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Talking About Race

Colleen Magner
July, 2015


Some weeks ago, I had a minor car accident. I was driving along a rural road in Limpopo, and a truck braked suddenly in front of me. I in turn had to brake hard, and unfortunately the car behind me couldn’t stop in time. My car had a tow bar and was relatively unscathed. The driver behind me had significant damage to his car. I am white, and he is black. What unfolded during and after this accident was in a way symbolic of how race and inequality play out in South Africa.

In our work with complex social challenges, my colleagues and I are often confronted with the dynamics of race, particularly in groups. How do we talk about and acknowledge the realities and perceptions about race and privilege? Without surfacing these dynamics in a group, the exercise of working with a complex problem, whether it’s about a more effective food system, inclusive financial instruments, or understanding the implications of National Health Insurance, will always be flawed. The discussion will be based on the naïve assumption that the starting point is a level playing field.

In my own learning about how to talk about race in these kinds of situations, I’ve started by interrogating my own personal experience of my racial identity – my whiteness. Why do conversations about race often leave me feeling lost and unable to shift both the realities of racial inequality and how we talk about them?  Like many white people, it’s taken me a while to work with the associated feelings of guilt and shame.

The elephant in the room is the missing acknowledgement that not only am I perceived as being privileged, but that in this country I am privileged. The aggregate economic and social power of white people in South Africa is still pervasively dominant. I think the reason why these kinds of conversations illicit such deep emotions, is that the current social reality is not my design or choice. In some ways the privilege and rank that come with racial identity is not personal. But my whiteness is still is my identity to own.

So how do we talk about race when addressing social challenges? There are inevitable experiences that come with having more or less privilege and power. How I handle my whiteness is going to impact on other people, likewise for people of other racial identities. No one living in South Africa can escape these difficult dynamics that play in the undercurrents of our interactions.  I’m learning to talk about race by being aware of how to handle this role as a privileged white person.  The hard task is to listen without defensiveness and to notice how my (both perceived and real) privilege might silence some, anger others and encourage a few. And from that undefended listening, I then try to decide how to respond in a way that’s helpful to the task at hand.

As I write this, I realise how easy it is to write about, but how difficult it is to do in practice.  The pattern of internal awareness, listening, and choosing a response isn’t in a manual about how to be white (or black) in South Africa. The answers aren’t written up to be learned.  They are different for each situation, and arise within every interaction, such as the car accident in Limpopo. The outcome of our interaction during the course of an afternoon unfortunately didn’t reduce the relative damage to our vehicles. But we did get to know each other a bit better, and the conversation moved from hostility to collective problem solving. The event had a surprising outcome for both of us. I’m learning that how I interact with race in these micro conversations, applies to how I learn to facilitate task-oriented groups dealing with high stakes problems.

This article is part of a series "Moving Through Tough Terrain".

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