If you are bringing up small children in South Africa, you may well have heard the words “brown” and “peach” used to refer to black and white people.
I simply cannot express in words how these terms irritate me. They irritate me even more than that other new South African buzz term “colour blind”. More on that another time.
The reasons for my grave dislike of these two terms are many. I shall limit myself in this post to just two:
The terms are used mostly by liberal white people (or black people with liberal white mates) who are trying to be politically correct. This is well intentioned, but it backfires dangerously. This is because the colour classification of a human being (as much as we may disagree with it) has come to represent vastly more than simply the colour of my skin; it is who I was, who I am and who I will be; it is the suitcase I am packed up in – but it is also the contents; it is my body yes, but it is also my soul and my psyche. I am black; I am white; I am coloured; I am Indian encompasses the way I see the world, the way the world sees and treats me and the way I live and move and have my being in the world. It is everything, with actual colour just a part of the story.
So, changing people’s colour is not only naïve, but damaging; we are tampering with something foundational and intrinsic and indeed good. People are not just walls you can paint over when the old colour doesn’t match the decor anymore. By changing black people’s colour to brown – without asking I might add because it certainly wasn’t black people who started this – we in effect negate their ‘blackness’; that thing that travels such a long journey beyond just colour.
And the terms are not just problematic for black people. Peach – which let’s face it conjures up images of happy romps through orchards on a spring day – allows us to slip out of the past reality and the harshness of our whiteness and into a new and far more gentle and comfortable outfit. With one word we are able to say: “It wasn’t/isn’t me. I didn’t/don’t benefit from my whiteness because I’m not white, I’m peach!” But the thing is, I am white and until I learn what that really means and deal with it warts and all, no amount of peach paint is going to change me.
And when do we stop this charade with our kids? The world calls people black and white, coloured and Indian, Russian and Jewish and Muslim. Is it like swearing – they can only use these “bad words” when they are adults? We are white inside and out – and we are beautiful. We are black inside and out – and we are beautiful. God created us all in His image – black and white; beautiful inside and out. We must celebrate who we are and not try and paint ourselves in a different light.
Our kids will handle it.
On a recent family holiday to the Kruger Park, we were enjoying a swim in one of the day visitor’s public pools.
The pool was full of people all having fun together and we were laughing and playing with the other families. Suddenly, I became aware of the pool attendant calling me over to speak to him. I waded over to him and asked if there was a problem. In a typically polite African way, he quietly told me that there was another pool at the main camp that we might enjoy more. “Why, what’s better about it?” I asked him perplexed. But then it dawned on me that he was inviting me (not telling me) to use a pool where there would be other white people. We declined his obviously well-meaning offer and stayed in that pool for the rest of the afternoon.
A lot of my writing focuses on race and racial identify in post-apartheid South Africa. For me it has been – and still is – an often very painful journey; a journey on which I have discovered to my shame the positive role that the simple colour of my skin has played (and still plays) in my life. On this journey I have also learnt the negative role that skin colour played (and still plays) in black people’s lives. But my white skin has also, at times, made my life sad and disconnected. It did at that pool. Why? Because I want to swim with my fellow South Africans. I do not want a special pool inhabited only by other white people.
As I have grappled with my white privilege and my place in post-apartheid South Africa, I have often felt deeply disconnected, as I did that day. This disconnection results in a form of displacement that manifests in many ways in us white folk; fear; racism; superiority; in statements like: “we’d be better off leaving”; in urgent and often frenzied attempts to “do good”; in burying our heads in the sand about racism; in leaving for foreign countries siting crime or lack of opportunity as reasons.
I have come to understand that at least some of these positions and attitudes come about as we discharge our pain and discomfort at living in a country in which we feel – to some degree – unwelcome as we are. There seems to be a built-in shame – acknowledge or unacknowledged – at being white living in South Africa. And lest we think we can outrun this shame, writer and researcher Brene Brown tells us that it is those of us who battle to admit to shame that suffer from it the most. This shame left unhealed is very toxic.
For those of us who remain here, do we deserve to feel unwelcome? Perhaps that isn’t the right question. Perhaps a better question might be; does anyone deserve to feel unwelcome in their own country?
Now, I don’t often feel the pain of being disconnected or displacement in overt ways such as the incident at the pool; it is subtle and not all the time. The white monopoly capital rhetoric makes me feel disconnected from my country. This is not because I do not believe that our wealth is still way too concentrated in the hands of white people – it is.
Political campaigning which suggests that prospective leaders are using too many white people on their campaign teams makes me disconnected. This is not because I believe that black leaders should use more white advisers than black – I do not.
Quotas and BBBEE make me disconnected. This is not because I don’t believe that our sports teams should privilege black players over white – I do. I also believe that a black job applicant should be privileged over a white job applicant of the same qualifications or experience. This is because restitution for decades of white privilege over black people must continue, until equilibrium (whatever that ultimately means) is reached.
So then, why am I writing about the pain and discomfort of being white in South Africa? Do I have the right to write this? Do I not deserve to feel this? Is it, for want of a better term, a necessary pain that must drive me – drive us all – to seek the healing, restoration and forgiveness our country still so desperately needs? I guess the answer to this will vary between people.
For me, the answer to all these questions is yes: yes, I have the right to write this; yes, I deserve to feel this pain and discomfort and yes, it is a very necessary pain that I must be willing to live with – embrace actually – in order that I might start to learn a new and better way of being white in South Africa.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.