Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Tag: white privilege

Working on Whiteness

I ran my first ever Working on Whiteness introduction conversation/workshop last night and I want to share many of the details. I want this to be the beginning of much more work of this nature, and so I want to explain it thoroughly so more people will feel compelled to attend, and will invite those who won’t be able to come to the conclusion for themselves.

I have made a deliberate choice to keep this work exclusively white. Ironically, POC are more comfortable and supportive of this. Friends I have spoken to have articulated how being black and having to explain over and over what their pain and anger looks and feels like to white people is exhausting and often futile. It is my opinion that white people need to do a lot of work before entering into the conversation on diversity. White people need better tools and more information to have those conversations. We need to start before those.

Anyway. The lead up to last night’s workshop was an invitation through email and on Facebook and Linked in to all white friends, connections, colleagues, associates and friends of friends, who live (or found themselves) in Cape Town to attend. I think I shared it personally with over 1000 people. Many people contacted me to say that they thought it sounded good but they were previously engaged/out of town and couldn’t make this one but would still like to come if there ever was another one. There will be.

There were eight participants. The evening was divided into improv games, storytelling exercises and facilitated conversation. And it was a gentle start in the right direction. Of course, the people in the room were already conscious that there were issues like racism, white privilege, white guilt, systemic racism and virtue signalling. What we unpacked was some of that.

We are like trapeze artists who could fall into the traps at any time. It is a lot of hard work, constant reflection, and deep listening to hear, see, feel, and stay on it and in it.

An earnest desire helps, but we have to keep pushing ourselves into the uncomfortable place of this work.

Here is some of what participants had to say.

“There is often resistance to having this kind of conversation informally in a group and if the subject of ‘whiteness’ comes up, the conversation can often become quite defensive.

I wondered (worried about) what would be asked of me in a workshop like this. I had been thinking in the privacy of my own mind about myself as a white person. The thought of going to a workshop to unpack whiteness was confronting, but I decided to go.

I am very glad I did. It was hugely worthwhile. Megan held the group expertly and led us though a number of really easy and fun exercises which were designed help us begin this conversation.

Once we began the conversation to look at our/my whiteness, it felt really easy and natural to do so in the environment that had been created. The feeling in the room felt very comfortable to me.

It was amazing to hear the thoughts of others in the group and good to share my own”. – L.S.

“When you finish a two-hour workshop and race conversation with a group of ten white people saying they could continue for another hour and want to sign up for an ongoing course, you know something special has happened. Megan Furniss’ ability to hold uncomfortable spaces gently while firmly pushing into the tough areas that desperately need to be talked about is key to this much-needed work. It was just the tip of a very large iceberg, but the fact that people paid to be in the room and were engaged for two hours with no sign of wanting to leave or stall was testimony to what we need to see so much more of.” B. A

Contact me if you want to start this, or even continue with this work.

White Privilege and the Loaded Baggage of arrogance, patronage and patriarchy

I thought about writing a twitter thread on white privilege but then I realised that I probably had too much to say.

I have been conscious of my own white privilege for a long time, courtesy of a father who explained the difference between my suburban primary school and the ones that were in such trouble in Soweto on June 16, 1976. I was 11.

I was painfully aware of white privilege without having access to the words of it as I was grown up by another woman who was not my mother, or even a family member, Lilian Mpila. She ‘lived in’ while her own children lived somewhere else far away with other people. She fed me, dressed me, punished me (subtly, because it wasn’t her right), and because she was strong, we suffered each others’ micro-aggressions. The ones she directed at me were to teach me, painfully slowly, what it was like to have a paid slave in our house, and what that did to her psyche. The ones I directed at her should have been received by my mother.

Everything I am is because of how I grew up. The fact that my family was not rich and didn’t manage the veneer of middle class does not give me comparison rights to poorness. It is the fault of my family that it did not fare better under apartheid. It should have. It had such a massive head start and truthfully, my grandparents and parents didn’t take enough advantage of the total privilege their whiteness provided them. They were less than mediocre achievers (something I have inherited and am not critical of that at all), and would most definitely have been part of the working class who had not risen up by their bootstraps if it were not for the running head start of being white and having access.

So when white South Africans claim the poorness of immigrant parents and grandparents I want to scream, “That’s their fault! They had every single thing they needed to get out of that!” And I also want to interrogate how quickly they managed to get out of it. The journey that most dirt poor, white European refugees from war took when coming to South Africa was one that started them above at least 70% of the population of South Africa, who were not even seen, counted or considered. Every corner shop (my paternal grandfather started with a general dealer shop in Tulbagh) could only be owned by a white person. Every office job was done by a white person. Every house owned by a white person. Every teacher was white. Every sportsperson. White immigrants got bank loans and bursaries and built houses with cheap labour.

When the DA’s Natasha Mazzone claimed to have come from a poor family of immigrants who arrived here with nothing my response was, well, considering the circumstances they really should have done better. She should be embarrassed about how little they took advantage of their privilege on a platter. They had immediate access to virtual slave labour, land, commerce, cheap and good education, and all this was by law. Every single thing that black people were by law deprived of.

