Skip to main content

Last weekend, our group visited Peter Storey, a former bishop in the Methodist Church. We sat in a circle in Storey’s living room, enjoying the coffee and cookies he offered. We listened as he spoke about his role in the anti-apartheid struggle—how he served as a chaplain for Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Bishop Desmond Tutu.

As we were about to leave, Storey imparted the following advice: “I hope that you don’t just fill your head with more facts while you are here. I hope that you’re here to feel. South Africa is a place that makes you feel.”

Storey, of course, knew what he was talking about. South Africa is undoubtedly a place that makes you feel. While I had worked to prepare for my time here by filling my head with facts by taking a course on South Africa’s history and reading books, I do not think I could have adequately prepared for the depth or breadth of emotions I’ve encountered.

I could not have prepared for the lament apparent in the voice of a woman at the factory I visited as she cried, “I want you to know we are not happy working here. We are not happy.” Or the fury I felt when the mechanical engineer recently hired to work on the machine that may replace her job turned to me and smirked, saying “Do you really want to listen to all of these stupid concerns?”

I could not have prepared for the grief that washes over me every day on our walk home from work as young children follow us, pleading a constant chorus of “Please, I’m hungry. Please, may I have some food.” Or the shame I feel when I continue to walk knowing the DukeEngage stipend money in my pocket would feed him for months. And I could not have prepared for the internal turmoil that wells up when I realize I do not know what to do: when I realize I do not know what action would be good or right.

I could not have prepared for the joy that filled the room when I asked the man I was interviewing for an oral history project what the atmosphere was like at a protest he led in 1998 and he immediately broke into song. I could not have prepared for his story about how he was working at a factory at the age of 20 and became so ill that he fainted. His shift manager refused to let anyone else stop their work to come help him, so he lay on the ground all night. On top of that gross injustice, the company fired him over the incident, claiming that he had been challenging authority. In addition, there is no way I could have prepared to watch him break down in front of me as he detailed how his fellow schoolchildren paid the ultimate sacrifice while fighting against Apartheid in 1976. “They were schoolchildren,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “Children,” he repeated. “Only children.”

I also could not have prepared for the shock I experienced at a church service when a man barged in leading 15 homeless children he’d gathered from the streets right outside the church. He blew a a shrill whistle and began shouted expletives. He said the Church was hypocritical and pleaded to the congregation to “f***ing feed these children.” I could not have prepared for the preacher’s response. He  turned to the man who had interrupted his service with a string of expletives and said, “I hear you. And I agree.”

I again could not have prepared for the way a man seeking higher wages turned to me and said “no offense” before voicing his concerns. He later brought up that he doubted he would be able to win higher wages because he “knows how the white man thinks.” Afterwards, our co-worker felt the need to explain that we shouldn’t take it personally. He pointed to his skin and said that all workers in South Africa look like him. He pointed to our skin and said all factory owners look like us.

After this interaction, I could not have prepared for our co-worker’s sudden question: “So what does it feel like to be white?” I’d never been asked that before. I said that it feels like privilege. It feels like never having people pronounce my name incorrectly. It feels like having nude-labeled products match my skin tone. It feels like never being followed around stores when I’m shopping. It feels like trusting the police to protect me rather than fearing for my life in their presence. It feels like seeing people who look like me every time I turn on the TV or open up a book. It feels like knowing that my race will never work against me when I’m applying for a job. It feels like being able to walk into the vast majority of spaces and knowing that I am welcome.

Sheridan, the other Duke intern at my placement, said it doesn’t feel like anything: that she never has to think about being white. I nodded in agreement. Another one of the countless privileges of being white is never having to consciously consider the color of my skin in my home country. However, here, in a country where a white minority oppressed an overwhelming non-white majority just 24 years ago, I am often reminded of my whiteness. I am conscious of it during interactions with strangers, as I wonder if it will affect how I am perceived. I am conscious of it when I walk with my black and coloured co-workers and a person passing comments “Look, it’s the Rainbow Nation,” or a security guard says we stood out to him because he never sees multi-racial groups.

Because of these very limited occurrences of being conscious of my race (remembering, of course, that I am made conscious of a race that confers power and privilege in this country and mine), I’ve realized that being conscious of my race is tiring. It’s tiring to enter every interaction thinking about my whiteness and how it is perceived.

I’ve come to see quotes like the following in a new light:

“I am so tired of waiting. Aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind.” (Langston Hughes)

“I am tired from the ache in my heart.” (Rosa Parks)

“I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization… I am tired of civilization.” (Fenton Johnson)

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” (Fannie Lou Harris)

I had always interpreted these quotes, and countless more like them, to mean that the speaker is tired of injustice. While I still think this is the main meaning, I have also come to see the physical exhaustion that comes with being conscious of your race at all times and the weariness of never being in a situation that enables your race slips into the back of your mind or be temporarily forgotten. I can only imagine the daily exhaustion that would result if this consciousness was also coupled with micro-aggressions, overt aggression, and dehumanization.

“I hope you are here to feel.”

Bishop Storey, I assure you, I am feeling. I am feeling deeply.

I wonder why I’m feeling more deeply in three weeks here than months in the United States. I know there is just as much grief, shame, turmoil, lament, fury, joy, and shock to feel in the U.S. I wonder if it has something to do with the patterns I find myself following in the United States: patterns of school and home, of work and play. Based on my time here in SA, however, deep emotions tend to surface when patterns are disrupted. I am also worried that because the emotions I feel in the US seem more recognizable and familiar, they don’t feel as deep or as worthy of reflection. Maybe I’ve become desensitized. This thought of desensitization alarms me.

After the cursing man stomped out of the church and the homeless children joined the pews, the congregation recited the following words, called the Benediction of Discomfort:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

The benediction asks for discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness. They seem like strange feelings to ask for. We usually hope for comfort, joy, laughter, and wisdom. Discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness are not easy emotions. They are instead tiring, thorny, painful, and arduous. My time in South Africa, however, has shown me how essential they are. Discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness incite action and action is what leads to change.

I hope I can carry the discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness I am experiencing here back home. I hope to never become desensitized.