The First Time My White Skin Meant Something To Me

I was 17 the first time I felt myself discriminate.  When I was younger my father was a teacher so I basically grew up in the boarding house of a private school that was home to children of business moguls and politicians from all over Africa.  I basked in the attention of the school boys – I was piggy backed around the school, fed their post cricket match doughnuts and humoured through hours of amateur piano playing.

Looking back I remember my two favourite baby-sitters as being black boys, and I think because of them I have always been predisposed to preferring black men, but at the time skin colour meant absolutely nothing to me.  I first realised that it meant anything to anybody when, walking around the school with my two best friends – an Indian and a black girl – the College boys started calling us the “Rainbow Nation.”

My parents had always been vaguely politicised, because of my father’s roll at the school and my mother’s work at the PFP.  I stood in a Black Sash protest at the tender age of 3.  They still have remnants of the typical white South African superiority complex embedded in them, but on the surface they are not racist, and I was lucky to grow up in that environment.

There are not many people who are lucky enough to be unaware of their race.  I was never prejudiced by it,   and was exposed to all races my whole life, so from an early age was telling people that race was not in fact an issue.  By the time I was 14 I was a firm believer in the existence of “classism” but thought racism was only for the aged and the ignorant.

When I was in Matric our history class took a trip to the Hector Pieterse Memorial Museum.  Walking in, I got the same chills I had which I had on my many visits to the Apartheid Museum, Robben Island, and others.  Still, it was a historical exercise for me.  The class split up into groups, and I inevitably landed up with two of my closest friends who happened to be black. We had spent the last two years leaning on each other for political information, sharing biographies of Struggle heroes and discussing the latest government failures.  We’d been walking around for about 10 minutes when they stopped talking to me.  Eventually the one turned to me and asked me to leave.  “I’m sorry”, she said, “I know it’s not your fault and I know that it’s unfair, but right now, at this very moment, I hate all white people, and I just can’t even look at you.”

I spent the remainder of the day in a blur.  I was angry at them, but more so I was angry at myself and I was ashamed of everything I stood for.  I suppose I realised that things don’t just happen and then go away – that our histories, our sex and our colour are stuck to us and define us for ourselves and for others, even if we ignore these characteristics; even if we hate them.  I don’t kid myself anymore.

I’m a white female, and that means certain things to certain people, and I feel that I have to be sensitive to that.  At the same time, I’ve resolved my guilt and am happy with who I am and what I’ve made of my white self – and I think that’s the most important part.

Image from imgfave.com

14 thoughts on “The First Time My White Skin Meant Something To Me

  1. What a great story…
    I had an experience the other day where I locked my car doors as I got to a traffic light, but the difference was that there were three black men walking towards my car who then proceeded to yell at me and call me racist as they had believed that I was locking my car doors because I was afraid of them because they were black and according to them that all black people are criminals in white people’s eyes. In all honesty, I hadn’t even noticed them at I was busy trying to find my lighter when I saw that my doors were unlocked so out of habit locked them.
    It made me sad that someone who doesnt know me could judge me like that because of the colour of my skin.

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  2. That was really insightful and beautifully written. Thanks.
    On a personal note, I still battle with the whole ‘she’s-white-therefore-she-was-part-of-apartheid’ label… But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that no matter who you are or what you look like, people are always going to stick you under some sort of stereotyped label – it’s part of the human being’s need to predict his/her environment. So as much as I HATE the labels, if I’m very honest with myself, I know that I put labels on people too, and therefore I really cannot be angry with anyone for doing it to me. Besides, as you say, every person has their own experience of people of a certain race/sex/culture etc and I cannot be angry with them for that or their experiences (which resulted in their stereotyped expectations of me). It’s all about a lil understanding and acceptance on my part. Being angry is not going to help anything 🙂

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  3. As a white woman with similar experiences, one of the things that I find fascinating is a broad sweeping generalisation that for the most part, if this were a black person talking about the first time they dealt with being black, it probably would have happened far earlier. One of the sytems we step into in society is that as white people, our bodies and skins carry power and privilege, whether we want them to or not. Again, this may differ from case to case…one of these tools in the ‘invisible knapsack of privilege’ (thanks Peggy McIntosh) is that it is mostly invisible to us as white people what it is to be white, that even though we live in bodies that interact in a racialised system, for the most part, we can ignore that and wonder why race is such a big deal. So I say get aware, be aware, notice all the ways in which our whiteness shapes us. And then also make sure that even when being happy with ourselves, we’re also working to dismantle stereotypes…

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  4. Confronting the pain and guilt of white South Africa is brave; few do it. You are brave.

