Set, setting and hearing me speak

This is a piece about whiteness and voice at community meetings in South Africa.

My thoughts here may or may not resonate with other contexts (boardrooms, schools, other countries) or other dimensions of privilege (gender, ability, nationality…)

If you are white and, after reading, are compelled to respond defensively, please take a moment.

Consider your fragility.

Go for a walk. Touch a tree. Take a deep breath. Feel your heartbeat. Or do whatever is your preferred means of getting back into your frontal cortex and out of your fight-or-flight stress response.

Then, if you still want to speak, go right ahead.

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In fact, take a deep breath and look up from your screen right now.

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Me, talking.

“I am fully aware that a paid-entry event in Cape Town CBD on a Sunday afternoon is exclusive — as a result, I anticipate a mostly-white, middle class participation, and am framing my talk to that audience. I am inspired by Biko’s writings on the role of the white “liberal” — that it is neither my place to articulate black struggles and oppression on behalf of the POC, nor is it my place to posit solutions for the POC — rather, it’s my place to engage white privilege at its source. So, when I was asked to speak, I decided to take up the opportunity: I believe that there is a lot of value in addressing the white middle class — who are often comfortably ignoring, if not normalising and re-enforcing, the spatial/social/economic divisions of our city, and who need to shift from NIMBYs against spatial redress, to advocates for it, in real and tangible ways.”

These are notes to myself in preparing for a talk on racism and city-making that I gave earlier this year. I knew the setting, and anticipated the (mind)set. And left myself evidence of how I placed whiteness at the centre of my focus as I conceptualised my talk.

“Whoever shows up are the right people”

(Whoever shows up are the white people?)

Whoever shows up are the right people.

This is a mantra among facilitators. Work with who arrives. Empower leaders without title. Focus on working with those who care. Start where the energy is. Etc.

While there is value in working with any cohort of people on problems that are relevant to them, I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this rule.

The setting* for a dialogue, for problem solving, for decision-making, for representation, impacts directly on who will show up. What time, the location, the way (language, medium) invitations are spread…

“Whoever shows up” is designed**. Implicitly, or explicitly.

Whoever shows up are the people with the means, the confidence and the motivation to show up.

This can be a potent, and potentially disastrous, mix if you’re in the business of advancing social change.

Set and setting do not exist in a vacuum of broader structures of privilege.

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When white people show up…

...they take the microphone.

A note I scribbled to myself. THE WHITENESS OF VOICE. WHEN TO USE IT? In the meeting. On the streets. At the dinner table?

“Its all the white people speaking” I heard at a recent gathering.

Even after hearing this, I, a white person, had my say. I couldn’t supress the urge to speak. I had a good point to make, after all.

How often are you frustrated to the point of actually attending a public meeting, or actually writing to a politician?

If you have the means to take time and transport to attend a meeting, and the levels of frustration required to actually do it, the chances are you’re either very directly affected by an issue and willing to scramble and risk and sacrifice in any last-hope attempt, OR, you’re like me.

I’m pretty much personally insulated by privilege from any real, direct, immediate impact. But I have the means (time, money, access, language) to participate. And, after all, I**** have something to contribute. I have experience, ideas and social capital to lend to a process.

And I knew I was doing it.

I knew that this was not my struggle. Not directly, or immediately, anyway. I knew that, really (thanks Phil!), I am not central, or even needed. The strategies adopted, or not adopted, are not about me. I’m neither the activist, nor the audience. But my white arrogance persisted despite my irrelevance.

Having facilitated and/or been a speaker at countless community meetings, activist gatherings, symposiums and unconferences over the years, I knew I was perpetuating a trend I had witnessed with discomfort time and time again.

These events are often skewed demographically — we have the expert talking-heads, the disciplined advocacy workers, the “actual” NGOs (read: the white liberal experts at funding proposals) and a lot of well-intentioned white do-gooders.

