The meaning of “she chose to be white” is that whiteness fundamentally isn’t about skin color at all. It’s about privilege. There is so much coddling and lack of awareness that are available and routine for white people that it’s become the signature characteristic for how white people are perceived, not just in South Africa, but in most of the world.
I’m a white person in the United States, and I know that incident could have just as easily happened here. We, too, have absorbed so much privilege and so many assumptions about the importance of our own feelings relative to everyone else’s that inevitably, most of the time when a person of color tries to get our attention about the terrible cost of systemic racism, the whole conversation takes a sharp turn and ends up rapidly becoming all about how the point was made and whether it was fair to the white person hearing it. Black Lives Matter are trying to get us to notice that they’re being murdered, consistently, by the police who supposedly exist to protect them, for crying out loud! This is kind of a big deal! And yet every time they try to get our attention on the subject, we start talking instead about how they blocked traffic, or interrupted a political rally. Because those acts inconvenienced white people, and that is taken far more seriously than murdering black people wholesale.
So when someone CHOOSES to “be white,” I recognize that as meaning, they chose to follow the script. They chose to maintain the pattern. They chose, as white people usually do, to make the subject of discussion all about themselves and their own grievances. That server had a golden opportunity to do otherwise… she could have spoken up and returned the topic of public discourse to the issue the activist brought up in the first place. Instead, she chose to take refuge in the same structure of privilege from which white people have been undeservedly benefiting for centuries, the world over.