What is set out below started as a Facebook reply to a post Eusebius McKaiser made about white privilege. I posted in a knee jerk way, and in so doing, was brutally honest. I later regretted it and deleted the post, but a good friend has told me that it’s the kind of honesty we need more of in SA, and so I’ve taken the decision to post it on my blog. I have added some more to it, but it is, essentially, the same as what was posted on Facebook.
I still vividly remember the day I came face-to-face with my white privilege, and all that it meant. Ironically, it occurred in that moment when I was held at gunpoint by a gang of armed men, who took my family and I hostage for around 2 hours, whilst ransacking my house, repeatedly threatening me with rape, shooting at my husband at point-blank range, and tying up my (then) 8yo daughter.
Through it all, I retained an air of calm, a quiet isolation from the violence happening all around me and I drew on that intangible “thing” we don’t even know that we have. I spoke to them calmly, but firmly, I directed the play in a way that I didn’t even appreciate until afterwards, and I took control of the situation. When one of them tried to throw me down on my bed, and told me that, if I didn’t give him gold, he would “stick me”, I calmly removed his hand from me, and said “No, we don’t behave like that. We are not savages and we are not doing this.” I spoke to him much like I imagine Catholic nuns do with errant children. Much like I would have told my gardener that I had told him to plant the lemon tree THERE, not here.
All through the ordeal, I touched them. I would put my hands on them, rub their backs to calm them when they became agitated, take their hands when they were anxious and talk calmly to them. The intimacy of that moment was indescribable. An intimacy with strangers which is only comparable with the intimacy white people had with the black people who worked for them, lived in their homes, cared for their children – but whose names we did not know.
In that moment, we reverted to what Apartheid made us : I was the white Madam with all the answers, they were the black men, content to let me lead.
And so I led. Within an hour, they were calling me “Madam”, instead of “white bitch”. When they tied me up on the floor, they put cushions down so that I would be comfortable, a privilege not extended to my black staff (who they beat, until I intervened, and said “No, we are not doing this”.) When they tied my daughter, they called her “my baby”, and stroked her hair, much like my staff have done, chuckling and saying “the little madam is brave”.
I played to it because it was a role I understood, as much as I loathed it. It was a role I could step into and cloak myself in and it was a way to survive. I don’t know why they allowed it, why they stepped into it. Learned helplessness? That human tendency to revert to situations we know, even when we hate them? Afterwards, I vomited every time I thought of it, and I bathed five times a day, scrubbing myself raw, not only to strip myself of the trauma, but also because I desperately wanted to strip myself of that which I had so easily become – the white boss.
This gang attacked almost every home in our suburb. Our neighbours were beaten, raped, killed by them. One woman was raped right next to her 4yo son. We were physically unharmed. The police could not account for why we were treated differently. I couldn’t account for it. For a while, I lied to myself and said it was because I treated them with respect, spoke to them kindly, remained calm, did not fight. For the next year, I was angry. I was angry with my friends, with my family, with myself. I was angry with the world. I tried to dismiss that anger as PTSD but it was more – it was fear-based anger. Not fear of attack, but fear of me, of who I was, of who I had let myself be, and what that said about me. How could I be THAT comfortable in that role?
I hate it. I hate it more than what was done to me, more than what I can ever say. Such is the brutality of Apartheid. This is white privilege : the expectation that you can engineer ANY situation to your benefit because why should you not. That black people should treat you in a certain way because, well….you are white and you deserve it.
I have agonised over sharing this. Not only is it intensely personal, and shameful, but also because I can see that, in explaining my reaction, I am also explaining theirs, and I no longer find myself willing to speak on behalf of black people, because I now know both that I lack their experience and that I have no right to try to be their voice. It may be that their reaction to me was not what I have set out above. Perhaps they were moved by compassion when my daughter was so honest with them, and engaged them. Perhaps they were moved by my willingness to extend a hand to them, physically. Perhaps they just hit us on a good night.
But it doesn’t explain the shift from “white bitch” to “Madam”. Especially after, early in the evening, they had told my husband “you are no longer ‘baas’”. In other words, they knew the power of those words and had rejected them. Why embrace them again? This question has plagued me far more than “why us?”
I have thought of asking them. They have been arrested, I am unable to find out whether they’ve been released, tried, or are part of the many in the “system” awaiting trial. Sometimes I think of finding them, engaging them in discussion. Part of me wants to tell them that they had no right to traumatise my family the way they did, to remove things which had no commercial value, but huge sentimental value.
Mostly, I’d like to thank them, for holding up a mirror to my soul and showing me the person I no longer wanted to be.
Perhaps, one day. In the meantime, I struggle on, trying every day to be a better person to the people with whom I share a country, always mindful of the things I’ve benefitted from, and the price others paid for them, and for the way I have behaved in the past. Mostly, mindful that each day is a gift, and that there is always space for reflection, reparation, rebuilding. That ours is a country rooted in violence, bloodshed and inequality and that, for this to stop, each of us needs to make the conscious decision not to be a part of it. Never again. Not me.