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“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.”



“What does it feel like to be white?” 


My coworker, Mikovhe asked me this question after visited a textile factory on Wednesday. We were chatting about the predominantly black workers who were upset about their wages and the fair skinned owners we just met. Some workers only received a 13 cent increase from last year and other employees had been working in the factory for over 20 years and 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, but we were both left us with an eerie feeling that apartheid still exists.

So, what did it feel like to be white?

The quick cerebral answer would be ‘privilege’ or ‘opportunity.’ But I tried to give Mikovhe’s question some thought and avoid retorting some canned liberal answer. I wanted to really sink into what my whiteness feels like.


What did I feel? Nothing.


The silence in my mind spoke more to me than any quick answer would. Because I realized to be white, or to feel white, meant I didn’t have to feel anything.  I never thought about the color of my skin, really, until these past few weeks in South Africa. Maybe really, until that moment. I never had to. I just 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 really asking me what it felt like to belong. Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized to be white at home meant to already belong without even having to open my mouth. However, we had just 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. Locals always ask my opinion on Trump once I open my mouth guilty of an American accent… and immediately assume I support our backwards president before I can even answer.

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

Except I didn’t feel this privilege and all I felt was shame.


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


So what does it feel like to be white? 


At home, it usually feels like nothing. It means I walk into a restaurant and don’t think twice about bad service because of my skin color and assume the waiter is just having a bad day. Or it means I get really good service, and might get a free coffee, but believe it was because I was nice and not from being white. I think 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 and 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 here, and it’s because of my privilege. I have to work harder to connect with locals, look for a common language that will strip away American stereotypes and hope they will like me after I try.


It would be easy fall into the comfort of thinking I’m so different from people in Cape Town and not even try to find common ground, but this week taught me a lot about finding similarities to seemingly 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 some beautiful moments when my invisible privilege sunk into the background… and 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’d ever be able to express in small talk.

I don’t really 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 that had nothing to do with our background or skin color. Our experiences might be independent, but we found a way to express feelings that were universal. And 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 full of invisible privilege.


So what does it feel like to be white? 


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

I think a better question might be, how can I feel equal?

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

It doesn’t take haiku’s to forge this gap, (I definitely won’t make a lot of friends this way), but I think merely being open to another person’s story can connect us across differences and grasp their worldview a bit better. I’m not going to fix systemic racism or inequality when I’m here (or ever), and I still enjoy a free ride to work everyday while Mikovhe walks over an hour to the office, but I hope my perspective is at least getting a litter 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 about my whiteness.



Mid hike / rain storm on Devil’s Peak. (Once we realized Mother Nature was telling us to go home)
After work at Camps Bay. Happy hour
Monroe Mkalipi, SACTWU’s Western Cape Regional Chairperson, smiled for a photo after our interview on Friday.