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Reaching out: let’s talk about race

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lara van Lelyveld

As South Africans, we have a long and complex history with race and its implications for one’s life chances.

Many of us were raised in a society where race is visible. I see race and sometimes I react to it. I am not proud of this, but if I am to face the world with any degree of honesty, I must admit to this. Part of my research for my Master’s degree thesis involved interviewing learners from different schools, including an independent school, a former Model C school and a ‘township’ school. I was interested in knowing from my respondents what they thought their lives would be like if they had been born a different race, but with all other societal factors (class, family, gender, etc.) remaining the same.

All of the white respondents felt that their lives would not change at all. All of the black respondents (except for one attending a former Model C school)1 felt that their lives would be very different if they were white: they would be “listened to” and “respected”. As a young researcher, hearing children say “I wish I had been born white” had a transformative effect on me. With each year, my understanding of the world deepens and I see things both in myself and in those around me of which I was previously ignorant, or perhaps did not see as clearly. White privilege is one of those things. Below are a few tips I’ve found useful in my own classroom practice in furthering discussions on race.

Be brave and honest

A turning point in my classroom came when I described an incident in a shop near the school when the woman walking in front of me had her bags checked by security and I didn’t. She and I were of the same age, wearing a similar style of clothing, but she was black and I was white. I see the privilege of my white skin. I see how it gets me better treatment in some scenarios. Speaking to my class of black learners, this honesty and awareness allowed us to discuss race in a different, more open way.

You are simultaneously your skin colour and not your skin colour

In the same way that people will generalise about gender, there will be similar generalisations about race. Some of these will apply to you, and others might not. A human being’s identity is a complex composite of so many different things. I am not my race, as my whiteness does not solely define my identity, but in some ways, I am solely my race. When a security guard does not check my bags, it is not because I am a nice person, but because of that which is visible – my skin. I am white. I live in a society that sees (and often, reacts to) race, and my white skin is no exception.

Avoid rainbow nation rhetoric and instead focus on a life of dignity for all

Any calls for being ‘colour blind’ do a great disservice to all of us. We cannot deny the reality of what we see around us. How do we develop strong, capable learners who can deal with challenges, when we do not speak to them openly and honestly about one of the most important issues in our country? We do not need to brainwash children into not seeing race. Instead, we need to equip them to have the difficult, awkward conversations around race that many so carefully avoid.

You are not your ideas

I believe that there needs to be a clear division between an idea and a person’s identity for them to be critical thinkers. By creating this space, a person is able to discuss difficult issues without seeing each point as a personal attack. When people discuss issues of race, statements need not be a personal attack on you as a teacher or individual. It is not necessarily a personal attack on your school, either. However, even if you feel it does not apply to your school or you as a teacher; that does not give you grounds to dismiss such a claim out of hand. If you feel that it doesn’t apply to you (and it might well not), perhaps take that brave step in looking at yourself and your actions as objectively as possible and trying to see things from a different perspective.


1. Former Model C schools are government schools that are administrated and largely funded by a governing body of parents and alumni, as well as by limited government subsidy. Some of the country’s best schools fall into this category, and fees are somewhere between private and regular government school fees. (Source: schools-in-south-africa.)

Category: Summer 2014

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