The Problem with White People
The tannie behind the counter was impassive as I held out the coins to her. She did not move. I don’t even think she blinked.
“Put the money down,” my sister, older and wiser, whispered.
So I did.
As if by magic the tannie was suddenly reanimated, her mascara-thickened eyelashes cutting her eyes at me from behind peach-rimmed bifocals. She counted each one of the coins, poking at them with a single, ruby-red fingernail as if they were dangerous. Then she slid them in a single motion into the cash register and tallied up an equivalent amount in Champion Toffees—which she slammed down on the counter next to my upturned palm.
“Did you see that?” my sister said.
We were now outside the tannie’s corner café, in Ellisras, currently Lephalale, and walking back to the car where our parents were waiting to resume the trip to Gaseleka, the village where my dad grew up.
“That white lady didn’t want to touch your hand,” my sister said. “Because you’re black,” she added.
Black. Before that trip I suspect I’d only understood the word in theory. I’d known there was this thing called black and that it was not a good thing to be in 1980s South Africa. But there were only other black people in the township where we lived. They were Pedi, Tsonga, Sotho, Xhosa, and I was Tswana. Like them, I was not black, at least not in a way that gave any real meaning to my being.
Black to me, until that incident, was an abstract entity. I had previously no basis to measure the badness of blackness. But that tannie, in all her malice and unfiltered honesty, gifted it to me.
Years later when I heard Sade sing, “He didn’t know what it was to be black / ‘til they gave him his change / but didn’t wanna touch his hand”, I knew intimately what the words meant.
The tannie’s actions tugged at the curtain of my ignorance to reveal a glimpse of the thinking that shaped the social arrangements and structure of the society into which I was born — and, most crucially, my place in it.
She revealed to me a social reality: Black in South Africa was so bad that it was untouchable.
That probably wasn’t the first time such a thing happened to me, but it’s the first memorable time. And it wasn’t the last either. Together with each of the many comparable incidents that followed, that tannie set me on a search to understand what it was in the essence of my being that made me so bad as to be untouchable. And that search led me to ultimately rejecting the basis of that what—to rejecting the ideology of white supremacy — as it was, is and always will be false.
I wish I were alone. I wish nobody else had been made from such a young age to question the essence of their being and doubt their humanity because of the words and actions of another guided by a prolific false ideology. But I am not.
Every black person I know has had similar childhood experiences of humiliation founded on this particular untruth, which is systemic and real in the sense that it existed, and in many respects does still, in law, social norms and customs, the structure of the economy, and access to justice and rights. So, too, comparably, has anyone whose humanity has been unjustly qualified through the systematic and necessarily violent enactment of the false ideologies that proliferate human societies the world over.
There are, unfortunately, billions of us who’ve had another person impale our sense of self (and self worth) upon spikes of social realities crafted by these false ideologies. Some of us multiply so.
Such acts would probably not have been as brutal, I suspect, had they not been mandated ritual practice to normalise the order of things created through the enactment of the false ideologies. To maintain the racial hierarchy in South Africa, there were other tannies across the country that day refusing to touch the hands of little black children.
I remembered the tannie and what she did to me, what she did for me, while reading reactions to the incident that happened weeks ago at Obz Café in Cape Town. Instead of writing the tip amount on the bill, Wandile Dlamini, a non-binary trans activist, wrote the following message for the white woman attending to their table: “WE WILL GIVE TIP WHEN YOU RETURN THE LAND”.
The waitress, upon reading the message, left to cry and her unimpressed colleague accused Wandile and their companion, Oxford scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, of having done something racist. Ntokozo then described the incident on Facebook. That set off a series of overreactions that morphed to either eliding or gendering Wandile in the story and attributing the act to Ntokozo, apparently a bourgeois prince “of some means” torturing a downtrodden, female member of the working poor. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reactions — including my own initial thoughts, the hugely successful campaign to compensate the waitress for her white tears, and the gnashing of teeth by older lefties who believe that identity politics is supposedly ruining activism in South Africa — I think have answered questions that have been nagging me for a while, more so since last month.
