What does it feel like to be white?

Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

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Part of an employee protest for higher wages at M&L Panelbeaters, Cape Town, South Africa. 2018. Song: ‘Bread & Roses.’

My coworker, Mikovhe asked me this question after I visited a textile factory on Wednesday. We talked about the predominantly black workers, upset about their wages and the response from fair skinned owners we just met. Some workers received a 13 cent increase from last year while other employees had worked in the factory for over 20 years. They had nothing but a jacket to prove it. Mikovhe told me after the meeting that 90% of factories in South Africa are operated by black employees and owned by Dutch families.

I have no idea if his stats are accurate. We were both left us with an eerie feeling that apartheid still exists.

So, what does it feel like to be white?

The quick cerebral answer is ‘privilege’ or ‘opportunity.’ But I gave Mikovhe’s question some time to avoid retorting a canned liberal answer. I wanted to sink into what my whiteness feels like.

What did I feel? Nothing.

The silence in my mind spoke more to me than a quick answer would. I realized to be white, or to feel white, means I don’t have to feel anything. I never thought about the color of my skin, really, until these past few weeks in South Africa. Maybe until that moment. I never had to. I assumed people like me, for me, and I’m treated accordingly. Not based on the fact I’m white. Naive, I know.

I think Mikohve asked me about my skin color because he was asking what it felt like to belong. The more the more I realized to be white at home meant to already belong without opening my mouth. But we had left a meeting where 30+ black factory workers expressed grievances to us and shouted, “I know the way white people think…. they just want more money” and that definitely didn’t feel like home.

I’m getting used to feeling judged based on the fact my skin color is linked to years of discrimination, colonization and a racist reputation that I have no control over. Cape Town is a place where locals often ask my opinion on Trump once I open my mouth, guilty of an American accent. It’s immediately assumed I support our backwards president, before I answer.

It often feels like people don’t like me because of my skin color, and that I don’t quite belong. I’m a guest in Cape Town, and I don’t typically feel judged based on my intrinsic qualities or work ethic or how much I want to try and erase our arbitrary differences. Instead, I was standing outside a factory where workers only saw me for only being white and on the other side of opportunity.

I didn’t feel this privilege. All I felt was shame.

Mandy from District 6 Museum discussed tribalism with our group on Tuesday and something stuck out to me. She said we cling to our tribe. We cling to our culture because we think it makes our identity ‘special’ — and argued this is a fallacy. Colored, black or white, but many of us are mixed. She said we create boundaries based on skin color, nationality, religion, etc to “define ourselves…” but often face the reality that we don’t fit as nicely into our labels. Mandy thinks we pretend our labels are different from each other because of our privilege. She thinks there’s no reason why we cling so tightly to labels of difference for anything other than the opportunities we benefit from them.

At home, it usually feels like nothing. It means I walk into a restaurant and don’t think twice about bad service and assume the waiter is just having a bad day. Or it means I get great service, or a free coffee, but don’t think it’s from being white. Maybe Mandy was right, and it took feeling like a minority in Africa to finally generate an opinion on whiteness, or understand it from a new vantage point… a place whiteness isn’t just visible, but isn’t always liked. That’s sort of uncomfortable.

I’m “in the gang who has no opinion” at home, because I never needed to have one. But in Africa, I’m a minority who doesn’t always feel like a benefactor from my ‘tribe.’ My whiteness feels like an orb of judgment or disconnect from people. It’s because of my privilege. I have to work harder to connect with locals and look for a common language that strips away American stereotypes.

It’s easy fall into the comfort of thinking I’m different from people in Cape Town and not look for common ground, but this week taught me a lot about finding similarities to strangers. We might not speak the same language or have the same skin color, but the label of ‘white’ doesn’t always feel so pronounced. I found beautiful moments when my invisible privilege sunk into the background… where I felt accepted or understood beyond my skin color too.

My co-worker, Mikovhe, comes from a completely different world than me. He’s a 29 year old South African that grew up in Limpopo, worked for the government before SACTWU and Xhosa is his first language. I grew up in Rhode Island with goats, barely speak Italian as a second language, and can’t imagine working for our government in any distant future.

Yet somehow, we get along easily and it all started with a book of poems.

Mikovhe and I couldn’t sit still without doodling the crap out of our notes last week and both had a restless spirit when sitting in a conference for over 7 hours. I noticed he was writing poems and rather than closing them off to me, Mikovhe shared his story of how he got started. I told him I also really like poetry and we started playing a game where we wrote a title for each other, and would respond with a 5 line haiku. By the end of the conference, we filled our notebooks with poems and communicated deeper truths in “Sand,” “Feet,” “Way off the Ground,” and “Big Moon” than I can express in small talk.

I don’t know any serious details about Mikovhe’s life or what he does when work is over, but I know I found a way to connect with him. It had nothing to do with our background or skin color. Our experiences are independent, but we found a way to express universal feelings. In that moment, I found a place where I didn’t feel whiteness or unearned opportunity or separateness.

I wish it didn’t take a 15 hour plane ride to another continent or a wide-eyed stare from my coworker in a factory parking lot to recognize my whiteness, but it finally felt like my skin color was more than just a void of invisible privilege.

It felt like nothing, then it felt like shame, and now it feels like a heightened awareness of privilege. But not so much privilege where I can use it as an excuse to not cross invisible boundaries.

I think a better question is how can I feel equal?

Because to feel equal, means to understand someone else. To not get hung up by labels of difference. Mikovhe and I can easily find excuses to remain separate (and mutually bored at the conference), but we inadvertently let go of those crutches to find common ground. And through some impromptu poetry with my coworker from another world, it felt like we were equals.

It doesn’t take haiku’s to forge this gap but I think being open to another person’s story can connect you across differences and grasp another person’s worldview a bit better. I’m not going to fix systemic racism or inequality when I’m here (or ever). I still enjoy a free ride to work everyday while Mikovhe walks over an hour to the office, but I hope my perspective gets a little wider to understand people who aren’t granted the same opportunities or privileges that I am.

It’s been uncomfortable to be confronted by my race and actually sit with what being white means, but I hope I can engender more empathy towards my counterparts in Amercia who do go home and still have to think about the color of their skin. I’m not off the hook either, and while I might return to a pretty easy life in the States, I won’t be going home and feel nothing towards my whiteness.

Written by

@DukeUniversity alum, mindfulness teacher & writer | former D1 NCAA runner | logging more words than miles now.

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