This same white privilege is also responsible for white ‘colour blindness’; the kind that has raised its vile and idiotic head with the Ashwin Willemse saga. Because underneath all the ‘disappointment’ speak around whatever went down and how these white men are not racist, is the complete inability to understand that although these men share a studio, the journey that brought them to it is incomparable. Ashwin’s is miraculous. A one in a million chance. A chance against every single odd. What was handed to Mallet and Botha throughout their lives, on every level, was the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly entitlement of whiteness that they do not even know how to recognise or acknowledge.

What needed to happen, even though it was too late, was a huge, heartfelt apology by Mallet and Botha, for being so unconscious that they had no idea they were causing hurt. I don’t think they meant to. That is possibly even worse. That is white privilege.

I have no idea why this white privilege, glaring and obvious at every turn, is so difficult to own. I do know that not owning it is the most dangerous thing any white person can do.

Virtue Signalling

A couple of months ago my friend K introduced me to the concept of virtue signalling while we were chatting about politics. It was a new one to add to our growing lexicon of complicated ideas, but it is one that I was particularly drawn to.

Virtue signalling is when you announce the goodness in you loudly; like a white ally, crying white tears and making the issue about your identifying pain. I have been totally guilty of virtue signalling. It is part of the process of acknowledging white privilege and the systemic racism we are part of.

When I think back to the huge deal I made about starting to learn isiXhosa I recognise that I was doing a lot of virtue signalling. I had to be called on it (before there was a definition for it). It was a hard lesson. My virtue signalling goes back a long, long way to my varsity days during the crazy early 80s and the mad and dangerous state of emergency, violence, and real revolution that was starting to play out. Going to Crossroads or Lavender Hill for a UDF meeting was not living in Crossroads or Lavender Hill. Protesting along Rhodes Drive with almost 90% white UCT students was not quite the same as #feesmustfall. My history of (privileged) activism cannot be used as retrospective virtue signalling to gain cred, or political points. I am still learning what virtue signalling is, and what means to be a true ally, and what calling out bullshit in others is. I don’t always get it right. I keep trying.

Virtue signalling is at its worst on social media, where it is easy to have knee jerk responses to things, to have solidarity to half truths and fake news, and where you can signal your ‘virtue’ by ‘liking’ or ‘hearting’ or ‘cry-face-ing’ a thing, with no further action needed. It is also so easy to offend people on Facebook and Twitter (I sure have had a week of it), and I am still trying to decide whether it is useful to offend people, or not.

One of the most ugly and opportunistic and reprehensible spin offs of virtue signalling is crisis advertising, where companies advertise how they are helping in a crisis situation. Take the Knysna fires, for example. Banks and supermarkets and restaurant chains (I am certain with the best Capitalist intentions) seem to have taken advantage of the chance to put their names on the helping hand basket for pure PR purposes. Of course their help is desperately needed, but I do gulp when I hear about this help in paid for ads on the radio. Do you see the irony there? We have to work hard to tell the difference here, but it leaves a really bitter taste in my mouth.

I want to work hard to recognise my own virtue signalling. It is a dangerous distraction from the real work that needs to happen. Who is with me? What do you think? Is this post virtue signalling?

 

Advertising – a wake up call

In the last couple of weeks I have been listening to the radio a lot, mainly Cape Talk 567, to keep up with the news, the current climate of sentiment in South Africa, and because I enjoy the challenging, funny, irreverent and sometimes razor sharp attack of Eusebius McKaiser. He doesn’t let a thing slide, and he calls out the white privilege of those who dare to call in, pointing out their hideous assumptions, lack of awareness, and the outrageousness of how badly they want to be heard and recognised as sufferers or victims. He is so good at it; so good at the outrage, the debate, the breaking it down into bite size pieces, so good at carrying the thread for maximum traction. He is a jolly fabulous talk radio host and I do love him.

What I have been finding more and more problematic though, is what happens when, in Eusebius’s own words there needs to be an ad break ‘to go shopping’. I know that Joburg (where Eusebius sits) and 702 land’s advertising is different from what we get here in Cape Town, but I am always utterly shocked by what is being advertised to whom. And, of course, in case we ever forget, who holds the purse strings. Cars on special for only R369 000. Holiday packages beyond the reach of anyone I know. Retirement homes in retirement villages. Insurance and investment packages. Vehicle tracking systems for cars. Very, very expensive things for the rich, white few.

This is not the demographic of people who listen to the radio, (although in Cape Talk’s case, from the complaining white constituency you would probably think so), and yet, only the rich white few are targeted as relevant for advertising. It makes business sense. Sell to those who have the money. That’s the whole point of advertising. But it so often buys straight into everything that Eusebius (and others) are railing against. It is the whole system, run by white capital, and the independent media is no exception.