See, last month I was at a workshop with a few other “young leaders”. We were suppose to be having “difficult conversations” about the country — conversations about inequality and poverty, racial justice, peace building, and reconciliation. But the conversations, no matter the topic, always shifted to white supremacy, and its attendant unearned privileges, unjust exclusions and oft-unconscious cognitive biases.
We had white people in the group steering the conversation towards this topic as they were struggling to understand basic concepts of white supremacy as a living, false ideology and how it intersects with other such ideologies to dole out unearned privileges and unjust exclusions, and reinforce oppressive structural hierarchies. Others who understood were struggling to reconcile their beliefs in social justice with living lives made comfortable, relative to the average black person, through the oppression, domination, exclusion of, and discrimination against, black people. They felt like nothing they did is ever good enough because “some black intellectual” would invariably come along to tell them what they were doing wrong.
We also had black people in the group steer the conversation to white supremacy as they were working through their anger towards white people and racial inequality, and looking to white people to do and be better — to reclaim their humanity. Because, like it or not, each of our being is bound up in the other's.
No other agenda point could be discussed in that setting without first piercing the falsehoods of white supremacy—which I've come to realise I can't do on behalf of anyone else.
I left the workshop frustrated. I felt I’d been duped. Instead of having “difficult conversations”, I felt I’d been made to spend four days metaphorically counselling an egotistical captor and their Stockholm syndrome-addled captive. I felt I’d again wasted my time trying to help the former work on themselves enough to create a more egalitarian relationship with the latter, who is unable to escape except perhaps through destroying the captor and therefore their own humanity.
I asked myself: Why has the captor not done this work themselves?
Why do white people generally seem so unconscious and unaware — or in denial — of their social position, its foundations in white supremacy and the unearned privileges it has begot them?
Why, once they become aware of it, do so many say they feel so isolated in their own communities, families and among their white friends that they turn to black people with requests for friendship or to be taught about white supremacy? Or with that hackneyed question of what they as white people should do about it?
Or, worse, embark on safaris of self discovery or ministering using the lives and bodies of black people as therapeutic objects, then level accusations of ingratitude or censorship when told that it’s white people who need the most help; that “there’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix”.
I'm beginning to suspect that the answers to these questions lie in the fact that it is not a regular occurrence in the lives of white people to be treated with the frankness that Wandile did the white waitress. White people are seldom confronted unvarnishedly, at a deeply personal and existential level, with the social realities created by white supremacy and their place in that ecosystem— least of all as children, as I was in that Ellisras café. White people generally do not spend their entire lives in existential angst over what it means to occupy a white body in a white supremacist society.
After all, a supremacist ideology deployed as this one has been benefits the purportedly supreme and creates cognitive biases that protect them from scrutiny, even that which might come from within. So much so that it becomes controversial to remind white people, rudely or not, that their place in this country, however meagre and deserved they feel it is, was built out of the kafirs' stomach.
It was built on war, dispossession and forced removals, on unequal reward for equal work, on exploitation and white domination, on job reservations and disproportionate spending on educating whites, on fears of the black libido, on letter bombs, abductions, torture, murder and braais as black bodies burned. And that much of this has gone largely unremedied and unaccounted for, and continues to shape our social realities today.
These are things that cannot be said to white people, however sweetly, without incurring a backlash.
The problem with white people is that they are seldom confronted personally with the social truths of their being white. White people are seldom made to wilfully embody from their formative years their position in this racial hierarchy of ours. So few ever really choose to interrogate it meaningfully, and even fewer choose to reject, divest and work to dismantle the ideology. Most, unconscious it may be, choose to be white.
In another world, one where white people were working on themselves and each other, and working to dismantle white supremacy, the Obz Café waitress might have understood the radical politics of Wandile's act and, however personally hurt by it, lent her voice and whiteness-garnered windfall to the cause to create an egalitarian society.
But that world does not exist and the waitress did not do this. She chose instead recrimination and self interest. She chose to be white.
It goes to show that James Baldwin was right to say:
Ultimately, to be white is a moral choice. It’s obviously a very deliberate challenge to people who think they’re white to re-examine all their values, to put themselves in our place, share in our danger. . .
- Update: Read also “The final word on #TipGate”, by Ntokozo Qwabe.