Martin Young
Martin Young

The question every white South African has to ask

“What if I were black?”

I am beginning to understand as a white person why the fundamental causes of the inequality that persists in South African society have to be addressed, and the critical role that we whites have to play in bringing about changes towards removing inequality.

Without white buy-in to the notion of a reconciled South African, multiracial and harmonious society, and what it will take to get there, our future as a country is very uncertain. We are clearly nowhere near there yet, and white intransigence is largely responsible. Black people have good reason to be angry because we clearly haven’t “changed” enough to see inequality start to disappear. This is the process lacking in our country at the moment.

The first step in starting this process is for whites to understand and acknowledge the challenges of being black under our present system. This is not difficult. Just ask the question and spend a few minutes thinking it over. It is too easy to be overcome by misconceptions and wrong beliefs, one example of which I surprisingly read recently from a well-educated white news editor, ie that “poverty is due to laziness”. How many other whites truly believe this? Too many, from the comments I saw on the thread following his post.

Now more than ever we need to use our “emotional intelligence” – the ability to put oneself in another’s situation and to read correctly the feelings and emotions of that person. The best way that I can think of to do this in the context of our racial debate is to imagine oneself in another colour skin.

So what if I were black? I didn’t choose to be white middle class. It was completely accidental, a winning lotto number in the vast multitude of possibilities of being a member of any culture anywhere in the world.

I know that if I had been born to an average South African black family, the chances of my being a self-employed, middle-class medical professional are ridiculously small, because of all the many obstacles that would have been in my way. I was just lucky to have opportunities that I could use to further myself. The vast majority of our fellow South Africans were not that lucky.

That single spark of recognition has changed my view on just about everything relating to discussion on race and on our politics. I don’t buy into the concept of “white guilt”, just that I have a responsibility being fortunate to offer a hand up to those who are not.

The processes and means by which that “hand-up” is accomplished are up to us as a society to decide, but any suggestion is bound to have detractors unless the need for it in the first place is recognised. The starting point is to acknowledge that we have to do anything at all.

For too long whites have been too disengaged from the challenges facing us as a country. An honest self-reflection on this simple question is a good place to start.

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