Safe Spaces: Breaking the Barrier Between White and Black

Sindiso and school friends in more innocent times

In much of our reading lately, Dan and I have heard the message repeated that the best solution to racialisation and the inequality it perpetuates in society is for white and black people to be intentional about forming deep relationships across the colour line. This requires living in community with one another: shared neighbourhoods, churches, schools, workplaces. Full immersion in each other’s worlds.

Chris Rock jokes, “all of my white friends, they have exactly one black friend”. Of course, this joke is not new: most of us are aware of the “proverbial” white person who either before or after making a, perhaps, racially insensitive remark answers the usually unasked question with “I’m not racist; one of my friends is black”. One question black folks have often asked themselves in response to this has been, “what kind of a friend are they?” What do I mean? We all have a yearning to be fully known and fully loved; without being fully known it seems impossible to be fully loved. True friendships are an essential site for realising this need. Let me illustrate.

From Grade 1 through 12, I went to a school where white girls outnumbered black girls by a landslide. In primary school, I had stayed over at some of my white friends’ houses (they never at mine because of the law), played with them in their sandpits and even bathed with some of them. But something happened in our transition to high school, which coincided with South Africa’s transition into democracy. We drifted apart. As we all wrestled with ourselves and the implications of our socio-political context, we found that we were unable to parlay our blissful, “colour blind” childhood friendships into “race conscious” teenage friendships. We continued to relate cordially and humorously (most of the time) but few relationships were profound or close. Somehow race always got in the way of even the best efforts at deeply connecting across racial lines.

From where I and my other black friends at the time stood, white and black pupils’ inability to relate as consciously raced beings formed the ultimate barrier to deep friendship. For instance, no matter how much some of my white girlfriends told me that we were “just the same”, I couldn’t ignore the fact that they treated their maids differently to how they treated me as an individual. And no matter how we tried to silence the political questions soaring outside the “safe space” within our school’s walls, often enough, the anger and confusion of being “unfairly blamed for what our ancestors did” reared its head only to create a rift between all and create a distinct feeling of an “us” (the white girls) and “them” (the black, coloured, Indian girls).

Things changed later in life. I suddenly encountered white people who were not shy, ignorant or insensitive about things racial. Dan was the ultimate: he was unafraid to relate as a white person – bearing all the historical, socio-economic and political baggage that comes with that – with me as a black person with all of my own baggage. More than that, he was ever so willing to regularly get under my skin and take a turn at walking around in it. Not in the awkward way that some white people do: acting black and seemingly denying their whiteness albeit that it is undeniable to the world. Rather, he sought to live into black people’s experiences and really understand the world from where they stand. I must admit, I couldn’t have married him other than for this remarkable ability to be comfortable with his whiteness but accept the privilege and communal guilt that comes with it. Yet without being paralysed by it either, but rather being proactive about the necessary rebuilding of bridges and practically concerned about correction of injustices suffered by people of colour. Enough praise of my husband.

If life is a journey, I’m particularly grateful for this leg of the odyssey. In this season, I have not only gotten to live with my husband and get to know his “white ways” more intimately and love him more deeply. I have also gotten to know his family somewhat better and receive their unconditional love and acceptance, as well as sincere attempts to know me in light of where I come from. But, mostly, I have somehow found myself in contexts and, I suppose, an emotional space in which I have formed some of the most intimate friendships with white people that I have ever had.

14 years after leaving school, a very intentional white friend gathered a group of us to discuss race and the church, and created the safest space I’ve ever come into for creating real cross-race friendships. In this discussion group, as we discuss Christian Smith and Michael O Emerson’s great book Divided by Faith, there are no holds barred. We are all respectful but we are also quite brutally honest. It helps a lot that we are all mature enough to “speak truth to one another in love”. All of us being Christ followers who are concerned about racial inequality and the non-representativeness of most congregations and church structures, there are also enough shared assumptions about what would be a good and whole society that we are willing to wrestle honestly with ourselves and each other to try and bring that about – starting in our own midst.

In this group, and outside of it (as the conversations begun there follow us into purely social spaces where we accidentally meet or choose to continue our discussions), we find that we are able to form sincere friendships because we don’t have to pretend that things in our world aren’t as they are. We black girls and guys don’t have to enter into the silent pact by which we often gain access to white circles: the pact that says that we will not “harp on about” (read: name) white privilege and, in exchange, our white friends will be comfortable with us. Our white counterparts also have the explicit permission to ask and say all those unknowing and sometimes offensive things that white people might say about black people only when they are among other white people. We black group members know that they don’t say them to offend us, and they reassure us of this. We all take it as an opportunity to learn and grow in empathy, together.

Group forgiveness is a difficult and somewhat icky thing: who can ask forgiveness from whom and on whose behalf? It can get very messy (or at least awkward) very quickly. But, even with those risks, it is such a beautiful thing when it happens in the right spirit and conditions. In our group, I’ve experienced the catharsis of speaking truth to racial power (albeit only its proxy in the form of the white men and woman in our little gathering). In return, I have had them meet my words about the hurt many of us black people carry with remorse and the invitation for us to help them avoid the same errors of our collective past in our future. I hope I have reciprocated by being just as gracious and humble as they.

As a result of this safe space and the kind of engagement it has birthed, I am a fully-fledged believer that true cross-race friendships can exist across society. They are not confined to the ultimate of deep friendships – an interracial marriage. It has also made me braver to dare to be more honest in more of my friendships with other white people and test their boundaries to see whether they are indeed safe enough spaces that they can stretch to accommodate all the messiness that conscious cross-race relating necessarily brings with it. As a consequence, I find myself showing more of my white friends my “black” mind (my black identity). Some don’t know what to do with it – it’s just too foreign and frightening. Some are glad for the chance to have an open conversation with a black person about race – both mine and theirs.

But, even as I have done this I have had to confront a sobering fact: I am myself “a safe space” of a kind. If I were not the kind of black person that I am – “a safe black” who sounds more white than not and who has adopted many habits that would tend to make white people feel more comfortable around her – how able to relate with me would many of my friends be? A question for another day.

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