When you're wondering how to build a bridge between people

8:33 pm Wendy van Eyck 0 Comments


A few months ago my husband, Xylon, took 5 or so books that we both read once but aren’t likely to read again to a second hand bookseller. He came back about an hour later and said, “It was a waste of my time. The guy wasn’t interested.”

This surprised me since these were books by bestselling authors or bestselling books. There was no reason for a second-hand bookseller not to want them.

There was only one reason I could imagine for the bookseller not buying them. And that was because the person who bought them to him, my husband, was of a different race.

I’m not the type of person who jumps up and down all the time yelling, “racist!” so I kept my thoughts to myself but it made me mad.

A few weeks ago, Xylon and I were driving in the car and I started to share some of my thoughts on race with him.

I mentioned how the incident with the bookseller made me so angry because I’m pretty sure if I’d walked in with my pale skin and sun-streaked blonde hair and my white-ness that he would have given me the time of day.

I told Xylon, as he drove, how it made me so angry that sometimes he was treated differently because of the colour of his skin we are treated differently because of the colour of our skins. (I left the strike out in because I think it shows how I don’t see people treating me with preference as being treated differently – but it’s just as wrong as Xylon being treated without preference.)

A friend of mine is raising two children with darker skin than hers. When we meet for coffee sometimes I’ll tell her a story about something that happened to Xylon and I. A story about how we were treated differently because we both don’t look the same. I remember the first time, how she said, “It’s because you’re not white anymore. You and I, we’re not white anymore.”

Her theory is that the day she and her husband stood in a court and stated they would love these children with skin the colour of Africa’s soil was the day they lost their whiteness. And that the day I married Xylon is the day I lost mine.

My friend reckons that through tying your life to someone of a different race, culture, country or language you learn to value people for people. Some of their value rubs off on you and vice versa. 

Xylon and I often joke about how his old school friends must think he’s “made it” because he has a white wife or how his family must think we live in a nice house because I’m loaded because I’m white (I’m not). In this case, my perceived white value is rubbing off on him. It annoys both of us because we’re both worth more than our skin colour.

I didn’t write a lot towards the end of last year and one reason was “white-ness”. It’s my label for “white privilege”. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot but I haven’t been sure if I should write about it here. 
Race, culture, language are charged-issues. 

I think it's one of the reasons my parents resisted Xylon’s and my desire to marry. I think they knew (consciously or subconsciously) that I’d lose my white-ness if I married him. And in many (if not all) cultures today white-ness carries a privilege and opens doors that other races don’t even get to knock on.

This past year I joined a running club that consists of members who mostly have black skin, and who don’t have the same home language as me. 

I did this on purpose because I believe in diversity. 

But it’s been really challenging for me.

It’s the first time in my life that I’ve felt like an outsider because of my skin colour, language and culture. 

To put it into perspective, the club is about 97% black (based on the fact that there are about 100 members, I think, and 3 of us are white). I was the first white female to join the multi-sport club and run in their colours.

I haven’t joined as many club runs as I should have to assimilate. (The major reason being that the rest of the club are all really fast and I’m about 90seconds slower per kilometer than them so even running with them leaves me running on my own.)

Getting back on track, when I have joined club runs I’ve been challenged about how often black people who joined my friends - who are mostly white - must have felt the way I feel on the runs. It’s really taken the idea of running a mile in someone else’s shoes to a really personal level for me.

I’ve also been reading Trevor Noah’s book “Born a crime” (He’s most recently known as host of The Tonight Show in the US) It’s been challenging me in so many ways I didn’t expect. I thought I was picking up a book that would make me laugh instead it’s made me think.

One of the things Noah challenged me on was the idea of making a difference, of actually doing something to change the experiences of people who aren't like me. He talks about the proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” And then he asks, “Who is going to give the man a fishing rod?”

Xylon and I have been chatting a bit about what to do about this and about how if we’re going to see South Africa become the country it has the potential to be we need to step up.

These are a few small steps I’m going to be taking with Xylon this year:

Learn Xhosa (it’s the African language most widely spoken in the town I live in).

Go to the government school less than a KM from our house and listen to them. Hear what problems they have, what solutions they have and see if we can help them. Basically, find out what fishing rods they might need.

Help a child that Xylon has become friends with in his final year of school hopefully improve his final marks and find direction.

I’ve started a running programme to run faster so I can try run with my running club more and practice some of the Xhosa I’m learning.

Today, on facebook I read a quote I’ve seen a 100 times before: “No matter what you say, actions will always speak louder than words.”


I’d love to hear what your experiences with people of different races, cultures, languages and countries have been and what steps you think you could take to bring reconciliation in your community.

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