‘You Can Just Say It’: What White America Can Learn From South Africa’s Blunt Race Talk

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I had been in South Africa for five weeks before I heard someone try to justify apartheid.

It was at a wine festival in the farming town of Paarl, a cradle of Afrikaner heritage in the winelands of the Western Cape. Pieter had been pleased to meet a young American and recounted with nostalgia his many decades living in the town. But when I told him that I was in South Africa to study history for a semester, his demeanor turned grave.

“You need to know that there are two sides to every story,” he said. “They fought us when we got here, so we fought back. That’s how things have always worked.”

By “they,” Pieter meant the native San and Khoi peoples displaced and killed off by early Dutch and British settlers in South Africa. I was jolted awake; I’d always understood the “story” as a categorical moral wrong. But I was also thrown by the remarkable openness he offered. There were no barriers. He just talked.

That was the first in a long string of candid encounters. At a high school in a black township where I work, 15-year-olds sparred over whether it should be compulsory to learn English even in their Xhosa-speaking community. “Maybe it’s not the way it should be, but we need it to compete in the rest of the world,” one student said. “But we were born into our own culture, and that’s all we have,” responded another.

And on a bus between Durban and Port Elizabeth, a tire salesman named Boyo—who identifies himself as a “coloured” (mixed race) South African—told me that whites still rule South African society, but that blacks, now reaping the prizes of land reform and affirmative action programs, have begun their ascent. Boyo and I had known each other for ten minutes when he suggested that coloured people are the real victims. “The white man raped the black woman and made us,” he said. “We don’t belong to anyone.”

In South Africa, race dances unafraid in the public square. It exists without the kind of stigma that tints and tilts conversations in the United States, when we talk about the latest Ferguson or Baltimore. South Africa’s past—drawn painfully in the colors of its people—allows little room for evasiveness. Everyone knows what’s happened; it’s too obvious too ignore. So instead of shutting their eyes to race, people look it straight on, and just talk.

***

I’ve been studying abroad at the University of Cape Town for three months. I’m Jewish, male, 20 years old, and white. Talking about race isn’t new to me. I marched in the #BlackLivesMatter protests at my college, Emory University in Atlanta. I have been involved in interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue initiatives, and will graduate next year with a minor in African-American Studies. When I decided to spend the spring semester here, I thought I’d arrive knowing the “rules of the game.”

I was wrong.

I walk down Cape Town’s Main Road every day, and each time I’m solicited for food or money. Once, the person asking was white. I take about five cabs each week. Twice, my driver was white. I write my history papers and blog articles where it smells of espresso, and eat brunch where they serve poached eggs on rosewood planks. The wait staff is black, and the clientele looks like me. The managers are also white.

There are smatterings of exception. But only smatterings.

I coach debate at a high school in the township of Samora Machel. A township in South Africa is an informal settlement—a slum, really—where the houses and markets, restaurants and nail salons, barbershops and bank stalls are all boxes of quilted sheet metal, told apart only if you can read their painted Xhosa signs.

The white people in townships, volunteers like me, are bussed in and out. The black people have been there for generations, since the National Party government put their parents and grandparents there.

There are no white people living in South African townships. Parliament passed the Group Areas Act in 1950, shunting people of given racial designations out of their longtime homes and into assigned settlement zones. Just like there are few white people in the housing projects of American urban areas because decades of redlining (more than a hundred years after Lincoln) left African-Americans without valuable property and unable to compete for land in the housing market.

It’s still harder to be born a person of color in South Africa than it is to be born white. Only about nine in every 100 South African nationals are white. That nine percent owns eighty percent of all wealth in the country. White people hold nearly all senior management positions in South Africa. Black people are five times more likely to be unemployed than are whites.

It’s equally hard to be a person of color in the United States, but these proportions tell the story of a minority group that has remained perennially stuck: Just 13 percent of Americans are black. Nonetheless, they make up nearly 40 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses. They are 33 percent more likely to be detained while facing felony charges. They receive 10 percent longer sentences than white people facing identical charges and, with Latinos, are the majority of the inmates in the American prison system—the largest in the world. The net worth of white households is six times that of non-white ones. Those non-white families earn about 60 percent of what the white families do.

In the United States, black people were granted nominal civil rights in the 1960s, and slaves shed their masters a century earlier. Those memories—slavery, de jure racial segregation, Jim Crow—are pockmarks on our past. That was then, this is now. If we separate the two, we don’t have to talk about it.

In South Africa, where 1994 is still raw in the collective memory, there is no such disconnect. The people still remember where the scars came from. That’s why they deal with them.

***

Back at my college in Atlanta, over spaghetti in the kitchen of our fraternity house, Hugh, a white, liberal Episcopalian who graduated from a prestigious prep school, told me he had been brought up to believe that you could call someone “Jewish,” but that you should never refer to anyone as “a Jew.” He couldn’t tell me why, exactly. Just that the “ish” seemed less accusatory. “It’s just what you’re supposed to do,” he said. I grew up in a Kosher-keeping home; I’d never thought twice about calling myself a “Jew.”

But that’s how we talk about ethnicity and race in the United States, each of us on our own personal set of eggshells. The white Americans I’ve met in South Africa have a tendency to lower their voices when they say “black” and are referring to people whose ancestors lived here (or near here) before the mid-17th century. It’s my own instinct, too. Early on in the semester I asked Menzi, a law student from the Soweto township, whether “people who aren’t white” are still at a disadvantage in higher education. He smiled.

“It’s okay, mate, you can just say it here. Black people.” He pointed to his arm. “You mean people who look like me.”

