Claire L Bell
Claire L Bell

Silence is golden, nobody likes an angry black

Six years ago I was awarded an Open Society Foundation media fellowship. My assignment was to spend three months in the old Transkei, interviewing the rural South Africans of Pondoland and Thembuland about what democracy had – and had not – brought to their lives.

I set myself up as an objective reporter on an objective mission. It was 2010, and I was tired of how, back then, the newspapers were dominated by stories of crime, corruption and the voices of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, the political elite. I wanted to know what my fellow citizens thought, how we, the people, were really getting on with our democracy.

I set off alone on the road, a lone female journalist roaming the Transkei in a bakkie, and soon realised that my so-called objective mission was a flawed project. I had grown up in Benoni during the last days of apartheid, and despite my media credentials (this was a freelance assignment for Time magazine) within days I found myself drowning in my own subjectivity, face to face with my fears, ignorance and prejudice, the shadows of an apartheid childhood.

Over the next five years, with more return visits to the Transkei, that journey became a book, titled Lost Where I Belong. It is a book of two halves. Partly, it documents the stories of rural South Africans and their sense of “being lost in transformation”, and partly it tells my story, my own feelings of loss, longing and not belonging.

Since then the book has courted many publishers, and is now represented by an excellent literary agent in London, and yet – in 2016 – it has yet to find a publisher. Why? Over and over I have been told that there is simply not a big-enough market for a book that probes and pushes at racism and white prejudice.

Here is an extract from the latest rejection:

“I’m ever so sorry not to have written back sooner about Claire’s book, which I admired enormously. It’s a book that really took a hold of me at times and nagged at me even when I wasn’t reading it. This is of course because what she addresses is so potent and distressing but mainly because of the forensic honesty of her quest and her writing, her willingness to confront the apartheid within, to work through the fact that she is inextricable from the history. The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting. You will appreciate, then, I hope, that it is only with a great deal of personal regret that I’m writing to say that I can’t see a place for Claire’s book here. The very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful. This is partly because it’s such a difficult and upsetting subject and partly because it is for a UK readership a subject that might appear to be at some distance from their daily lives.”

Bearing in mind, that the book received a similar rejection from a South African publisher. The bottom line: there is no market for a book that confronts racism from a white perspective. We can’t make any money from that.

While Lost Where I Belong has been struggling to find a platform, Keke Motseke, Anisha Panchia and I have created a platform of another kind: the Consciousness Café. In inspiring spaces around the country, we bring South Africans together to engage in honest, bear-all conversations about the shadows of racism and prejudice that exist in all of our hearts.

This past Saturday, Consciousness Café popped up at the Spaza Gallery in Troyeville. During the dialogue what shocked me – and most of the white people present – was to hear how every black South African in the room, including the glamorous girls with MBAs and BMWs who most white South Africans would describe as “sorted” and “privileged”, continue to experience racism on a daily basis. Being told there is no place for them to sit in an empty restaurant. Being overlooked for promotions and pay rises. Being given a lower grade than their white classmates, despite the fact that they were working in a group, and everybody else in the group got the same grade.

Really? In 2016? With a black majority government? This is happening? But perhaps what was more shocking was the way they said they reacted when this happened to them. They kept silent. They said nothing. It was better that way. After all, nobody likes an angry black.

It reminded me again how much the system values our silence. It is comfortable that way. It does not want the voices out.

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    • Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw

      I fit into one of those ‘sorted’ blacks classifications, with a PhD and a decent job that allows me global travel and the usual perks. When my white colleagues share their frustrations of bad governance, corruption and the falling Rand as a direct result of bad decisions by the political elite etc, I find that myself and other black colleagues acknowledging such issues because we are sensible and honest people seeing what is in plain sight for all to see. What I find disturbing is when a black colleague brings up racism that is in plain sight for all to see, and when I shared my very real experiences of racism in South Africa, the responses from most of my white colleagues usually range from counter accusations of black racism against whites, BBBEE disadvantaging white people and corruption by “your president and your government” being the greatest of all evils. My experiences of racism are very real. Is it incorrect to anticipate similar responses to this post? We shall see..

