White Guilt as Bread and Salt

4 04 2008

By Daniel 


I stay in residence and as a result I eat in a dining hall at least twice a day. We wait in line to receive our standard meals, where if we wish we can also take bread and juice, but condiments like tomato sauce, vinegar and salt are usually placed on our tables. Most meals I return to the serving stations to ask one of the kitchen staff for some item-  usually bread, salt or a glass for juice; anything that might have run out. I ask as politely as possible. Something like, “excuse me, is there any more bread?” Increasingly, the expressions I have been met with would convince anyone that such a question is an utterly insolent affront. Usually the eye-brows narrow, and she looks away before shaking her head.

This occurrence has become commonplace in my dining hall, so much so that it is now a regular meal conversation. I once defended their attitudes. I do have incredible respect for the people who wake up every morning to feed those of us who are fortunate enough to go to university. People like them are, in my opinion, the real philanthropists. They give all their time and energy working a job that pays just barely enough to live on to make our lives more comfortable. And this is true the world over. This is why I can’t stand watching the media venerate people like Bono and Oprah as philanthropists. I doubt they have any idea what it means to really give. Neither do I. This formed the incentive for my apologist stance. My closing sentence to a table with far less excuses for the kitchen staff was something like, “we shouldn’t expect cheery helpfulness from them. I might also have a bad attitude if I was in their position.”

Perhaps it’s white guilt, who knows? I support affirmative action. Every time I’m reminded of the increasing difficulty I will face when finding a job, I remind myself of my limited experiences within townships, and the fact that in these experiences I was always only an outsider, someone foreign. Not even, it seemed, African; even though I’ve always lived in Africa. Recently a similar conversation about the kitchen staff ended in a full on debate about race (It has become clear that if you speak Xhosa or Zulu you will get not only what you ask for, but sometimes also that cheery helpfulness). A Zimbabwean black guy proposed that if you’re white, no matter where you’re from, you’re not viewed as an African by other black people. This is because you have not experienced African hardships. “No matter what your living standards, if you’re white you and your parents have not lived in townships.” The argument was compelling. Maybe this would explain the overarching attitude of many of the kitchen staff.

But even if it explains their attitude, does it excuse it? In the last few decades, perhaps very few, we’ve come to view racism as a totally ludicrous, unjustified prejudice towards a person of another colour. What about reverse racism? We here have a people and culture totally raped and destroyed for over 400 years. Maybe that justifies some prejudice. But it has to be less about colour and more about class. Consistently, people of colour who do not come from a disadvantaged background hold no racist views. This would suggest that what we call reverse-racism is nothing more than classism. In fact, it has never been about colour. Colour was the most noticeable physical difference used to bolster a prejudice which was never about anything more than wealth and gain for the few. This is why it saddens me to sit with my black friends in the dining hall who talk about how “pimping” they’re going to be once they enter the business world. One can only be wealthy at the expense of the lower classes. That is how the system is set up. To ‘be pimping’ in that system is to say that it is ok how it has treated our brothers and sisters, not only in African townships, but all over the world. That striving to want to live like the white oppressors is the story of the new South Africa. Freud would have classified it as a syndrome – identifying with the object of ones hatred. Although in this case they no longer hate the white man, if they can identify with his money.   

I’m not calling for a revolution, not in the communist sense anyway. Change will come. Right now all I can do is change myself. And do so by accepting that the world is healing, and just as a wound heals by forming a scab, so too will people who feel hard-pressed by the system harden themselves before the scars of the past fully disappear. So I shall try to remain polite and respectful when asking for more bread or salt, regardless of whether I’m offered the same demeanour.   

bread and saltwhite guilt