He was right. My instinct is fairly absurd: It’s rooted in the idea that black people have a monopoly not just on the notion of blackness, but also on the word used to denote it; that it’s insulting to even mention someone’s racial identity; and that when we do use the terms that don’t apply to us in a full and unself-conscious voice, we should construct inane rules around them. It’s evasion; Menzi was onto something.

Conservative American commentators often lambaste the regime of “political correctness” that we’ve mounted in contemporary political life. Don’t mistake this point for that one. Sometimes our reticence is justified. We’ve reached for a heightened sensitivity around language to shield vulnerable identities from abuse and to make sure that we’re treating human beings as human beings. We say “developmentally disabled” because “retarded” has become an exploited slur and isn’t an accurate descriptor of all neurological disabilities. We say “undocumented immigrant” because “illegal alien” breeds a vicious stigma against people who, in many cases, are seeking refuge in sordid desperation.

In those cases, specific and affirming language isn’t a vehicle for dodging the conversations that matter; it often identifies the way things really are. But when sensitivity comes at the cost of honest conversation, it’s time for us to reconsider the way we’re doing things.

***

In 1995, South Africa began a long conversation with itself. Through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, Nelson Mandela’s nascent government invited surviving victims of apartheid to tell their stories to a curious globe and, more important, to the people who’d committed the crimes. Many race-related programs held in South Africa today are still sculpted in the spirit of the TRCs.

I met Sara—American, Jewish, and white like me—in a history class at the university. She’s here on one of the other study abroad programs. When I told her about an event at UCT called the “White Privilege Project,” she was genuinely perplexed.

“Why would I go to that?” she said. “It sounds like they’re going to get a bunch of people together and make them feel bad about being white. I have no interest.”

Translation: Why would I want to be part of a conversation intended to make me feel guilty about something that isn’t my fault?

That same week, amid student protests for the removal a campus statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, I read an unsigned comment on a student feedback board: “To white people: sit down and shut up. For once, this isn’t about you.”

I sat with the comment all day, and brought it up at dinner with Nqobani, a friend from KwaZulu Natal who calls himself a “black conscious man” in the image of Steve Biko. His response was quick and fluid, spoken as if it were conventional wisdom: “When white students get involved in that movement—especially progressive whites who supported the cause—it ‘legitimizes’ the wants and needs of black people,” Nqobani told me. “If a white person says ‘this is a problem,’ then it’s a problem.” Point taken.

Still, the two comments might be read in tandem: Sara wanted no part in a conversation that might implicate her as a wrongdoer. And the anonymous student—to whom Sara might be the wrongdoer—didn’t want her there, either. Both approaches shut out the very people who ought to be in conversation. They are insular and provincial and resigned to the status quo. The comments aren’t just defeatist; they’re a fatalistic stalemate.

***

If talking about race makes us queasy, we have two options. The first is to ignore race altogether, to consider all political questions—housing, abortion, social welfare, voting—outside of a racial context. Or we can acknowledge the uncomfortable nature of race conversations, and get over it.

I was born in a hospital room overlooking West Los Angeles. As a teenager, I was only pulled over for driving errors I had actually made. My nearest “minority” status—my Jewishness—has served me with a network of professional connections and a community that won’t rest until I’ve found academic and professional success. My parents, grandparents, and some of my great-grandparents went to college, and so do I.

So am I allowed to talk about the institutional stumbling blocks that lie in front of black folks in America? Have I license to suggest policing alternatives for majority-Latino neighborhoods after careful and thoughtful research? Do I get to share my thoughts on the deaths of Mike Brown or Walter Scott or Freddie Gray—or, for that matter, on the officers who murdered them?

On the brittle racial terrain of the United States, not always.

But during my time in South Africa, I’ve learned that it’s possible—and necessary—to reframe the way white people talk about race in the United States. Where the wounds are deep, the conversation should be open and frank.

It’s a goal that will require white people in the United States to suspend the contrived and conflicting sets of rules by which we’ve been playing; that will ask us to say “black” when that’s what we mean, and say “Latino,” “white,” “immigrant,” or “impoverished” when those are what we mean. It will mean not letting feelings of insult by someone’s unfamiliarly toward our preferred terminology be the end of a conversation, but instead insisting that it be the beginning.

It will also mean reading studies and events for their trends and patterns, not scouring them for their incendiary outlying exceptions—not falling into the trap that Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the “erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family.”

For the nameless author behind “sit down and shut up,” it will mean acknowledging that in spite of very real, trenchant and systematic injustice, an approach built on rigid insularity—that regards its own social protest as a stand-alone piece of performance art—will fall short of accomplishing meaningful change.

And for me, and those who look like me and benefit from a built-in advantage, it will mean knowing and saying that people born nonwhite begin their lives at a structural disadvantage, and that upward social mobility is harder to come by for people with darker skin and features different than our own.

It will mean committing to the notion that the realities of racial inequality are not a condemnation of whiteness. We are not the victims.

South Africa has much left to solve, but its people are at least willing to face the recent past. In New York City, police officers turn their backs to a mayor who sees things differently. In Charleston and Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, black men turn their backs and bullets fly. What would happen if we turned around and faced each other?

Whatever sentiment exists, we should let it dress in plain clothes, not lurk hidden in the practices of employers, law enforcement officials, and our American institutions. Last April, in the wake of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s bigoted remarks about African-American fans, I marched into the office of my U.S. History professor—a black man—and asked whether he was angry. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “No, Ami,” he said. “Light is always good.”

Ami Fields-Meyer is cofounder of TableTalk, a framework for conversation between groups that would not otherwise interact. His writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and on Truth Be Told Politics, his blog on race, politics, and education. He is a junior at Emory University.

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