By Lucille Dawkshas
I’m the only white teacher in an all-black township school. Teaching the philosophy of Steve Biko has been quite interesting, given the context.
I can relate to Athambile Masola’s “atmosphere of exclusion” in her article “A Biko moment”, where “there are no words or signs declaring the exclusion”.
I’ve had several “Biko moments” although I find the association in the term problematic. From mocking my “white English”, to assuming I’m a spokesperson for all whites, to a strange fascination with my hair, to the request for being someone’s “white friend” to sending me to speak to the white person to sort things out, I can relate to a lot of things Masola has said.
In a post-apartheid South Africa we are all walking stereotypes. If you’re white, you’re rich, privileged, well-connected, selfish, uptight and too strict. You don’t care, especially not about black people. When I explain it’s sometimes the rich people who don’t care, because if they cared they wouldn’t be rich, a light goes on for some, but the stereotype remains. I am them, by virtue of my skin. It doesn’t matter where I come from or how I got here.
It’s these small things that create the atmosphere of exclusion. I’m an inside-outsider. I get on well with my colleagues and students, I know their community well and love it and them with most of my heart and it shows. I’m one of them, but I’m an outsider. I’m white and with that whiteness comes otherness. Some years ago I wrote this poem while working and travelling through East Africa: (Mzungu being the Swahili word for a white person, Umlungu being the isiXhosa equivalent.)
It’s a hazard
This white skin of mine
Not made for Africa
Burning with guilt
Under the scorching sun
A straight target
Bleached, difficult to hide
Signaling “Money”, “Help”, “the Outside”
Outsider in a continent beckoning me in
The continent of my birth
Continent tied to my heart
It’s a hazard
This white skin of mine
In a place I long to call “home”
I feel more at home at the school I currently work at than the predominantly white, middle-class school I used to work at. Despite teaching a class of 68 and a grade 12 class of 50, despite issues with teaching resources and organisational setbacks, I wouldn’t trade my position with that of Masola at the ex-model C school she works at. Even though due to our skin colours we’d feel less excluded if we did. We can celebrate the fact that we have the choice to be where we’re at or we can lament the fact that there are still such divided spaces in this country of ours that create such a feeling of exclusion. At the end of the day it doesn’t eliminate the exclusion.
Biko believed, as did Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael that the role of whites in the liberation of blacks was to work “within their own communities”. To reform their own communities. Every time I teach Black Consciousness and the Black Power movement this comes back to haunt me. Should I go back to a school where the hidden curriculum screams white and fight to reform it when I so strongly feel that that’s not where I belong? Or should I continue to be an example of the fact that white people are not always uncaring, selfish, uptight and too strict? And in a feat of “message over messenger” teach the oh-so-relevant message of: “Black is beautiful, black is strong — be black and proud” that Biko so fervently espoused.
I’m an African and proudly South African. And I do stay on each year because I remind myself that beyond the pitiful and selfish feelings of exclusion that I indulge in, I am fighting a demon of way greater discrimination. Discrimination of black people against themselves in a culture where everything good is seen as white and everything bad as black. I could recount several examples of this here, but suffice it to say that there’s still a practice of saying anything new “smells like white people”, a tendency to label those that do exceptionally well as “coconuts” and to doubt good ideas truly coming from black teachers or students. “No, they must have been Ms D’s ideas — the white teacher.”
Biko reminds us to “liberate our minds” and sometimes it takes an outsider to make you aware of your oppression. Or as Masola has done — make you aware of how you perpetuate the oppression. Liberating minds. We need more “outsiders” in South African contexts, ones with balls and gusto and voices that are heard. Until perhaps one day we’ve eliminated the exclusion our skins create.
Teacher by passion, writer when life allows. Lucille Dawkshas completed two degrees while travelling and working around the world, spending time in schools along the way to see how they did things. If she weren’t married to her job, she’d marry a camel, because they have the most gorgeous lips.