Recently there was a story of a small goat who thought he was a chicken. This got me thinking about my own identify and caused me to reflect on the fact that whilst I am a white South African, I would currently rather not be.
So I asked a black colleague and friend of mine about what the white equivalent of a “coconut” is. Of course a coconut is a somewhat derogatory term for someone who is “black on the outside and white on the inside.” But what is someone who is white on the outside, black on the inside, or would at least like to be? She looked confused and then pronounced me a Top Deck!
It is hard to explain this identify crisis of mine other than to say that I am tired of being white. Now, please don’t get me wrong; I do not dislike mine or anyone else’s whiteness, nor do I feel guilty for being white. This also has nothing to do with the colour of my skin per se although living in Africa certainly has its challenges for us melanin-deficient folk. I am just tired of what it means to be South African and to be white.
In truth this identify crisis has been brewing inside me for some time now and to write it down and air it for all to read is quite hard; vulnerable. What kind of person publically disses their own colour/culture? Aren’t we all meant to defend our racial and cultural identity? But I ask that you would walk this road with me, because perhaps if we go there together we may find that we are all battling – to some degree or another – with our racial identity.
I am tired of the way I view the world as a white person. The more time I spend with people of different colours and cultures the more one-dimensional, overly-simplistic and irrationally self-righteous I realise my worldview can be. To add to this – or perhaps to protect myself from these hard realisations – I have created a life for me and my family that ensures that our access to other cultures is limited at best.
I am tired of the fact that I say how much I love this country but I have spent so little time actively exploring and participating in the rich and diverse heritage of our people. Opting for the comfort and safety of what is known and familiar I basically live on a cultural island. And yet when I do venture into the unknown and actually spend time interacting outside of my norms, I am humbled – to be honest, broken – by how petty, parochial and self-absorbed I am. My decidedly Western, dualistic view of the world and my neat, judgement-laden boxes labelled things like “religion”, “meditation”, “time”, “marriage”, “ancestors” etc. are squashed in an instant when I let go and spend some time being with those different to me. And I discover how much I have to learn. This is uncomfortable as I have always viewed myself as ‘the teacher’.
I am tired of belonging to a group that feels constantly hard done by. Why can we not see that we deserve to be last because we were first for so long (we still are if we are to be honest)?
I am tired of how little we value and respect age.
I am tired of participating in conversations about how apartheid didn’t benefit “us” because we were kids or not even born during those dark years. This view reinforces the “us vs them” mind-set that is slowly killing our country. If we aren’t even at the point where we can own our stuff, then we are the ones scuppering the healing process. The truth is that if you are white and have spent any length of time on South African soil (more than, say, 24 hours); whether you are 100 years old or have just been born – you benefit/have benefited from apartheid.
And at the risk of picking at a newly formed scab, I am tired of having to justify why I feel that the lack of transformation in sport 21 years into democracy is so unacceptable. I am tired of engaging in conversations in which we pontificate about how we should be selecting players based on merit not skin colour. Why can we not see that if real transformation doesn’t happen and urgently, Japan will not be the only second tier team that beats us? There are around 47 million non-white South Africans. We will win bigger, better and more often when we have this massive pool to choose from.
My deepest hope is that we will urgently move to a point where we can have open, generous, non-judgemental conversations about race and racial identity. This must not be left up to politicians – they will likely damage our fragile bridges. The responsibility is ours – the citizens of this country.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.