An old white lady stood patiently in the queue with her copy of Run, Racist, Run. It had been a long evening, with a good turnout at my first launch of this new book at Exclusive Books in Rosebank, Johannesburg, towards the end of last year.
I always admire the love and support of book buyers and readers in our country. Books are expensive and every sale is sacred. That’s quite apart from the fact that no writer has a right to be read. So, anyone who takes the time to read your work is doing you a favour.
I was trying hard to engage everyone who came and wanted to engage me directly, between wiping the sweat off my brow on such a hot evening and gulping down some wine because, you know, one can’t talk with a dry mouth. You need a glass of something dry to whet appetite for engagement.
Slowly, the old white lady shuffles towards the front of the queue. And she presents me her book to sign for her. I smile, thank her profusely for taking time out to come to the launch, and ask who I should sign the book for, before signing and handing it back to her.
She then leans forward and very politely near-whispers, needlessly asking: “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Of course you may!”
“Tell me something, do you like white people?” she asks.
I was stumped. Where did that come from? By now I’m a little fatigued, and both overjoyed and overwhelmed by the generosity of Joburgers coming out to a book event in such good numbers. And what do I say? I mean I’m grateful the old lady came to buy a book and even stood for the longest time to have it signed. What answer is she hoping for?
And I’m now a little under pressure, too, with others looking on, slightly out of earshot, but probably wondering about the content of this little exchange.
I pause, take a deep breath and find myself answering her earnestly.
“You will probably think I’m being facetious ma’am, but I really mean this; some of my best friends are white.”
She stares at me, not quite sure whether I’m taking the p*** or being genuine. And, unfunny enough, I was in fact dead serious, even with Ndumiso Ngcobo lone in my vision. A few seconds of awkward silence lingered in the space between us before she responds.
“Oh! Because over there it didn’t come across like that.” And she points to a little makeshift stage where, at the beginning of the evening, my friend and fellow author Redi Tlhabi had been in conversation with me about racism – the subject of this new essay collection.
For many weeks, I had puzzled over that exchange and privately discussed it with friends, black and white. I had come to realise what it was, gratitude for the book support notwithstanding, that felt misplaced about the old white lady’s remark.
When Redi and I had talked about race earlier, and about white people in particular, many of my remarks were framed in general terms. I did not preface my analysis by first recognising exceptional individuals.
And I still often do not. That bothers some allies in the fight against racism, like the old white lady. She wanted me to rehearse my knowledge of, and appreciation for, white allies in the battle against anti-black racism before talking about general patterns of behaviour among whites.
She needed me to say, at the outset of the evening, loudly and publicly: “Before I answer you about white liberals, Redi, it is very important for me to first and foremost say, not all whites! Joanne over there is a best white. Stand up, Joanne. Can we please applaud Joanne – Jo to me! – for the sterling work she does on Facebook explaining white privilege to her white friends, and that’s quite apart from the soup kitchen she runs in Alex on Saturdays!
“I’m going to refer to whites in general now now, but please, pretty please with a cherry on top, know that I’m obvs excluding best whites, okay? Now, where were we in the main conversation again?”
No, allies, that is politically tiring. Your need to be affirmed may stem from a basic human desire to be shown gratitude, but in the urgent project of mending a broken society it is distracting to be anxious about your temporary invisibility when generalisations are used in race discourse.
Generalisations aren’t inherently evidence insensitive, nor politically imprudent. Racism, like all forms of domination, generates patterns of behaviour in society. These patterns include typical forms of behaviour among groups of people. And a generalisation isn’t the same thing as essentialising a racial grouping.
Nor, politically, do we set back the justice project by using generalisations. To think otherwise is in effect to be in denial about the structural nature of domination. Focusing on exceptions has costs, too: while I’m responding to your need to get applause for your alliance, racism continues to fester. We need to prioritise. Just as men who are allies of women in the struggle against patriarchy should stop moaning about general statements about how men typically behave.
You realise just how enormous the struggles for justice are when even allies don’t get quite get it all.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.