So often white callers quote ‘business facts’ raised by Eusebius’s colleague Bruce Whitfield on his The Money Show, and sometimes I end up hearing bits of Bruce as well, mainly when I am driving at that time and the radio in my car is on.  And let’s face it, I know that the show tries as hard as it can to have as many black voices featured on it, but the voices and faces of big (and small and medium) business in South Africa are still predominantly, largely, and only with the rare exception, white. Then there is the content on that show, aimed at those who have disposable income, regular jobs, property, annuities, insurance, medical aid, cars, investment portfolios. Who are these people? They are mainly, and for the most part white.

So, what’s my problem? It’s this. In a world where we are trying to have the honest conversations that Eusebius tries to have, we have to acknowledge how even he and the radio station he works for are propped up and supported by the very thing he is trying to engage critically about. And I find the adverts uncomfortable. I find them garish, and insensitive and completely out of touch. And yet, they are aimed directly at where the money is.

This system is deeply entrenched. It underlies the fibre of even those that dare criticise it. It marginalises and excludes the masses. It is as dishonest as only advertising can be.

 

An open letter to my friend and ally Brett Anderson

Dearest Brett

I thought of you today. It was a constant thought that ran parallel to my most extraordinary experience, and so I am writing to you, and for everybody else to see.

I’ll start with the facts; with what happened, and then I will tell you what it has done and how I feel.

I went to the periodontist’s hygienist today for my regular teeth cleaning. I go every five months because I am prone to gum disease. It is the one area of my health I am vigilant about. Life is weird. I have a good relationship with her; she chats to me a lot while she scrapes the plaque and tartar off my teeth. I have heard all about her kids and their lovelinesses and she knows I have a niece of a similar age to her daughter. I like her very much, this young, hard working, serious, kind hearted, sensitive, religious, intelligent, white, Afrikaans woman.

Today the conversation swung in the direction of the student protests and she sighed out how disappointed she was in the violence and burning that to her mind was so counter productive and inappropriate. I hesitated for one tiny moment before deciding what to do, and then, I breathed in (it helped that her fingers were in my mouth, which gave me that extra nano-second of refection) and asked for her permission to hear my radical point of view. She said yes and I started explaining.

At first her responses were lots of ‘yes but’s and I persisted. She told me how hard she and her husband had worked for what they have. She told me how her 25 year old brother, who has a degree, is discriminated against and can’t get a job. She told me about her mother who had grown up with absolutely nothing in an orphanage. And there was my way in. I said, “When your mother was in an orphanage there were only white children in the orphanage.” She stopped and said firmly, “Yes, poor white children.” And all I said was, “there were no orphanages for black children then.” Her mouth opened. A tiny penny dropped. I took the gap and changed the subject. I asked her how many cars her family of four owned. She said two. Basically, a car per adult in the family. And then I told her how she was in the less than one percent of the richest people in the world, who owned their own car. I told her about the many millions of people in the world who would never ride in a private car in their lives. And her brain clicked. I saw it happen.

She bravely held back and stopped her white tears. She thanked me. She thanked me for talking to her. She told me she would never, ever see the world in the same light again. She confessed how naive she had been, how insular, how shortsighted. She thanked me, and I received her thanks.

I spoke to one white person today who utterly, totally heard something for the very first time ever, and she will never ever unthink those thoughts. And I am so excited and moved and inspired. Oh yes. It can be done. One person at a time. One engagement at a time. One white person at a time.

So, Brett, I thought of you, and how you do things, and what you hope for, and how usually I am the one with zero patience or tolerance, and today I must have channeled you, and it worked.

I am not reformed. White people’s ignorance of their own privilege pisses me off beyond explaining, but something tiny happened today, in the right direction and it is as teeny as the furthest star, but it is a shining light.

PS. I just thought you should know.

A few last words on the subject

Why is everyone with a different opinion from mine so hectic? Why can we not engage robustly instead of it spiralling into name calling and blame? I have never had my mind changed by being screamed at, literally or figuratively. And it also does’t make me hear or understand your point of view better. Why do I end up feeling like I am putting myself out there and must therefore expect a certain level of abuse? I know that that is how things work on the internet, and that what has happened to me is mild and silly, in comparison to threats, and trolling and violence, but still. Come on guys, surely you realise that your vitriol and self righteous anger sounds alarmingly defensive? It also sounds like the thing you keep telling everyone you find so repulsive and unnecessary; white guilt.

I am very sad that black people saw absolutely no reason to engage with me around what I wrote about the #ZumaMustFailMarch, but I totally understand. It was a shouting match of white people. Unless you share my opinion, or were moved, by something I wrote, into seeing things differently (yes there were those too) you were all quite cross with me and what I had to say. And I am afraid that reminds me more of apartheid than is comfortable.

I don’t have many practical answers, but I do know that awareness and vigilant calling out of white privilege will be something I will be making a daily effort to do. And I can’t imagine what will happen if others don’t.

And thank you Rod Suskin for your passionate engagement on Twitter. That’s constructive and engaging,and has kept me thinking all day.

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