The idea is simple: gather good people around good food and good discussion and see what happens. So we did. We turned off technology and tuned in to people. It was messy and it was chaotic, it was painful and it was personal and it was powerful. It was raw and it was redemptive. Some of us ate spaghetti with a spoon cos we ran out of cutlery. We sat on the floor and on stools and really close to each other – three people thigh to thigh on a chair made for two. We talked and told stories, argued and challenged, wrestled and sat in silence – the good kind and the uncomfortable kind. We left with heads and hearts aching, but full.
Here’s some of what I learnt
1. White privilege is less about access to “stuff” and more about access to choices or, in Sen’s theorizing, capabilities – the real opportunities of being and doing available to attain well-being. Here’s an example: consider a priest who is fasting and a man in a famine-stricken country who is starving. The key element in determining a person’s well-being here is not whether both are experiencing hunger, but whether the person has access to food and is choosing not to eat. The functioning is starving but the capability to obtain an adequate amount of food is the key element in evaluating well-being between these two individuals. Having a lifestyle is not the same as choosing it; well-being depends on how that lifestyle came to be.
Here’s another example. Consider a bike as a commodity which enables the functioning of mobility. Personal, social and environmental conversion factors impact an individual’s ability to convert the commodity (the bike) into functioning (getting from A to B). If a person is physically disabled, never learnt to ride a bike, if women are not allowed to ride bikes, or if there are no roads, then a person’s capacity to convert the potential of the bike into movement is limited. It’s not enough to give someone a bike if they don’t have the ability, the capacity, the enabling conditions to ride it in a way that moves them forward (or if they don’t have access to a pump, if they cannot take the bike out without being physically threatened by a mugging, etc)
2. In a post-industrial/post-agricultural world, we believe that we too are living in the Information Age, where the primary means of production is Knowledge and the accumulation of knowledge (i.e. education) is the means by which individuals access livelihood, opportunity, resource, jobs etc. I simply don’t believe this is true in South Africa. I wonder if perhaps we are actually in the Age of Connection. Knowledge might be power, but it’s less about what you know and more about who you know. The primary means of production might be Social Capital – the contacts and connections which enable us to network, navigate and negotiate the economic landscape. Perhaps education is the capability, but the functioning is all about social capital – it’s the people we know, the professional contacts, the personal networks that enable us to actualize opportunity. White privilege is at its core all about social capital.
3. While I can sympathize with the pain and anger of black friends, I don’t think I can actually empathize. I can show compassion for, seek to understand, commiserate with, experience anger on behalf of but I can never really experience “from within another’s frame of reference”. As one of our guests so rightly pointed out “We do not and cannot experience EQUAL frustration. You had a choice.”
4. I need to shut up more. Perhaps one of our greatest failings as white people in South Africa is our inability to sit in silence. When we listen to the voices of our black brothers/sisters expressing pain, anger, frustration, or simply sharing their experience, we want to immediately question, clarify, push-back, argue, dissect, debate, wrestle, show the other side, point out the discrepancies or inconsistencies, locate within the “larger picture”, propose solutions, and find “action steps”. We don’t know how to sit – just SIT – with a rage that fills a room, sucks all the air from it, and leaves our friends shaking. We have ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see.
5. Reconciliation is not the path towards Justice but rather Justice is the path towards Reconciliation. Until and unless Justice has been enacted we can not experience right relationship. (Thanks, Nkosi!)