Politics and Society
A short guide to being white around black people, and vice versa
Black, white, colored, slightly brown, Chinese – Rainbow Nation, a beautiful dream that keeps us united and fills us with pride. Yet we keep tripping over our tongue when we communicate across colour lines. This brief guide might help.
Obama is president, Miley Cyrus is twerking, Lupita has an Oscar and Kenny Kunene, who once served a 6-year prison sentence, is now so rich he eats sushi off the bodies of almost naked women. Surely we live in a post-racial world, right?
Wrong. Race, unfortunately, is still very much a “thing” and nowhere is this more obvious than in the shining beacon of a post-racial world South Africa, although writing about it appears to incense a lot of people, as if not writing about means it doesn’t exist. To any of my fellow South Africans reading this, presenting a show of unity helps us to feel good about how far we’ve come, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a problem, and we can’t just “move on” when the nature of our day-to-day experiences are still so determined by the colour and shade of our skin, even if wealth disparities add another dimension to those experiences.
It goes unspoken (much of the time), but race bubbles beneath the surface of majority of the interactions between people in this country. The painting of Jacob Zuma with his “spear” waving about elicited shouts of racism against the white artist, even though a black artist had done a similar one.
Julius Malema, fresh out the gate within the first fortnight of the opening of the new Parliament has gone on record as calling Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille “SA’s number one racist“. According to the EFF leader, the party would not vote her in as President as they were not drunk.
And just last year, a members of a group called Red October got themselves some fresh air while protesting “white oppression”. Huh? Yes, exactly. We wrote then that the EFF and the Red October organiser deserved each other.
So, while Mandela may have taken a long walk to freedom, he clearly left the majority of the population behind. His death suddenly had white people mumbling (louder than before) and black people tweeting about giving the “Mandela will not protect you” stare.
Many of us still just do not know how to get along.
Everyone has preconceived notions about what it means to be “white”, “black”, “coloured” and “Indian” or “other”, and it’s all so confusing, especially when really odd things start happening, such as when Chinese people registered as “black” in order to get some BEE action.
And so we find ourselves in a precarious situation that calls for a little guidance. Here’s hoping this helps.
What NOT to say/do as a white person
1. Because I have a butt it doesn’t mean you must come and talk to me about booty-hopping/twerking. I do not talk to you about jogging because you have nice legs. Safe topics of conversation: Jazz, music, literature.
2. ‘Do not “talk black” or put on a “black accent”. Unless you couple this with GENUINELY talking Xhosa or Zulu, for example, like the blonde lady in the King Pie advert who is truly bilingual. it comes off as strange and makes things uncomfortable. Would you say to a French person “Ze food she iz excellente, non? Croissant, pain au chocolate, bien sur.” No? Exactly.
3. Don’t say “You’re not like the black people from here,” as if that’s some sort of compliment. It is not.
4. Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid because I have what you consider a “South African accent”. There isn’t one South African accent, and if you think South Africans should speak English with an English accent that says more about you than the person you think has a “funny” accent.
5. Don’t use “African” as a euphemism for “black”; you’re African, too.
6. Don’t say “apartheid happened, get over it.” If you already know why saying this is a no-no, skip to What not to do/say as a black person.
The reason saying this is wrong is because apartheid didn’t just happen, it happens. It’s just got a new dress and some make up on. This was a notion that took some getting used to on my part, even as a black person. I spent four years as the only black child in my all white girls school in the United Kingdom and it took coming to South Africa for me to find myself going “Shut the front door! I’m BLACK?!” I kid you not, I literally had a moment of realisation about the fact my colour affects my daily life. Suddenly I was in a place where I was followed around shops and asked if I could “afford” things. I had this amazing super power wherein I could shut down a whole room just by walking in. Being the only black person in the room became “a thing”. It’s like walking into a Presidential banquet in nothing but your underwear and a sombrero. Everyone gives you the “you are clearly lost” look.
Pierre De Vos, an expert in Constitutional law, summed it up when he said it’s not a matter of “having”; he understands that his experience of a space will be different to that of his black counterpart, irrespective of resources. That’s why phrases like “social economic disparity” don’t ring true. As ex-DA leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said last year, “poverty still has a race.” These, unfortunately, are the legacies and traces of apartheid, evidence that it still lives and breathes in the country.
The truth is, the majority of CEOs are still very much white; in 2010 the figure stood at 91 per cent. The top police brass (those directly under the Minister and Police Commissioner) are mostly of Caucasian descent, as are most restaurant managers, middle management across most companies, business owners and even NGO directors.
But what do the white people think of the way black people talk to them?
What not to do/say as a black person
Now, let us not forget that every coin has two sides, and black people trip over their tongues as often as white people do.
One common complaint white people have is about the belief (held by black people) that they are all rich. Often the sight of a homeless white man is met with such shock that black people hand over money just to confirm that he is, in fact, real. If the money disappears, he must be.
The following guide was provided courtesy of Roll Player as the comment he left on an earlier version of this article. Asked to keep the ball rolling on the race conversation, he gave us this short and sharp response:
1. Don’t ask me about a job; I can barely hold mine.
2. Don’t ask for money; I pay my taxes, ask Jacob Zuma or get a SASSA card (a social services card)
3. I have never liked my own extended family, so why should I be thrilled to engage with yours?
4. Stop calling me “baas” (Afrikaans for boss, master, employer, white person in a position of authority in relation to non-whites) and “sir” when you want something. WAY worse is when you call me “chief”. Don’t “chief” me, I know what game you’re playing.
5. Give up on imputing racial motives to something when it’s just normal vicious office politics — which know no colour, only spite and vindictiveness.
6. Feel free to speak to your office’s black colleagues in the language of your choice, it really is not a problem and I’m not so insecure as to think you’re always talking about me.
7. I’m quite poor with punctuality, so I’m really not thinking what you think I’m thinking when you arrive late for a meeting, only just behind or ahead of me.
8. Give up on the lecture that starts with “Well, in our culture . . .” That’s fine. You do whatever the culture says you should, I still don’t have to emulate you.
9. I’ve been to China; real Chinese food was revolting. Certain traditional dishes, such as the Portuguese one involving rabbit and rice in chicken blood, gross me out. Refusal to eat certain things is not racist.
So clearly there are issues on both sides, a great number of confusions that fester and push prejudice forward. Conversations and not assumptions about race are needed if the rainbow nation is really going to work. Remember, Mandela is watching.