    It’s become very unfashionable to do so. In fact, the reality is, the dominant narrative within white South Africa is “don’t speak about it; don’t confront it; leave it in the closet, we’re not to blame for anything, leave us out of this mess that is South Africa.”

    The perception we have as black south africans is that whites would rather treat apartheid and our oppression as a minor historical error of judgment; or at worst, as a figment of our imaginations. A denialist discourse has taken over; no different than what happened after the Holocaust in Germany, or the Gukuriyahundi in Zimbwabwe.

    After great horrors, humans try to impose a great silence.

    It’s dishonest, and it is hurtful.

    It’s as though the Rainbow erased everything, when in fact, what your friends reactions shows is what South Africans of colour (and those whites who fought alongside them) are dealing with everyday; trying to overcome their anger and sense of loss. Wounds are being healed.

    An incident- At the S.A Archives in Pretoria, an older black man is searching for documents relating to a farm his family was dispossessed from after his grandfather went to serve in WW1. As he is getting assistance from the archivist, this older white woman starts screaming at him for his “silliness” at trying to get land from “her people” and tells the dispossessed man he can’t “rewrite history”. In her tirade she screams at him for “insulting her people.”

    The older black man gets upset and tries to defend himself; the head archivist intervenes and tells the woman to leave the man alone to piece back his family history.

    The white woman leaves muttering curse words.

    Two minutes later, an Afrikaans-speaking white man goes up to the older black man and says to him; “Tell me your story so I can figure out where you can find your grandfather’s documents.”

    In no time, they are chatting about how the older black man grew up speaking Afrikaans and Tswana as home languages on the farms.

    I’m sitting there, trying not to seeth, but I curse the old white woman, she looks like a bywoner; she is beneath us. Anyway, she is a dying breed. I need a reason to release my irritations; only if I insult her can I render her offensive disruptions meaningless to me.

    But the actions of the Afrikaner man sooth me, his honest gestures make feel at peace. I can get back to my work.

    It’s hard to live with white south africans sometimes because many of them offload their guilt on victims of dispossession, like the woman did to this man who was trying to regain his grandfathers lost history.

    The hurt of your friends is the hurt I feel everyday. We don’t know what to do with our pain.

    But then something will interrupt our narratives of the past, like the white Afrikaans man stepping up to assist the old man newcomer to the archives.

    Although we dont expect it, it helps when white people share the pain of the past openly with us as black people; even if it is awkward, like in a moment at the museum with you and your friends, it’s a fragile thing – but when hurt comes out, it then has to find healing. If hurts are not healed they become bitterness; bitterness destroys everyone.

    Your courage to confront it and process it, helps your friends, you and people like me to heal some deep wounds.

    Really, I’m being honest. You are brave, from all angles of this tiring world, you are brave.
    From all the crap that humans dole out to each other- you are brave.

    I have read and re-read Lekgowa by Tony Harding. It’s a tough book to read, but worthwhile. It’s a very honest take on these issues. But what’s important for me is that he never abdicates responsibility and never doles out blame.

    He just looks at his complex family history and finds a way to resolve the painful narrative so his lovely daughter (offspring of black and white parents) can live breezy and free; never weighted by the horrors of the past.

    Thanks for your story.

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    1. Thank you sunshine for your comment. It was beautifully written and I think goes some way to help us remember that there are many complex processes going on every day as we try to rebuild our lives, and that the only way that they will be successful is if we acknowledge that they are happening at all.

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      1. This is a very brave discussion!

        Thanks, Sunshine for your comments Lekgowa! Many thanks.

