we be so ignorant and so blithe about how underrepresented the majority of our population was in that group? And how could we merrily pat ourselves on the back and talk about how far we’ve come when this group whether purposeful or not, had excluded the race best representative of our country?

Now, I’m not writing this to illustrate the doom and gloom in our country, we have come far since the dark, crippling days of the apartheid. We have moved forward, but just not far forward enough. What’s enough? Enough to me talks to of representation that matches the makeup of our country, enough talks to me about us knowing our past and being cognisant of it, instead of trying to make excuses for a lack of transformation. Enough is when we stop thinking that skills and ability are limited to the 8% of our population. Enough is when we stop using the words “BEE appointment” when what we really mean is inadequate, when what we really mean is that that job would have been better suited to a White person but hey we’d be penalised if we didn’t hire the right colour. I’ve heard time and time again the words “But you know this is just going to be a BEE appointment” in such a negative, condescending manner that I wonder myself if the people saying these things are even aware of the fact that they are the ones deepening the myth of the skills deficit in people of colour by setting these token appointments up to fail. I have seen the poisonous roots of racial prejudice flourish and deepen, catalysed by a token hire of the “right colour” who has no power or voice.

We have come far, but we will continue to crawl along if we refuse to see things as they really are. I know that this may be my daily rant and that I really should not have gotten so angry with a comment about diversity but part of this thinking, part of this continuous exclusion just sickens me.