This is the first post of two blogs, based on a talk given by Puseletso Kobedi at the REACH SA National Women in Ministry Conference in June 2018.
I think it’s only fair that if I’m going to speak about race, I should speak from what I know, from my experience. I am not speaking for all black people. I am a 29-year-old, middle-class woman. I grew up in Welkom, and as soon as I tell people that, I often hear comments such as “Sho, it must’ve been rough growing up in such an Afrikaans town” – of course eluding to the idea that I must have experienced a lot of racism. Funnily enough, that wasn’t the case. I went to a Roman Catholic private school. Our classes were about 50% black and 50% white, so there was not much segregation if I had to be honest. I had a good mix of friends racially; the issue of race wasn’t much of an issue…or so I thought.
Little seeds of racism
You see, I later realised that the kind of racism I experienced was a very subtle one. It would rear its head with school rules such as, “you are not allowed to speak Sotho at all during school time”; which I understand as relating to class time, as it’s only right to speak English to be inclusive of everyone in the class, especially if it’s an English medium school. The problem, however, came when I couldn’t express myself freely with my black friends, during break time, or after school. You see, what I didn’t realise then, was that a little seed was being planted in my head. I became conditioned to think that I could and should only express myself in English, that speaking English and speaking it with a twang equated to me being intelligent. The same subtle racism arose when my name was too difficult to pronounce. I started to intentionally mispronounce my name to make it easier for the white people to say it properly; or maybe if I said it with a white accent, white people would be able to say it properly. The seed that was being planted was that my Sotho name was not good enough. How I wished I had a short, simple name like Lerato or Palesa; instead I got Puseletso.
Like I said, I had a good mix of friends and when I would have my white friends over, it would be such a big deal. My parents would fuss, and I would hear comments like “Tjo, Puseletso has white friends” expressed with excitement, as if to say “you have made it”. I loved that; having white friends made me feel better than other black people who didn’t have white friends. Better yet, I went to a Methodist church; the leadership was white and my youth pastors were white; we had a great relationship.
Racism in the place that should be safest
After school I went to university, my parents worked hard for me to have pretty much all I needed and so there was no need for a student loan etc. So racism to me at that time was somewhat non-existent. I was that naïve black person who said to other black people: “Hai, it’s always racism with you. Enough already”. It wasn’t until I worked for a Christian organization that I had my first real, non-subtle experience of racism. This time it wasn’t happening to other people, it was happening to me. Ironic right? That in a safe place, amongst fellow-believers, that I experienced some of the most hurt I’ve felt.
Church is meant to be a picture of what heaven will be like. Church is meant to be a place where one feels most loved, not judged; included and embraced for individual differences. Being in ministry has taught us that that is far from the truth. Working in ministry and with other believers has made me realise how sinful and broken we are. My goal in writing this is not to make white people feel guilty or make them want to hide in a hole. My goal is also not to fuel the black ladies; to dig up experiences in our lives that make us start hating white people. My goal is to make us realise that each of us has a role to play in bringing about change. Either change for the worse or change for the better. Each of us need to realise that’s it’s actually not about us, it’s about the gospel. And the reality is that the issue of race can get in the way of the gospel being lived out. But how does this play itself out for me, a young, middle-class woman living in Midrand?
Please read next week Puseletso’s, 3 Barriers to Reconciliation where she discusses issues she calls black inferiority, black anger and black apathy.