    • Waxfoot

      There’s this really good article in the Huffington Post from about 3 years ago about self-publishing, Claire. You should read it ; )

    • Daan Marais

      Your are probably getting the same kind of response from your white colleagues that many whites are getting from populist politicians, namely, that everything is racism versus, everybody complaining about racism is unfairly using the race card. That is probably an indictment of their thought processes as well, being unable to understand that things are not as simple as they seem. That said, I am also happy to see that you have not received any negative responses here.
      In any event, the future is mainly in black hands. Whites, at 10% of the population, no matter how rich or privileged, simply do not have the numerical clout to do much more than shout from the sidelines. Consider also that the white population has a wide diversity of opinion as well. About 67% voted yes in the 1994 referendum, and although some may regret that, I doubt if we are talking about a major shift. The majority of whites would support a black president, provided he shows leadership and stays away from tarring everybody with the same brush to placate supporters.

    • Claire L Bell

      Thanks – I think I might have written that article.
      I just feel that with a topic as sensitive as confronting race, it helps to have a team, to be supported by a publishing house and a literary agent. It’s tough going it alone out there.

    • Waxfoot

      Yes, it was weak attempt to be facetious.
      I’m not being flippant though when I say it’s a good article, and it would be a shame to leave your story untold.

      Good luck with the Consciousness Café; it sounds like a great initiative for stimulating meaningful dialogue.
      More power to you

    • Herman Hanson

      If you cannot understand that SA is run by a “black” government who have introduced race based legislation and its members continually chant that whites should be killed, raped, leave the country, etc etc and that this is significantly more dangerous than some misguided woman commenting about monkeys, your PhD doesn’t impress me.

      My view of Biko’s writing is that black people (like any other “people”) should judge themselves as individuals and should discount what anyone says about them. Unless they can hear the truth in it I suppose. Any race based law, judgement or comment is wrong in principal.

    • Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw

      My point is this: it would be great to get a sense that my colleagues understand my frustrations as I relate my experiences in the same way that I understand when they relate their experiences. As individuals, we should be able to share specific experiences at a personal level without one taking a stance to defend or rationalize behavior by any race group or apportion blame on the victim. You do get that, don’t you?

      To put a context to my story I thought it helpful to mention my work and other information, the point was not to impress anyone; that would just be silly.

    • Barry Saayman

      >>”Really? In 2016? With a black majority government? This is happening? But perhaps what was more shocking was the way they said they reacted when this happened to them. They kept silent. They said nothing. It was better that way. After all, nobody likes an angry black.”

      This generalisation is in my opinion inappropriate and racist. Black people are not one single collective or mass without individuality.

      Some black people may react in the way described by Ms Claire L Bell. There are however many reasons why some people avoid conflict.

      As I understand it e.g. introverts dislike conflict. They avoid confrontation at almost all costs. Humans are complicated. And supremacists obsessed with race will in my opinion be unable to identify the differentiating role of personality types or culture variances.

      South Africans are in fact confronted by and experiencing a very serious conflict of interests and it manifests in multiple ways. People are frightened. Don’t ridicule them.

      Those that argue that everybody dislikes an “angry white” because whites have no reason whatsoever to feel threatened by the ongoing racist and seditious National Democratic Revolution or to live in perpetual fear behind high walls and costly security or to be negative and angry about anything and must therefore keep quiet is extremely patronising.

      It serves no useful purpose to criticise people because they are white or black in order to e.g. make them feel guilty or to neutralise them. The “othering” strategy is counterproductive. None of us can change our pigmentation and it merely deepens excising chasms.

      Humans can however modify behavior when necessary.

      The prerequisite for success is that the criticism must be rational – e.g. “purple face” and “blue face” or “orange face” are not “black face”.

    • Clive Dennison

      Did you try Johnathan Ball? They published Anthea Jeffrey’s “Peoples War” which I wouldn’t have imagined would have a wide readership. I may be wrong, though.