So I met this guy. On a plane.
I had been intending to sleep through the two-hour flight, following the usual insomnia brought on by summer nights, good friends, and crappy movies. But as I sat down, I felt an unusual burst of sociability. I decided, quite spontaneously, to break the iron curtain of silence which hangs between fellow travelers and do the unthinkable – start a conversation!
At first we went through the preliminary small talk: “You flying home or for holiday?”, “Hey, do you think we might get lucky and the middle seat stays empty?”, and other such trivia which are really each person’s method of sussing out whether this conversation is worth pursuing in the first place, or whether they would be better off pretending to read a magazine or drowning their head in music. Fortunately, we both passed the test in each other’s estimation, and tentatively moved on to more substantial matters.
He had just finished his law degree at Wits. I had just finished high school. We somehow managed to find a middle ground in books, race and politics – appropriate subjects for total strangers, where no bridge in opinion is expected, and each is free to express his or her thoughts uncensored and unashamed. I realised, however, as we spoke honestly and freely with each other, that most people, bound by an unspoken relationship carved by history, lack this liberty in conversation.
Many people, in fact, lack this liberty all the time. On issues of real interest, most people feel they are about to be shut down. Many sense that their right to speak freely depends on their ethnicity. In a nutshell, if you’re white, you just don’t get to say certain things.
Giving the benefit of the doubt
My companion happened to be a white male, as well as from an ethnicity known for its strong, and often dominant, sense of identity. In his own words, he felt comfortable enough talking openly to me - but knew that in any other context he would be “lynched”. This is a strong and perhaps misplaced term to use, appropriating one of the most inhumane practices of racial subjugation to describe a white man’s slight discomfort with talking about race, but I will give him the benefit of a softened interpretation.
What I sensed can best be described as white paranoia – and I told him this. I told him that his expectations fed into the extreme – ridiculous, in fact, yet subconsciously believed – narrative of white people being driven into the sea. Perhaps this was a subtle reason the friend he earlier had talked about was hopping off to Australia. (Did you know that there are two Afrikaans schools in Perth?)
But then I got thinking: is this “white paranoia” perhaps grounded on some truth? How often do white people talk openly about how they feel about race – to people of colour or, indeed, to one another? How often are they shut down because they “do not understand”? Race affects everyone, and I think that most people now realise that after our 22-year honeymoon with democracy, it is a sensitive issue that needs urgent attention.
"...have those difficult conversations, even if Piet van Tonder just doesn’t get it. For myself, and many others, we have an unspoken responsibility to build bridges."
I came across a thought-provoking question while reading the blog of someone I really admire: “Why do my white friends turn to me to talk about race, and not each other?” (I have to admit that at the time I was more interested in getting tips on blog layouts than actually reading her articles, but the words stuck with me nonetheless.) My own white family hardly ever talks about race, with the exception of my mother who married a Xhosa man. My white friends certainly wouldn’t dare, (with the exception of debaters – and even then, they’re on shaky ground).
We learn in unexpected places
I’ve had my fare share of encounters with people so narrow and racist in their thinking that it’s taken a lot not to simply ignore them – in effect, to shut them down. Neither can I pretend my conversation with the guy at the window seat ran smoothly all the way through. Somewhere between implying some cultures are better than others, stating that Palestinians are treated fairly in Israel, and giving me a tried-and-tested list of “good drugs you should really try out sometime”, I had to do an internal reality-check. Is this guy for real?
But I also learned a lot from him. I learned that a readiness to ignore and shut down the other should never be close at hand when entering into an exchange of ideas with anyone, no matter how naïve their thinking might seem to you.
Often we vilify people for not sharing our views – the “right” views. We forget that this could be for a number of reasons. Most often, it comes down to simple ignorance – a lack of exposure to the experiences we have had. People (white people?) are just too afraid to talk about race; they lack exposure to well-considered opinions from the black perspective. And then we blame them for not being woke enough. Other times their views are formed around that basis we all find so hard to accept: informed – but still holding a difference in opinion.
If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the world we live in is far from what we’d like it to be. PC culture is so prolific that it has silenced the very people who so desperately need to be included in its discourse. And as a result, a sense of exclusion has taken root and grown, yielding its inevitable fruit: Trump, Le Penn, Die Boeremagt, Oranje, your average white guy – somewhere along the lines, they all fell through the cracks.
I am alluding to a possibility that seems to have assumed a controversial edge recently – forgiveness and inclusivity. I realise that this is not possible for some people, and this is their right, one I respect. But if a man could spend 27 years in prison and still forgive his oppressors, I think it’s possible. No success comes without compromise. Remember that just like love, hate is learned.
So have those difficult conversations, even if Piet van Tonder just doesn’t get it. At least no one will ever be able to say that you didn’t try. And if you honestly don’t care; you do you, boo. For myself, and many others, we have an unspoken responsibility to build bridges.
Airplane conversations are a great place to start. So next time you fly, whether you are hoping to bump into an ambassador to the UN, an Italian wine connoisseur, or an endorser of drugs, start a conversation. You would be surprised how much you learn – and how much you teach…