We’re almost a month into a new year, we’re a quarter of a century into our democracy and it’s been two weeks since my last chocolate. I remember when I started this blog, my very first post dealt with race and even though I’ve covered a vast and maddening array of topics since, it seems like the race one is slightly stickier and more persistent. I have written people off for being racist, I have argued and shouted when I shouldn’t have, I have wept with despair and I have forgiven under the embrace of understanding. In so many ways, we have made wonderful, profound steps forward and I have tried to use my voice, sometimes in anger, sometimes with compassion, sometimes in disbelief to try to quell the fires of prejudice and ignorance. I have not always succeeded. But through success or failure, one thing has become alarming evident, we must continue to try. If we do not first acknowledge the problem, we can never attempt to resolve it. We are not a racially blind nation, we are not without bias, overt or otherwise, and as much as it is exhausting, we need to keep talking about this. I am unapologetic for my persistence in this regard and if you are one of the many who are tired of talking about race, then know, so too am I, but I am far more tired of how racial dynamics play out and of our refusal to see certain uncomfortable truths. So, I am still writing about race, and this is why.
Was it that bad?
It is one of those wonderful South African afternoons, where the setting sun brings with it a light of possibility and serenity. I have always loved the part of the afternoon that creeps into evening, it’s light forgiving and gentle. The beer in my hand is perfectly cold and I find myself sitting under an old tree that embraces the picture-perfect sky. I don’t quite remember what strange turns the conversation has taken around me but at one point the person sitting next to me says “Was it really that bad? I mean look at you, you obviously made it out okay.” I’m not so much angry as I am surprised by his comments. I have never heard anyone utter those words about the apartheid. “Was it really that bad?” I heard what he said, but I also heard what he didn’t, Do we have to always talk about this? When will people realise that the apartheid also brought infrastructure and development? And finally, I don’t think you’re black enough to be complaining. I could not answer, so I shut my mouth and frowned at him. The question kept playing over and over in my head while he looked at me as if to confirm his initial suspicion that I was no match for his intellect. What could I have said in that moment when faced with someone who could think of the gross human rights violations, the indignity of apartheid and feel apathetic? Was it really that bad- beyond the subjugation, beyond the senseless deaths, beyond the fact that to be black was not be human? Was it really that bad? It was in that moment that I left as though I had no language with which to communicate with him. It was in that moment that I felt deeply sad. Maddeningly, I know that he is not the only one who feels this way.
I wonder if apathy is a form of violence, to see someone, to know the horror of a combined past, yours and theirs and simply think, That did not really happen, It wasn’t really that bad. You see me, but you cannot hear the truth in my words, they are an exaggeration. You are blinded by your privilege, so you do hear my truth, it was never your world and maybe even then if you are forced to consider that part of what I am saying is the truth, you probably think that I deserved it. That my skin made me less than you. So, you dismiss me and with it you dispense of accountability. It is my problem and clearly it is time that I got over it. In a way, that dismissal is so much more than trying to prevent a discussion on racism, it is a dismal of a person, of their experiences and of things that shaped their identity. There is sorrow and a deep, deep hurt in that refusal to acknowledge another, in that refusal to see another’s humanity.
And so, I write for the man who asked if the apartheid “was that bad”, I write for the people that you know who are like him, for the people who ask, “What do you expect from me?” for those who refuse to acknowledge the part they play, the unearned privilege bestowed upon them. I write for those who will never read this, those who continue to struggle with ill-begotten superiority that has proven to be fragile in our new democracy. I write, because it wasn’t that bad, it was far, far worse than anything I could shape with words. I write because I must.