Since being in South Africa, I’ve really struggled with the prevalence of racism.
When we go out to eat, everyone dining in the restaurant is White (with the exception of my friend and fellow Program Leader, a Black American woman). Usually, everyone serving us is Black. Except the managers: White, and the really fancy restaurant we accidentally went to looking for a casual meal. There, even the servers were all White and it was only the kitchen staff that was people of Color.
As the Black Xhosa parking attendants approach looking for spare change (that amounts to about one US dollar) in return for guarding our car, I am painfully aware of my glaring skin and all it represents.
When White South Africans talk about the safety of certain neighborhoods, I struggle to untangle the web of racism and reality within their statements.
And as they speak of the corruption of “them”— the government since what one White South African somewhat sarcastically called “the Great Change”— I want to scream: ‘because the government of apartheid was not corrupt?!’
I want to scream a lot, actually. Mostly, I just want to get out.
Literally, a frequent go-to in my mind is, “I am just ready for this unit to be over.”
This is probably because I made a sub-conscious pact with myself to not like it here. As I’ve surfaced this and scrutinized my reasoning, I’ve realized that underneath is the question: if I like Plettenberg Bay, does that mean I am okay with the ways things are here?
And what of this desire to escape? I’ve since acknowledged: it is only because of my White privilege that I even think I could escape racism’s clutch. It will still exist in India, our next destination. And it is still present in the States. This brings me to my next hard truth: my resistance to Plett is actually my resistance to the pieces of myself that still hold stereotypes, rely on my White privilege, and neglect to challenge racism or enact racial justice.
Everyday here, I ask myself how I am complicit in the system. The extent of segregation makes me aware of dynamics that exist at home, but my privilege left me blind to while there. Because that is how privilege functions: you don’t have to know that you have it, because what you have— who you are— is treated as “the norm,” the standard by which to measure and hold all else.
As I articulate these struggles with my adjustment to Plett, I am aware that this is the lived experience of many people of Color everyday of their life. Walking into a restaurant and counting the number of people who look like you. Making a living off of serving others— cleaning White folks homes, painting White folks nails— taking your place on the rung of hierarchy created by race, class, nationality, language. Wondering if you’re safe. Knowing your presence makes others feel unsafe. Watching the news perpetuate this prejudice. Hearing people criticize change while failing to recognize the change that was needed for your people to have space on the bus, in schools— space to breathe without the fear of being killed.
So, I hear my “struggle” with White South Africa. And I think: good, about time. Take this home with you. Continue to ask how you are being complicit in the system. Stop trying to get away.
My privilege is not something I can escape. I can dislike the system, but that does not change the fact that I benefit from it.
This is not just a post about White guilt, but White consciousness. What do I do with an awareness of racism? How do I be a proactive agent of change for racial justice?
These were questions I began asking through my research at the Women’s Center. And what I was left with as my research closed was that I cannot fear the question: ‘how do I neglect to live into my values of social justice?’
If I am concerned with getting it “right” more than learning, I will undoubtedly continue to live into the dominance my race affords me. I must be willing to face my shadows, looking at the ways I fail to live into my values, contradict what I believe in, and participate in keeping the wheels of injustice turning.
Running away is not an option. That this has been my knee-jerk response to Plett simply reflects how much work I have to do. For, my desire to escape is about my awareness of how poorly I am doing. I feel aware enough only to know how poor of an ally that I am, how frequently I misstep, how often I am a perpetuator of microaggressions.
Yet, even this is growth, because there is no place of arrival. And the humility of being connected to myself as an oppressor is what gives me the consciousness to shut up and listen. To honor people’s experiences. To know that the cards are stacked in my favor. To choose not to use this, when I have the choice. To look into someone’s eyes and affirm, “I heard it”. To speak up. To stand up. To see: race. My race.
To remember that I have one too.
For seminar this week, we explored the role of race as it relates to our unit on public health. I opened with the question: when were you first aware of your racial identity? For me— as for many White folks— this is almost a trick question. It is not ‘when did you start to acknowledge racial difference’— when I learned that Johnny was black or that Ashley cut my hair because she wanted hair like mine. The question is when did I learn that I was White. Or start to explore what that means? The answer is not long ago.
And sometimes, I find myself wanting credit for knowing the little that I do. I find myself checking in with the PL I mentioned, telling her, “I didn’t do this, or think that, or say X” around ignorant things White people frequently say and do. What I am actually saying is, “I know these dynamics exist. I am down with the cause. I get it.” In reality, I get it sometimes.
And that doesn’t earn me kudos. That’s like men getting excessive praise for joining the work that women have been doing for a hundred years to dismantle sexism. Good. They should join. And same to me; I don’t get extra points for being White and still committed. I am simply joining a movement that my people have been knocking down, denying, and cutting corners on for centuries. I am simply working towards something that every one of us needs.
My pleas to my friend are misspoken confessions. They are demands to assuage my guilt for the times I contradict myself. Painting me a savior, or at least partner, they are my desperate attempts to compensate. They reveal the ways I still think of this journey as one with a destination. And ironically (or tragically), with these statements, I continue to exert dominance.
I am not a White savior. Nor a White demon. I am White. I need to know this, to see this, to face this without running. For this consciousness allows me to know what others might see in me. Conversely, it opens me up to see others, to connect to others. It makes it so that we can, together, make change.
This reminds me of a quote my friend Michelle shared, “Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves.” The best way that I can contribute to racial justice is by committing to surface, unlearn, and rethink racism within. This means dismantling implicit prejudice. It requires finding the ways I participate in an invisible structure that says I am superior because of the color of my skin. It takes daily effort. It means continuing to listen to— to seek out— voices that have been silenced. It means asking: how am I complicit in this? It means tracking who gets heard and advocating so that those dynamics change. It means toppling over the cards, but knowing that there is privilege even in thinking I’m in a position to do so. It means meeting myself as an oppressor to heal from the oppression that taught me my dominant ways. It means loving.
Loving people, both for and beyond their phenotype. Loving myself, through mistakes. Loving towns that teach me how to do this better. Loving the process even when it’s hard.
So, tonight, I finally speak out- stand up- to my own dominance. And say: shut up, Stacey. Listen. Stay. Love.