        A few comments on guilt, if I may. I don’t think ‘guilt’ is the right way to deal with the association of ‘being white (phenotypically)’ and slavery, racism, colonialism, apartheid and the varied challenges of post-apartheid society.

        Guilt is about ‘doing something wrong yourself and being aware of it.’ Shame is about ‘feeling bad about yourself for something you didn’t do.’ You can ask for forgiveness, say sorry etc for doing something wrong, but you can’t find a sense of redemption for some wrong you didn’t do. Shame is toxic. It steals your humanity.

        Places like Robben Island, The Apartheid Museum and so on can be enormously shocking for children who have grown up in the post-apartheid period when everyone is trying to ‘forget about the past.’ Our society is more comfortable about discussing guilt than about discussing shame. We can blame someone. We don’t have to deal with our own feelings.

        Shame is about co-dependancy, about keeping secrets, enforcing the unspoken (and spoken) pact about keeping the silence. My thinking is that it is unhelpful to make whites feel guilty for the past; but we do need (as whites) to recognise our sense of shame. We can then break from the co-dependancy of shame, and break the silence.

        The fact is that shame is all around us in various forms. There is shame felt by black communities dispossessed from their ancestral land, and many other things.

        Our families ‘remember’ what they like about themselves and attempt to erase what they don’t like about themselves. Of course, erasure never happens and gets carried forward in the same way that other memories get transferred, but subliminally.

        My family keep its deep involvement in slavery secret for nearly two hundred years. I could write my own ‘first time I found out about my family legacy of slavery’ story.

        It is important to understand that there is a difference between someone who grew up with a white skin (although the reality is that we are all hybrids) and someone who holds onto a ‘white identity.’ White identity is about keeping the silence.

        Once you break the silence, you are no longer bound by the pact of secrecy, of co-dependancy. You can make your own choices and take responsibility for your choices.

        Of course, the voices of ‘white identity’ will remain, but they are no longer toxic.

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  5. This is a great passage! When I read the story I felt that the girl that says that she hates all white people was unfair. It makes me feel angry because it is placing her race ahead of her as a human being, which is wrong. I think that I am all too clear on what being white means as I am confronted by it daily. I believe that the way forward for South Africans is to focus on humanness and not race. I believe that white people and black people need to put in the time and effort to communicate with one another. This said, being financially well-off means that you have a responsibility to human beings that are less well-off than you are. South Africa is changing and the previously disadvantaged are becoming advantaged. Their (the previously disadvantaged individuals) children’s reality is very different than the reality that their predecessors faced. Their worries and concerns are different too. This new generation needs to focus on humanity and compassion and not on race, surely? Will these individuals not have to confront their own innate biases and prejudices and struggle to look beyond these? When that man in the archives helped the other man, surely he was looking at the man as another human being and imagining what it must feel like to be in that man’s shoes? Isn’t this a respectable example that we should all be following. South Africa is changing fast and we need to look beyond race.

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  6. KATE thanks for your response. I too believe that we need to look beyond race. Unfortunately, I think that it is not quite so simple. It would be fantastic if we could embrace the humanness in us, and I commend you on being able to do so.

    A part that I left out of the story is what happened on the bus ride home. The tour being over, and my friends having had their space to seeth without being confronted by my whiteness, we found each other again and sat next to each other on the trip back to school. My friends told me a story from when she was young. She grew up with her grandmother in a township by Pretoria – I can’t pinpoint the name right now. I’d heard stories before about all the children playing in the streets in the evening, the dust sticking to their heavily vaselined bodies, and other romanticised stories from childhood, like each of us have.

    I’d met her grandmother before – a devout catholic who was quiet and dignified and loved her only grandchild fiercely. Her mother had died when she was a baby and her father was effectively in exile. Her grandmother scraped and saved to provide for her. Once, at the end of a particularly hard month, my friend and her grandmother went to a nearby shop to buy a tin of beans. Because they were black, they had to walk around the back to be served. She explained the subservience of her grandmother in these situations, how this incredibly strong woman was degraded before her eyes. She spent the last of her money on that tin of beans, and when she got home, the food inside was rotten.