Here, people will tend to focus on technical solutions. Emotion occasionally visits in the form of dissonance, possibly empathy. Power is managed through structure.

When not/less skewed demographically, even when the majority of participants are black, the content is dominated by whiteness.

10% white attendance, 90% white time on the mic.

The confidence and motivation to speak becomes the driver of the content. Here, emotion, desperation, anger, fire is treated as if it were hysteria, responded to with calls for rationality, for organisation, for structure.

(Are we still having this debate about the need for black-only spaces? Or womxn-only spaces, while I’m at it?)

I am left asking:

  • Who is taking the most risk by being here? Whose employers might fire them, who is risking food/roof/relationships?
  • What are the tools of power at play? Are experience, networks, influence and resources to be met only with militant, disciplined ranks, in numbers?
  • What emotion is tolerated? Emotion is too frequently silenced, as opposed to leveraged to organise around, and foster creative solutions. On the other hand, arrogance appears to be tolerated, while fleeing the process in exasperated hopelessness (the White Perspective*** Just Not Being Understood!) is seen as a legitimate form of we-tried-but-they-just-didnt-get-it engagement (rather than a reflection of privilege to enter and exit a process based entirely on the extent to which we are being followed).
  • What dissonance is being raised, and which ones ignored? “We are good enough to protect your assets, and raise your children, but not to be your neighbours” or,“We are here to fight with you / we are here to help you / we are here to feel less guilt”?

Most importantly, I am left asking, how do I learn to just sit down?

(I acknowledge the irony of even writing this. And, as always, reserve the right to grow personally, adapt my perspectives and change my opinion).

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*Setting not only influences who will show up, but also how people behave once they are there. Not only is the location, time and method of invite critical to who attends, the environment created for dialogue is critical to who participates, and how, once they are there. In my day job, together with my colleagues from the WCEDP we have noticed tangible differences in the quality of meeting outcomes based on the setting. Here are some tips:

  1. Offer people a room with a view. There is something to be said about taking a few minutes to, literally, gain some perspective. Offer people a view and watch their institutional/identity armour melt off, before they turn to engage.
  2. Take away the tables, or rows of chairs. “Circle time” is a bit “fluffy” for many. We have found that taking away the tables not only reduces the chances of people working on their laptops/phones and thus only being half-present, but also creates more personal accountability. There is more humility, compassion and openness in the discussion, and a greater sense of personal accountability to act on what is agreed to. If the group is too large, has too many significant power imbalances, or consists of highly poisoned relationships, however, this can backfire — resulting in stonewalling, disengagement, transferring or denial (“everything is fine, we’re doing a great job” with tea-break whispers about “elephants in the room” or “not having the hard conversations” is a dead give-away).
  3. Reflect content back to participants. Allow people to talk, but document the content and frequently pause to reflect it back, not necessarily as-it-happened, but re-structured towards a common agenda of actions and accountability.

**Design for means (provide transport, use an accessible — emotionally as much as physically- space), confidence (phew, this is what good facilitation is all about) and motivation (the rallying call). This work needs to be done by the people who will be most directly and significantly affected by the outcomes of the engagement, otherwise you’re bound to miss something and be left curious about your accidentally exclusive event.

*** White Perspective. Did I really just open that can of worms? There is a difference between an individual opinion, and a worldview shaped by systems of racial privilege. The design of our cities is influenced by a Male Perspective. That doesn’t mean every male human holds the same views on everything. We’re talking about dominant worldviews that are influenced by the blindspots of privilege. Eurocentricism. Androcentricism. Hetero-normative. These are all real terms about real phenomena. L(eg)it.

**** After all, I went to a Model C school that taught me that if I spoke I would be heard, and my ideas would be validated. Ok, its more nuanced than this. Maybe one day I’ll write about the more nuanced truth of it — the confusing experience of being trained to be demure and un-political in the “good traditions of an honourable Girls School”, while simultaneously having an unwavering confidence (the world is my oyster, my ideas are valid!) re-enforced on the daily.

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