The pain of Being White....after almost two years of dialogue

I think we all left this last dialogue caught up in our feelings and thoughts.  Emotions ran high, feathers got ruffled and opinions clashed.  I can not and don't want to give an accurate and full picture of everyone's contributions - as this would go against our safe space and confidentiality agreement.

After sitting with all my confusing, difficult, angry sad and also excited feelings for a couple of days, I finally just sat down trying to summarize what this evening meant to me.

There was one overriding question: is there an "acceptable" pain inherent to whiteness that needs to be acknowledged by black people? 

If the answer is no,  it is followed by the question: is not all individual pain equally important and worth acknowledging?

If the answer is yes: how can today's white pain be compared to, set off against or even be named in the context of the incomprehensible cruelty of hundreds of years of black suffering? And how can it not be addressed in that context, when it is directly related to the status quo of oppression created by whiteness and largely supported by white people not questioning or even acknowledging their privilege?

And more to the point: what exactly is the meaning of white pain?

Mostly whiteness is not something people consciously grow up with as it is normative and therefore not an issue.

When a white person becomes aware of her whiteness it is likely to happen in the context of  interracial relationships (including friendships) and/ or in post-colonial (post apartheid) contexts, where black people are struggling to re-discover their identities and certain assumed white rights and privileges are suddenly "threatened".

 Or coming to South Africa from a "white" country (as I did), where white is the norm, privilege a birth right and race not an issue, I suddenly  realise that whiteness is connected to a system of abuse. Naturally this comes as a shock , as I have lived all my life in my  bubble of privilege floating above the reality of systemic racism. With my new found awareness comes guilt, as I learn more about how much I benefited and continue to benefit from my whiteness. And even if I think I want to, I simply can not divorce myself from the system. The system is part of who I am. It enters the room with me, whenever I show up in proximity to blackness.  I am the white lady with the voice that gets heard, with access to resources, the privileged background, the opportunities.

Does that cause me pain? Or more to the point, does this constitute my white pain? Certainly - to some extent, it "irks" me, that in some spaces I am  reduced to "the clueless white lady with the two black kids" , or whatever stereotype can be attached to my whiteness. And yes, I have been spat at, mumbled at, ranted at - as a result of my whiteness. But at the end of the day:

I feel I always have a choice.

I can retreat back to my safe white spaces - I can even leave the country, there is an abundance of options for me in this world.

There are not many safe black spaces. Black spaces are often dominated by poverty, crime and drugs.

To me this is the bottom line. To compare my white pain to black suffering is like comparing a prolonged headache to terminal cancer. We don't say to a cancer survivor:  I hear your pain,  but I have this headache that's been bugging me for some time....

I know, this analogy is crude. I am not saying that being black is the disease - but I do argue that being black in the context of an oppressive white structure is tantamount to being born with a cancer gene. It might lay dormant for some time, it might even be detected early, I might survive it and be stronger for it, but at the end of the day, the dis-ease will always be a part of me.

When somebody trusts me enough to share aspects of their black experience with me, I simply can not nod my head and say: I know what you mean, I also suffer from my whiteness.

How can I compare or even name my pain in the context of what black people have suffered and continue to experience? My awareness of  being white only started after a whole lifetime of unquestioned, unspoiled privilege. Growing up,  my skin colour , a pale shade of pink, is  called "flesh" in my first water colour set.  My hair is the hair of princesses and mermaids, people my colour are rich, famous and articulate. We populate fairy tales and TV screens, we dominate  magazines and cinemas. In our churches, Jesus is a white man.

Consequently our awareness of whiteness, if it does happen,  mostly strikes in early to mid adulthood, when we become cognisant of the evil structure of whiteness and how we are by  definition part of this evil - whether we like it or not.

And please don't get me wrong, I know that for most of us, it is not about comparing pain, there is no competition, one pain has as much right to be acknowledged as the other....

My challenge today is to find the right space and the right time to acknowledge and heal white pain.

 I am also not talking about the white pain of those who mourn their  white  privilege. I refuse to validate the indignant voices complaining about "reverse racism", and claiming that they "have to leave the country-because -my-children-won't-get-into-university-because-they're-white". This aspect of "white pain" is simply the outraged tantrum of a spoiled child, realising for the first time he can't have everything.

But there is this other aspect of "white pain",  of having been indoctrinated and taught the language of abuse and racism by a racist environment. It is undoubtedly a reality many white South Africans are living with today.

Some feel that growing up white in an oppressive society made them conscious of their whiteness from an early age. White South Africans have been aware as children of the white spaces created for them, they might even have lived in terror of an undefined "black danger".  Some feel that fear today more than ever, some are overwhelmed by shame....

 But always, being white, meant being superior, privileged and a above all:  a human being.

And this is the reason, white pain can never be likened to, nor brought up in connection with black suffering. White pain is of it's own making.  I myself, as an individual white person might feel the injustice of being identified with the structure of whiteness. But it is without a doubt that  I benefited from birth and continue to do so from this structure and  can never divorce myself from it.

Does that mean I have to eternally suffer in silence?

Of course not.

It does  mean however that these early wounds created in a white child of white oppression need to be looked at and addressed with care and compassion -  in white spaces, where self understanding and healing can take place.

Ultimately this aspect of white pain need not be acknowledged by black people as it is the task of  us white people to understand and heal these wounds in order to come to the table of this dialogue as a human being with an understanding of  our own role within structural whiteness.

The dialogue could be the space where we identify with the help of our fellow dialoguers our individual role within the structure of whiteness to ultimately erode this structure. We can learn to truly listen to black voices and what is needed from us.

But black people can not be asked to be understanding of our white pain and help us come to terms with it. It is in our task to overcome whatever white pain we carry and use our understanding of our whiteness including our many  privileges to right the wrongs of structural whiteness.

So here it is:

I am surprised at myself for coming to this conclusion: the wound of whiteness can  only be healed in white spaces.  Maybe a dialogue or healing circle could be created within white communities?

Maybe food for thought for our next session....
Yours in dialogue


Eilat Aviram said…
Whew this is a difficult one Martina. It's very difficult to be told that someone else suffered more so they get to tell you about it and you need to just listen but they don't have to listen to your pain. It does make me feel a bit like a petulant child. I see why the dialogue became so heated. Its sore all round. But perhaps we are each responsible for the healing of our own wounds? Never to impose them on others but to respectfully acknowledge that we are all wounded - some more than others - and to try to create as many safe spaces as possible for the necessary healing to happen - for all colours of humans. That may be a white thing to say, but i do believe we each come here for our own journey and we each have the tools we need to face that journey. And supporting each other on our individual journey is the way we will all feel better faster.
Martina Philcox said…
thanks Eilat for reading and commenting - I am looking forward to more :-)
this post is extremely touching and heartfelt. thank you so much for being open with this struggle. thank you.

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