Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What it means to be white

Never before coming here to South Africa did I really have to think about what it means to be white. Sure, I had a few friends in grade school who could be considered “students of color” and in college, I was constantly frustrated by the homogeneous nature of our college’s campus (rated the 7th most homogeneous school in the country, in fact). But beyond that… beyond dreaming up ways to include the minority or to celebrate diversity I never was forced to think about my race and what it meant to be white in this world.

I recently shared this observation and experience with a group of black South African youth at a parish I was visiting for the weekend. We had been talking about the differences between my experiences at home and my experiences here and I told them that never before had I been a racial minority. I had never had to think about my race so much. I had no idea what kind of reaction I was about to get. Jaws dropped and I was asked “Really?” about 10 times. It was unfathomable to these young people between 14 and 25 that I had never really thought about being white.

Here, race has the potential to be discussed nearly anywhere; with secular conferencing groups at the center where I stay, on taxis with people who are curious about who I am, and even on street corners with people who claim they have never seen an “mlungu” (white person) around here before. While this can occasionally be suffocating, most days I find it very refreshing. It’s nice to be able to talk to people openly about the issues of race in South Africa and the world.

Most people, when they find me in a place they don’t typically see white people, begin fishing for the thing that makes me different. Usually, I’m initially asked if I’m lost or if I need help getting somewhere. Then I’m asked where I live, what work I do, etc. Finally, they get to what they are looking for; I’m a foreigner. To them, they have figured it out… because according to their understanding, South African white citizens would never venture into such places; into townships, on taxis etc.

Unfortunately, I have in some ways fallen into this rhythm; this way of thinking. I expect white South Africans to cringe when I say I am taking a taxi to Kempton Park by myself. “Aren’t you afraid?” I am asked, “Have you ever had a problem?” To which I reply that I am not afraid, I’ve never had a problem and actually, I quite enjoy taking taxis. In some ways, I like defying their expectations and showing them a truth some have never seen before. I like being different.

I was beginning to feel comfortable, special and like I was breaking down barriers, when just then- I was hit squarely in the face with the reality of my own racism; my racism towards white people. Some might want to call it reverse racism... but this is a term I refuse to use. Racism is racism. The pre-judgment of another person based solely on their skin color.

At the arts school where I have been volunteering with music instruction, I went to talk to Mr. Kok, one of the few white teachers at the school who teaches vocal lessons. I knew he was a good man from several conversations we had had about the school, the students and how much he enjoyed his job there. However, I was skeptical and very curious about his past… how did such a skilled, experienced, white musician come to be teaching students from townships in Eastern Johannesburg how to sing? Our conversation started on his topic of research, music education. He wanted to know about our system of study in the states. So, I shared with him what little I knew about music education from my experiences in college and then somehow we ended up on a tangent about his education and experiences with music programs at township schools. He told me stories that nearly made me cry; about gunfire he nearly got caught in during the anti-apartheid uprising, death threats he received because of going on tour with his choir, even being held hostage with other teachers. He has been teaching primarily in black schools for more that 25 years. When I asked him bluntly to tell me what he thought made him different or what shaped his ideas about race, he replied with another story about a black domestic worker with whom he had grown up and as a child had learned to respect as his own mother. He then continued, “I’ve just always looked at people regardless of color, age, whatever as children of God.”

It was at this moment that I realized that this man was truly breaking down barriers and was shining as a true beacon of hope and truth. By living his life in a way that honored each and every person regardless of their situation and not doing it to feel special or different, Mr. Kok has bridged major gaps and his accomplishments are only possible because of great amounts of love. I’m reminded of the verses from 1 Corinthians that are always read at weddings, “Love is patient, love is kind.” But perhaps more importantly “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong-doing but rejoices with the truth.”

How many times do we boast in the name of “love”? How often are we insistent on having things our way and end up acting arrogantly to pave the way for “love”? For me, feeling like I was breaking down barriers was more about my own validation that I was making a difference than it was about truly loving people. It was more about me being a “different kind of white person” than it was about building relationships with all people. Have I been loving white South Africans in the same way I have been loving black South Africans? I cannot say I have. I often feel uncomfortable with white South Africans. I feel judgmental and I feel judged. I feel like I need to be different and prove to the strangers around me that I’m different. But this is not what we are called to as Christians.

When I think about what would be the Christ-like way to handle this situation, I think of the Pharisees. People who Jesus had little desire to take after. Jesus, as a religious leader was probably grouped with them during his early ministry. (However, one would only have to stick around for a minute or two to see that he was actually, radically different!) How did Christ set himself apart and point out the flaws in their perspective while still genuinely loving them and guiding them? I believe it’s probably impossible for us to do this as successfully as Christ did, but I’m reminded of a part in the liturgy here that I have come to love (when I hear it in English of course). This line in the liturgy states that we worship, we love, we confess “not as we ought, but as we are able.”

We must do our best to love others as we are able, even if we will fall short. We must truly and genuinely love those who we disagree with and those whose perspectives we believe are flawed. We must stand for what we believe in while simultaneously loving those who stand against us. And we must not assume we know what people stand for because of how they look. We must always put unity ahead of our own desires to feel different. This doesn’t mean becoming apathetic in an effort to keep the peace, but it means making love the top priority and the number one goal in all interactions.

I’m still learning what it means to be white. But even more importantly, I’m learning what it means to be a follower of Christ.

This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at: http://elcamud.blogspot.com/

Monday, April 4, 2011

A discovered prayer

There is so much in church I do not understand. Much of the liturgy is in either Isizulu or Sesotho, depending on the congregation I am visiting that week and often the sermon is a mix between English and the parish's language. However, yesterday, as I sat in church enjoying the harmonies and sang along with the parts of the service I knew, I was suddenly handed a booklet I had never seen before. An order of service! With the liturgy written out! In English!

I knew we were at the confession and forgiveness which the gogo (granny) who had handed it to me had the book opened to. So I followed along with the English as the congregation sang in Sesotho "Lord have mercy on us."

Then we came to a prayer. A prayer that I have probably heard prayed tons of times here. But this was the first time I was exposed to its meaning in English. I was so moved by it that I copied it down. Part of it read:

"Grant this congregation all that is needed for its spiritual welfare;
Strengthen and increase the faithful;
visit and relieve the sick;
rouse the careless;
restore the fallen and penitent;
remove all hindrances to the advancement of the truth;
and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of thy holy church."

What a beautiful prayer! For strength, restoration, truth, healing, unity and rousing from apathy. This is what OUR Church is praying for.

More and more, I find my ideas changing here. My ideas about faith, what it means to be a follower of Christ and a lover of justice and what our vision as Christians should be. To love across all borders and barriers; to strive for truth, justice and unity in our world; to hate apathy and carelessness and to put an end to all division... this should be our vision. And this prayer gives me hope in our ability to align our will with the will of God and bring this vision to pass.