(First published on1/1/2018)
I am white. I was 16 when I became a member of the ANC Youth League. My friend Tanya and I joined, meeting in the basement of a church in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Of course the ANC was banned in those days, so we were told to say we were attending church youth group meetings. I became the president of a group called Pupils United For Peace And Awareness and managed to get Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (now South African’s National Anthem) inserted into our school hymn books, which prompted a visit from the security police to our headmaster Mr Louw. When the ANC was unbanned I became a card-carrying member. I jostled outside City Hall with the celebratory masses when Mandela was released.
My Mother and Grandmother are white. I remember going to a Black Sash meeting with my Mom and Gran. You know the Black Sash, right? Still in existence today, it started as a non-violent white women’s resistance organization peacefully organizing protests against apartheid. One night we had to hoist my Gran out of a church hall window as the police raided the meeting through the front door.
Willie Hofmeyer is white. He was under house arrest at the time I met him, but he’d often defy his arrest and meetings in houses and churches always had this underlying tension that the police would come. You know Willie Hofmeyer, right? He’s a white man who fought for freedom, democracy and equality in South Africa? Hofmeyr was elected to the ANC national list as a Member of Parliament in 1994.
Helen Suzman was white. Suzman stood as the sole parliamentarian opposed to apartheid for 13 years. Harassed by the police, her phone tapped, she would blow a whistle into the receiver to deafen her spies. As a young child I admired Helen Suzman so much. She gave me faith that it was ok for me, a white, Jewish South African kid, to stand up for what you believe in.
Ruth Hayman, South Africa’s first female attorney and an anti-apartheid campaigner, was white.
Ray Simons was white. She was instrumental in founding the Federation of South African Women and was their first national secretary.
Joe Slovo. Ruth First. Harry Schwarz. James Kantor. Harry Wolpe. Helen Zille. Alan Paton. White. There is no end to this list.
Rachel Dolezal, is white. Not black. She is a white woman. What an impeccable irony. That this women who works in civil rights is not ok with the color of her skin. What a sad indication that we live in a world where sometimes it’s not ok to be the color you are.
I look back at scores of white South African civil rights activists and I am so grateful for their fight. For allowing me to know that it’s ok to be white, and that the willingness to fight for what is right is not dictated by color, it’s defined by what you believe in. Rachel Dolezal’s parody of a black woman negates the powerful work done by white civil rights activists everywhere. Here she had the chance to change the world, to inspire generations of white youth to stand up for civil rights. But no, the message she chose to send is that it’s not ok to be white. That being black is a far better choice if you’re looking for a career in civil rights. Because who wants a white civil rights leader, right? Rachel Dolezal sends a message that color DOES matter. And isn’t that exactly what she’s fighting against?
So I’m gong to carry on being white. As I always have been. I am going to carry on admiring the leaders who made a change in my birth country, who risked their lives because they were white and fought for what they believed in. I’m going to carry on teaching my white kids that we are all equal. And I’m going to continue living my life with the understanding that I know who I am, I know where I come from and I am so very proud of that.