    The saddest part of this story is that in the grander scheme of things, it really isn’t that sad. This kind of thing happened on a daily, hourly basis, to 80% of people living in this country. And on the one hand, yes, it happened because a small group of idiots lacked humanity. On the other hand though, when you are prejudiced and degraded only because of the colour of your skin, even if its only once, it instills a sense of racialism into you. It may not make you hate, it may not make you racist per se, but it does at least make you distinguish. We cannot expect to be in a place where race doesn’t mean anything, even if it definitely shouldn’t. Even if it never should have.

    Over and above the issues of our past, racism is an issue of our present. A close friend of mine and her black boyfriend couldn’t walk past certain houses at varsity because they kept having things (beer cans, insults etc) thrown at them.

    Poverty is a serious problem, classism is undeniable, but unfortunately racism can, and still does, exist alongside these.

    I agree with you 100% that racism is unfair – just as classism and sexism are – but I think denying these divisions is more dangerous than admitting they’re there and speaking about them. It does not excuse my friend’s racism, but it helps me to understand it.

    SUNSHINE, I’ve read your comment over and over. I think it articulates so beautifully what so many people feel. I have not read Lekgowa but I look forward to doing so.

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  7. In the name of open discussion I would like to put across my thinking at this stage about race relations in South Africa from my subjective white perspective. I am a product of my ‘white’ environment which has shaped me in certain ways. So for example, I don’t speak Zulu or Xhosa or any other indigenous South African language fluently. I have had quite judgemental (but true) comments made to me about how white English speaking people don’t have to learn other languages because other people adapt to them. Criticism taken, but not to say a black person who grew up in my environment wouldn’t have ended up the same way.

    Black people carry many preconceptions about white people (as white people do about black people). At work black people assumed that because I am white I never cared to learn a South African indigenous language and assumed that I wait at every turn for the government to fail because I believe that black people are incompetent.

    As a white person I am also living in a country where the dialogue from the ANC youth league is inflammatory and targeted at belittling white people. The dialogue from the government is generally okay but there has been an outburst about how white people who want to criticise should just go elsewhere. I live in a country where the fears of white people are frequently scoffed at with contempt and implied to be spurred by racism.

    Sunshine is not the first person who I have heard saying that she feels white people want to pretend that apartheid didn’t happen and that she wants the wrong that was committed in the past, that robbed black people of their livelihoods, to be brought out into the open and discussed.

    Maybe some white people only ‘forget’ about apartheid in public forums where the prevailing politically charged dialogue is as it is. Maybe in their own homes some white people acknowledge the wrongs of the past everyday by paying for their domestic worker’s retirement policies, by taking their domestic worker’s children to take a girl child to work day and buying their textbooks, by knitting jerseys for underprivileged children, by supporting charities and giving donations.

    So I would like to refute the comment that I am colour blind and trying to propose utopia. I see race as much as anyone else sees it, but I would like black and white people to spend a little more time looking at people rather than race.

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  8. Dear Kate. I think the issue is about ‘white identity’ not about being ‘white skinned’. It is hard to think about our own identity, but ‘white identity’ is what causes ‘all the trouble’.

    There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you as a person, and you don’t have to feel ashamed of having a white skin – or live in guilt. Once you become aware of just how much our inherited ‘white identity’ limits our freedom, then a different world opens up.

    Have a look at the first chapters of Lekgowa on http://www.gamawela.org.za. Let me know what you think.

    Once you have had a good look at ‘white identity’, just have a good laugh at it. It is really funny – and sad. The exciting thing is that you are not stuck to ‘white identity’ with superglue.

    All identities are fluid and negotiable. Just watch our local comedians, some of whom have their own tv shows, or appear regularly as part of our local comedy tv shows. You will see how others are able to laugh at ‘themselves’ – and laugh at ‘white identity’ as well.

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  9. Wow what insight this has brought into my life. As a black woman I had some angry ideas towards white people but because of this story I am forced to reassess my ideas. Thank you and sorry for what happened at the museum because I would have said the same thing as your friends had I been there.

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  10. I enjoyed this story. I appreciate the courage everybody is showing in speaking about how the issue of race affects them on a regular basis. Yes, it hurts but it is necessary.

    Thank you.

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