I have written and deleted six different opening paragraphs to this piece. Writing about my own stuff – even the hard topics, even stuff that makes me feel really exposed or embarrassed – comes naturally. I own my story and I choose how I tell it; I might worry that readers will be alienated or bored or offended even, but I am never scared of being wrong.

But talking about race? This is far beyond even the furthest outposts of my comfort zone. I am white, and squirmy under the knowledge of my privilege. I am South African; when the topic turns to race I know to tread gingerly around the simmering rage and gaping wounds that lie just beneath the surface of our collective psyche. I am petrified of overstepping, of appropriating others’ suffering, of riding roughshod over the pain of People of Colour with my good intentions. Even the terminology feels hard. Do I write ‘People of Colour’? That sounds somehow both euphemistic and slightly racist. ‘Black people’? But then I’d be leaving out all the people who aren’t white but aren’t black either. Very quickly I start drowning in the myriad ways I could go wrong and find myself deleting yet another paragraph, undoing my #blacklivesmatter tag on instagram, backing out of a conversation, apologising profusely.

Basically, I don’t want to look bad. Sure, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings nor ignore my own privilege, but really, behind it, I want to save face. I want to be perceived as humble and willing to learn and woke. So much so that I’d rather stay quiet than offend, which as it turns out isn’t very woke.

My sister pointed this out to me when we were texting about the newest events around race, of which both our news feeds were full. Both our hearts were heavy. This started in America, which to me can feel very far, but it resonates deeply here in South Africa too. A man died. Many people have died. Atrocities are happening. Whether this be in my own country or elsewhere, injustice is happening and it HURTS. I hurt. I hurt; and I also feel guilty because this is happening all the time but I don’t always hurt. I only know about this when facebook won’t let me forget. I only pay attention when my attention is grabbed. The rest of the time, race issues for me lie uncomfortable but dormant, half-acknowledged, relegated to the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-this folder in my mind.

So I said to my sister: “I want to write about this, talk about this, but I don’t feel it’s my place.” To which she replied

“but it is EXACTLY our place to talk about, because we are the cause of this”.

Later she made a post on Instagram with the tag “#whitesilenceisviolence. And that made me cry, because I have been violently silent. I feel deeply convicted. I feel moved. And I still have no idea how to have a conversation about race.

But I can listen. And I am willing and eager to listen, I am hungry to grow, I am hungry to understand how I may better hold space for my fellow humans who have been oppressed and ignored and bullied and denied basic rights and respect, for centuries now. And they have been ignored by people like me, well-intentioned people who just aren’t willing to see beyond their own reality. I want to see past my own reality. I want to do better.

At this point in my post I initially started writing about my shortcomings as a white person. I started naming my unacknowledged prejudices, my lack of Black friends, the times I don’t call other people out when they make racist jokes. But then that felt kinda…self-interested. Another smart way of making myself the topic in a manner that doesn’t allow for much conversation.

So I’ll try to write in a manner that doesn’t appropriate the stories of others, while not putting myself centre-stage either. I might get it wrong. But here’s what’s on my mind.

I have been reading a lot about trauma recently. It was a huge relief for me to admit out loud that I have a lot of personal trauma, mainly from my childhood. At first I fought against it, because it felt weak, it felt disempowered, it felt as if I were relegating myself to the role of victim. But you can’t heal if you can’t admit your wounds first, so I started admitting them. And here are some of the things I have been learning, which feel relevant right now:

Acknowledging one’s own victimhood can be tremendously powerful.

In our society we tend to avoid the word ‘victim’. When somebody suffers an injustice, they will be quick to say “Yes but I’m not a victim” or others will say “good for her, she’s not playing the victim”. We associate it with self-pity, helplessness, weakness; everything that runs counter to our ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ culture. But saying “I’m a victim” isn’t weak. It’s saying: “Something bad was done to me and I DIDN’T DESERVE IT. I am not in the wrong. The perpetrator is in the wrong. I am innocent of any crime, I deserve justice and respect and dignity, and the fact that I was not given these things is embarrassing, sure, but it’s not embarrassing for ME – it’s embarrassing for the perpetrator. It says something about that person. It says nothing about me. And I will acknowledge this injustice, in private and in public, because what was done to me matters. I matter.”

