Ever since I began reading snippets of Steve Biko’s famous I Write What I Like: Steve Biko (1987), in particular Chapter 5, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, I’ve been wondering to myself what a man like Biko would think of me were he still alive today.
What would he think of my twenty-one years of admittedly limited knowledge and life experience, of my still-new claim to womanhood and all the responsibilities and difficulties that came with it at the onset of fledging adulthood? What would he think about the colour of my skin and the birthrights I automatically inherited along with it?
What would he think of the year of my birth (1994) and the fact that, purely through being born then and not a year sooner, I was a ‘democracy baby’ by default, whether I would grow to be non-racist and non-prejudiced towards so-called ‘people of colour’ or not one day?
What would he think of my now quiet acceptance of everyone, irrespective of the colour of their skin, religion, gender or even sexual preference? Would he think it’s all just an act, an attempt to appear as the ‘good white’ South Africa was crying out for during Apartheid and even after its abolition?
Would he think I’m talking through my teeth when I say that it doesn’t matter to me if you are darker or lighter than I so long as you can treat me with respect too and don’t prematurely judge me based on my racial grouping? Would he try to poke holes in my firmly held personal views, which I have never allowed to be swayed by those around me, to see if they’ll reveal a hidden, racist underbelly?
Would he claim that my upbringing in a small, rural town, which is predominantly Afrikaans (and rather white) and still quite racist (and that goes for all the racial groups, which make up its population and not just the white, Afrikaans-speaking people who dwell there…) could not have left me as anything other than faintly racist, even if I seem to put on a good show of being non-racist?
Would he judge me based on all these things or would he (were it possible) sit down and get to know me, would he let me ask him questions about his views on the current state of our country, on ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Open Stellenbosch’ and all the other weighty matters currently ‘trending’ or would he simply write me off and dismiss me with repressed loathing because I am helplessly white and he is not?
I don’t know the answer to any of the above questions – but when I read ‘Black Souls in White Skins’, I can’t help but ponder them.
Anymore than I can help but agree with the opening paragraph where Biko wrote: “Basically the South African white community is a homogeneous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so.”
He makes a valid and insightful point there… For, whilst I disagree that we are “a homogeneous community”, (I think you’ll find that whites are not all cut from the same cloth and that’s something we can all be grateful for!) I confess that yes, I am wracked with post-Apartheid ‘white guilt’, even though I wasn’t involved in it and in my heart, have always known that it was terribly wrong, inhumane and shameful.
Yet, when I listen to people recounting the past injustices of both whites and blacks alike, something quietly dies inside me… it’s further proof of my embarrassment and it’s something that I’ll take to my grave. It’s like modern day Germans and how they feel tainted by the sins of their Nazi forefathers, even though the Holocaust took place years before this latest German race was even conceived…
You can’t control the past but you are still connected to it, so it’s not something I can deny or cast off, it’s part of my skin colour and my heritage and I’m honestly not trying to forget it because somehow, it holds me accountable.
I do feel that there were (and perhaps still are) things I didn’t deserve more than the next child out there and yet I received them anyway: the proper education, the safe community and relatively peaceful childhood, the easy access to three nutritious meals every single day and the convenience of a vehicle to transport me to and from school… The list goes on and on, really.
I am painfully aware of it all, especially when I read of his quotes, in particular this excerpt from the SASO/BPC Trial wherein, when speaking of black communities and upbringing, Biko (1976) said: “The homes are different, the streets are different, the lighting is different, so you tend to begin to feel that there is something incomplete in your humanity, and that completeness goes with whiteness…”
Yet, even so, I never had a say in the matter, did I? I wasn’t lying in my mother’s womb demanding all these things be granted to me anymore than the black child growing in his mother’s belly was asking to be less privileged, grow up in an unsafe or more unhealthy environment, attend schools where the level of education received wasn’t remotely up to national standard and then, still have to walk for miles before he could get anywhere afterwards – including back home.
I think Biko would understand that… but I still wonder if the next paragraph is not somehow directed at someone like me all the same. Am I the person he is describing when he writes: “We are concerned with that curious bunch of nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names—liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country’s “inhumanity to the black man”. These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle for a place under the sun. In short, these are the people who say that they have black souls wrapped up in white skins.”
If I am of that ilk, then I apologise… That is not and never has been my intent. When I cringe at the mention of the white man’s sinister role in Apartheid and its nation-wide implementation or feel bad for the woman walking back from town, her baby strapped to her back as she balances a heavy sack of potatos on top of her head, whilst I drive by – conveniently sitting in our bakkie‘s passenger seat, our shopping safely lying at my feet, which are at rest and blister-free on the leather car mat – is not an act, I can assure.
Whatever else he would think of me, I know Biko would agree with me when I say that racial integration, like everything else worth obtaining in life, takes time, for he wrote: “…given the facts of the situation where a group experiences privilege at the expense of others, then it becomes obvious that a hastily arranged integration cannot be the solution to the problem.”
What’s more… I think he would agree when I say that yes, South Africa does have a lot of pressing issues, which must be proactively tackled as a nation in union and that change will happen, it has happened in the past 21 years and, although blacks and whites alike have proven that, as humans, we are all inherently fallible, that does not mean that we cannot win in the end – but still, we’re going about ringing in these changes all wrong.
On integration, Biko wrote: “One does not need to plan for or actively encourage real integration. Once the various groups within a given community have asserted themselves to the point that mutual respect has to be shown then you have the ingredients for a true and meaningful integration. At the heart of true integration is the provision for each man, each group to rise and attain the envisioned self. Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.”
We need to remember that next time we rage or point the finger of blame at one another… we’re not helping matters by reacting that way, we’re only making them worse and making those preoccupied with past prejudices even more hostile to change. For I admit that many South Africans are still inherently racist – but not all of us are and not all of us are merely ‘pretending’ to be non-racist either…
Now perhaps, I do have the answers I needed, both about what Mr Biko might think of the state of our country, Rhodes Must Fall + Luister and about myself as well…
I feel as though whatever tough standards (even if I am indeed not that mummer ‘liberal’) Biko might hold me to were he alive today, I think that he would hold everyone – irrespective of their ethnicity, age or gender – to those same standards, including himself because he was fighting for equality and acceptance for all in South Africa – that was the real point of Black Consciousness and conscientisation and perhaps that’s something that we should all try to remember going forwards…