Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dear Black People

Dear Black People

I am a nice person, who does not want to hurt anybody.

I believed all my life that I am not a racist. Growing up in Germany, I had struggles like everybody else. Our family wasn't rich by any stretch of the imagination.

I am an over-used cliché.

I am your worst kind.

I am the white liberal, privileged middle class woman with the German accent, who has lived most of her life blissfully unaware of her privilege.

To tell me that race matters would have raised my eyebrows and my defences, because in my world, it didn't. Race was for dinosaurs, race was for racists. Skin-colour was something I did not need or want to think about.  And to tell me that this was of course the big red flag of my privilege would not have made any impact other than to alienate me.

Then, to top it all, I adopted black children. I did not specifically want to adopt black children. As I said: Colour did not matter to me. So I would happily chant with the best of them white liberals: Green, pink, brown, any colour child, bring it on!  And for the longest time, I really did not care that my child was brown. Sure, I battled with the hair, and wondered how to care for the dryness on her little legs - but I managed and did not think I needed much help or advise.

But inevitably and oh so slowly, something dawned on me. To call it awareness would be stretching. It was more like a predawn awakening, a reluctant and confused blinking of my eyes in a changed world of shadows, where my black and white was suddenly blurred  and danger lurked everywhere.

So how come, I asked myself, still rubbing my eyes, that there are no black dolls for my children, no black princesses, no black heroes? How come, (white) people think I am "race obsessed" or "crazy" when I bring these things up and start turning away from me or change the subject?

Then, later when my children started speaking for themselves, another dimension opened up, a black hole (excuse the pun) threatening to swallow me whole, when my daughter, aged three, asked if a person her colour could ever drive a fancy car.

I cried then, I ranted. I hated all white people, I hated myself. I pitied all black people, I pitied myself. I desperately searched for that one thing that would make all the difference so my children would grow up undamaged and not hating me.

I realised there was nothing there for me to cling to.

 I realised I needed help.

I read a lot on the internet. I bought books. I learned about white privilege, institutionalized racism, racial bias, cultural belonging, racial awareness. Those were all new terms to me.

I repeat: I genuinely had NO IDEA.

Is this absurd to you in this world of inequality and oppression? I assume it is.

So what happened to me? When exactly did I learn to close my eyes to injustice and suffering? When did I harden my senses and assimilate the concept of "othering", other people's suffering, other people's problems, other people's children, in order to preserve my plastic happy bubble?

I remember that first time; I was maybe six or seven, walking to the shops with my mother in German suburbia, when a homeless person asked her for money. I was shocked and saddened, that there were people in this world who did not have a home to go to and food in the fridge. But above all, more than anything I wanted to help this man and make the world right once again. My mother said, we cannot help everybody, and dragged me along. When I turned my head to look at him,  I expected him to be sad or angry. But he did not even look at us; he just stared into a space beyond us, beyond sadness, beyond disappointment and beyond anger. But I still felt all these feelings.

Until my instinct to help in the face of injustice and inequality was overridden by a new narrative, the widely accepted excuse for privilege-inertia:

You cannot help everybody so you better learn to be hard in the face of hardship.

I imagine that many more stories like that have been implanted in my mind, informing my attitude towards the "other". Anybody not my colour has always been on the far periphery of my reality as "not really our kind". "The poor children in Africa" was a story my grandmother told me repeatedly to get me to eat her pea soup. "Who is afraid of the black man" was a game we played in the schoolyard. "10 little negroes" was a song I was taught to learn how to count backwards from 10: .....And then there was only one.

We white people all have stories like that, stories we are ashamed of and stories that to this day hold power over us - mainly because we don't allow them to surface and push them back into our subconscious.  Inevitably they come out though:

When I walk at night in my predominantly white neighbourhood and the black man walking towards me threatens me by nothing else than his existence;

when the beggar at the traffic lights doesn't touch my heart, like a fellow human being should;

when the pictures on the news showing black people's tragedies don't scare me as much as if they were showing white faces contorted with grief, the stories are endless.