This is what’s happening right now. George Floyd was a victim. Thousands of African-Americans are victims. Hundreds of thousands of Black people everywhere are victims. The protests are acknowledging that, and it’s high time.

But sometimes there isn’t the space to lay claim to your own victimhood. Often the people around you are made uncomfortable by your pain, or feel vaguely guilty because of it, or somewhere deep down believe that you deserved it. I see this in my own life: there have been dozens of times I’ve tried restoring some semblance of a relationship with my dad, only to be laughed off when I bring up the topic of my childhood. He’d say I’m being dramatic. He’d say my reaction is unintelligent. He’d blame my mom. He’d say he’s always been misunderstood. I’d end up tiptoeing around his reactions, bending over backwards to explain myself, frustrated because no relationship could be maintained without acknowledging the wound at the heart of it. I finally realised that no conversation could be had with a man who wasn’t open to a process of restorative justice, nor to even imagining the tremendous wounds he has inflicted.

So fuck him. I’m still acknowledging my trauma, but I’m not bothering to explain myself to him anymore. Nor to anyone whose reflexive reaction is to say: “Well, that was a long time ago, look at all the nice things that have happened since, isn’t it nice how it all worked out?”

In the story of race, white people are my dad. I am my dad. And if I’m going to be pat and dismissive about this, then I cannot expect anything to change for the better, ever. It’s my job to create space for people to embody their losses and say out loud what was done to them, even if that makes me feel guilty, ESPECIALLY when that makes me feel guilty.

I hesitate to write about other people’s trauma, but literature agrees that People of Colour in South Africa (and elsewhere) have collectively been traumatised. Over centuries. Do you know what happens when you have trauma? You feel shame. You internalise the voice of your oppressor. Even if on the surface you know that you’ve been treated unjustly, somewhere deep inside you fear that you might actually be unworthy. You fear you might be found out, be rejected again, be given no love or respect. In this meritocracy we live in, being mistreated is cause for shame, because the narrative says in a million tiny ways that people who suffer probably deserved it.

Which is why acknowledging victimhood is such a powerful and necessary step: It breaks the narrative. It says “nope, actually I didn’t deserve this”. But it’s not enough for POC to admit that they’ve been victimised. It’s up to us, to those who have been benefiting from their suffering, to make it safe for them to speak out. And not only to make it safe, but to welcome their voices. To be really open, and willing to learn, willing to be corrected, willing to feel convicted – ashamed even. We have to be willing to do the work without reflexively jumping to some version of saying “there there, it’s all better now.”

Because what I see in South Africa, over and over when these conversations happen, is that white people jump up and say one of the following things: “Okay but Apartheid has been over for 26 years now, can’t we all move on?” or “Okay but what about crime/farm murders/the awful current government/affirmative action?” or “My parents were really poor and I couldn’t afford to go study either so you weren’t the only one who suffered, you know.” We do what people always want to do when confronted with others’ pain: we argue it away. We feel very very threatened because this narrative doesn’t bring to the forefront the fact that our lives haven’t always been easy either, we start competing in a “who suffered the most?” game, we want to tell our stories too, and above all we sidestep blame. We’d do anything not to feel culpable.

No one has sole ownership of suffering – but there is personal pain, and then there is systemic, structural oppression. One is not like the other.

I have a ton of resources and support yet it has been taking me all my life to process my own trauma. My childhood abuse affects my every adult relationship and every choice I have made thus far, even what job I took, even where I live. So I cannot imagine how far-reaching the effect of societal abuse must be, how difficult it must be to live and love and make a living when the abuser still shrugs off the damage it has done, when you need to interact with this abuser daily. I am calling society at large the abuser in this description, but let me be very clear: we are society. You and I, we make society. And we can change it.

I cannot tell another person’s story on their behalf, decidedly not when I have benefited from their oppression. Thus I won’t try to expand further on what I imagine the effects of systemic racism must be for those on whom it is inflicted. To some the impact might be severe, to others not. Some might reject the label of ‘victim’, and they also get to do that. I don’t want to say “I know how you feel”, because I don’t. But I do know that if we are to heal, both oppressors and oppressed, then it is the job of those of us who are privileged to seek out restoration. To make an effort, and to listen to the stories in all the forms that they may take.

Because for me to be a healed person, my fellow humans also must be healed. I am because you are. And if you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

3 thoughts on “If you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe

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