Thursday, 19 November 2015

My time in KwaZulu Part 2 - the white bit

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve drafted this blog. I’ve swung from cussing white South African’s to trying to be more constructive in my approach. The problem I have is that inside I’m raging. I’m angry at white South Africans for what I saw, for what they don’t see, for their inability to engage with an African majority, for trying to maintain a European culture in an African nation. Most of all I’m angry that so much white liberal dialogue is introspective and about how they deal with their conscience, their definition of white privilege, and how much they feel hurt because people don’t like them…. All that self-reflection, all the while black African people are dying through poverty and the unequal ownership of land and wealth that favours the minority population.

I’m angry that a people can be so arrogant and lack empathy. That they think they have a right to be there, when they are privileged to be allowed to be there. That they think any opinion other than their own cannot possibly be right… and I believe that is a legacy of apartheid.

I’ll add a short precursor to my story, which is an important backdrop to understanding where I come from on angles of race. A lot of people reading this may have only known me a short time, or know me through my African Caribbean partner. I am a white male from London.  I was brought up in Slough, a few miles out of Greater London. Slough has the most diverse population outside of London itself, had the first black British female mayor. My passion for equality was ignited by powerful messages I heard in music in my youth. Of course that has been from a white male perspective, and can’t be anything else, but I constantly strive to listen. I endeavor to be proactive in fighting racism. Silence is not enough. Yes I have a black partner, very active and high profile in the arts, and this has introduced me to people I may never have met otherwise, and opportunities where I have listened, seen and not spoken. I give thanks to those that trust my presence and good intention. I respect those that don’t. I do not intend to speak on anyone else’s behalf. I cannot define racism, I cannot feel it. But I will still fight it, because that’s what I know to be right. And I know to do so, means dealing with everything that I look like. I have no issues myself with who I am, but I decided that starting a legacy as a humanitarian is better than honouring a legacy of a heritage that does not define who I am.

My previous blog touches on the beauty and wonder of my first week in Durban, and how the poets, people, experiences and constructive arts around Poetry Africa had a huge impact on me. Once again, I give heartfelt thanks and love to everyone I met. You and your art have been such a blessing for me. Photographing you completed the circle for me.

After the first week at Poetry Africa, our week really switched in style.  We moved to a flat in Glenwood. Walked to the shops a lot. Got stared at a lot. But we (a mixed couple) get stared at outside of London, in Paris, in Sydney, in the Caribbean, in Plymouth, England… we get stared at. But we knew there was history here. We’d picked up on the vibe that there is very little cultural mixing, so I’m not sure how much more we noticed stares, how much more different we felt. Whether I pre-loaded my mind to expect different attitudes to us. After getting a feel for our environment, that no longer mattered to me. I’m generally quite a shy person, my partner is not, and doesn’t take to there being an “elephant in the room”. Before long, we were talking to every waitress in coffee shops, every market seller and shop keeper. Just getting along and mixing.

However, I soon realized that being there was also a learning curve for me. Learning about how being in Africa for the first time was particularly profound for my partner, and how the affect on her of having a white partner impacted her experience. I’m not going to run into her feelings or views, you can check her blogs for yourself, but these were deep factors for me. On top of that, the whole purpose of us being here for weeks 2 & 3 was to put together a play with a white South African on race. That again posed many issues, which again, my partner has been dealing with in blogs and also in performances since returning to London. I don’t want to make personal references on this blog. That said, I know that the dynamic for my partner has been put to the test…. You’re an African Caribbean woman, been asked to create a play on race with a white South African man, with a white director, and where you want consolation and support from the rigours and stresses of dealing with such subjects…. That also has to come from a white man, your partner. I don’t underestimate the impact that has on her, nor the strength of our relationship to deal with it.

I actually ended up being far more involved in the play than I expected. At times the naivety and inappropriateness of the approaches to dealing with race were revealing in themselves. At times, there was a lot of white noise as I had to counter and discuss many of the angles coming to the play’s concept and discussions. Indeed, the Durban artist’s post show blog underlines this by the conclusions he has drawn about his understanding of racism. To be honest, his detachment from the reality of racism underlines the huge distance white liberalism in South Africa needs to travel if it is going to save itself….

Save itself?
If white liberals cannot move away from their need to address their hurt feelings, their guilt, and feeling sorry for themselves, they are going to have problems. I saw poverty that I’ve not seen before. Poverty in a country that has wealth to share. Nowhere in any white discussions on racism did this transpire to be part of their perception of racism.  People in their country dying, was not part of their discussion on what racism is. The transfer or sharing of wealth is the one thing that whites don’t want to talk about. It seemed very obvious to me that the black African majority have tuned out of white liberalism. There’s no point in listening to white noise, when it’s inward looking and self satisfying, and in no way addressing the needs of those who are actually doing the real life (and death) suffering. This is true of much of white European Capitalism around the world. The difference in South Africa is the white Europeans are blatantly a protected minority. At some point if value and wealth is not shared, I can only surmise that it will be taken from them. The FeesMustFall demo’s demonstrated to me there is a new young political urgency that will only wait so long.  In the Caribbean there is an expression I have learned. “If you do not hear, you must feel.” White South Africans need to take note.

Me People-watching in South Africa, in coffee shops and bars, has been pretty telling. In England, there is a way that many upper middle class people have about them. An arrogance and an expectation of how they want to be treated. The only people they view on that level is people who look like them. In South Africa, that came across very strongly from most of the white people I saw. It was an exaggeration of that very nature. In fact almost a caricature of it. I saw people being rude to Africans waiting on them, simply by niceties that were not said.

Now, if you take that arrogance, and take that expectation that only people like yourself are on your wavelength, then what happens is, your empathy “chip” in your brain goes wonky. It has first and second class citizens in its perception (either consciously or subconsciously). But it’s there. So you apply empathy more to those that are like you. You can relate to how they feel because they are like you. This was an epiphany moment for me. Seeing many white South Africans behave like they were gods and others aren’t, made me realize this is a fault in many white people around the world. The UK, USA, Europe…. It’s how we’ve worked exploitive capitalism for centuries, on the poor in our own countries, and on every other race around the world. By not empathizing or caring enough for those not like us, because we have enabled ourselves to think they are different….

Therefore we don’t have to care for them. Therefore we can shut off their cries. Therefore we can expect them to live in poverty and not care for our role in their crisis, nor our role in the solution.  I’d never fully got that perception on how that is at the heart of racism… (ie. Fucked up empathy). It took me to come to South Africa to see that so profoundly in action on a majority population, and then see it about white “dominance” around the globe generally.

I was asked a very profound question by an African artist. We were discussing how African diaspora culture around the world is generally very welcoming to strangers.

I was asked, how is it that white people are raised to be so evil, to care so little for others.

I was asked that on my last day in South Africa. I had already realized in the previous weeks that empathy was a major issue with many white South Africans. That question clearly resonated, and confirmed everything I’d been thinking.

Every white person needs to look at that question again. Whether you agree with it is up to you. If you don’t, you need to ask yourself why someone not like you could think it. The answers lie in how you deal with that… or not.

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