We are trying so hard (well some of us white liberals that is) not to be racist, not to say the wrong things, to be accepting and welcoming, yet, we fail to see that on a really basic level, we simply don't get it, because to us, the black person is "the other, and in our hearts this excludes them from our human family.

This doesn't mean we are bad people. It just shows our complacency, and somewhat lazy existence in our comfort zone, where we can't be bothered to connect with a wider humanity outside our own closed circles of privilege. And even if we sometimes wish we had a more diverse group of people in our lives - we don't know how to get there.

We make ourselves feel better by being kind and charitable, by giving to the poor and talking to our domestic workers about their children. But there is an unease that never quite leaves us as we are constantly aware of this invisible wall separating us from the "others".

We even tell our children, that we are not racists and that "colour doesn't matter" as if skin colour is an affliction, a bad thing that we need to overlook in order to be kind.

I knew on some level that this was not what I wanted my children to grow up with. I had no idea what to do about it though.

I only knew I needed to change my life.

To start somewhere, I went on a mission to make black friends.

Oh yes, you heard me right: I chose friends by the colour of their skin and I am not even ashamed anymore to admit this. My wish was to be the only white face at my dinner table once in a while, to ask the questions I didn't know to ask growing up in Germany or even living in white suburbian Cape Town. And of course I see the absurdity in all of this: Why would any black person wish to befriend me in order to help me change my life? And how would my white friends feel, when they are suddenly replaced or (in some cases even worse) confronted with the black man at my dinner table?

People surprised me, in good and in bad ways.

I lost many white friends and gained a whole new perspective on life, friendship and rice:

There was this awkward, funny moment, when our 6 dinner guests, all black new acquaintances happened to know each other quite well, but I really did not know any of them. I had made rice and luckily also some pasta as one of our guests upon sitting down remarked, he hated rice. "Are you a rice-ist" I quipped, in this too loud, too quick kind of jokey voice I obviously employ when I feel insecure. After a second or two of absolute silence, everybody burst out laughing - and this evening still remains in my memory as the first of a number of dinners at my house, where we sat until well after midnight, children sleeping on laps and couches, discussing race and all the uncomfortable things we never knew how to talk about. This was when I really started waking up.

Today, some years later, I have the best friends I could have wished for - and yes, some of them define themselves - amongst other things - as black. And the lesson for me in this is: even though it is a somewhat strange concept  to befriend a person because of their skin colour, once I make the effort, I will find  true connection beyond this aspect of our identity in just about anybody I choose to truly look at. And only through this connection can I learn and grow as a person.

No book, no article on the internet on white privilege and no amount of introspection could have opened my mind and my heart and at the same time challenge me in a way that my friendships did and continue to do.

But now, with my growing awareness also comes the fear, that I will fxx this up.  Compared to my black friend family who have lived with this burden of awareness and knowledge all their lives, I am like a toddler in a high school classroom:  frustrated and painfully aware there is so much stuff I have to catch up on, so much I am simply not getting:

Will I say something inexcusable, without realising it? Will I not notice someone being racist towards my friend? Will I mess up by not defending her in the face of blatant racism? Will I patronise her by stepping in and using my whiteness yet again to speak for her? 

And this is where the beauty of a living, breathing friendship outshines the set manual of rules and politically correct behaviours we largely live by in this society: I can ask my friend and she can let me know. Simple as that.

And for some of you  I will always be the white bitch with the privilege - this is also ok, I will learn in time to accept that I cannot be seen by everybody outside the system, whether I like it or not. I will always be a part of the system of whiteness - but I can chose to see myself in the eyes of my friends and try to contribute in some small way to the change I want to see for our children.

Thank you for listening to me.


  1. Thank you Martina, you write with real heart and guts; I am inspired to be more real and authentic about my own isms and schism, of which race is one. x

  2. Thank you Si for sharing the journey .

  3. I Gained in reading this. Shot for penning. Much resonates with one of my journeys. No all (it being your story and all.. ;-) but so so much.