“White people: now is not the time,” wrote someone on Twitter last night, in the minutes after the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death. And after I’d thought ‘Ouch!’ I thought it’s true: the facile offerings by white male British politicians that began to seep into the news reports last night were irritating, hypocritical and disconnected.
But what about us other white people? Are we right to celebrate his life, mourn his death, bombard social media with tributes to a man who fought for people in a way no white person ever fought for those people? My opinion is that of course it is right to share inspirational quotes from the great man and talk about our memories – but remember the bad stuff and show some respect. But being of the race that was party to years of rule, segregation, privilege and brutal inequality for centuries, we must also keep ourselves in check. The negative legacy of this must not be underestimated.
Nelson Mandela was about black people; he was about fighting and closing a crazy chasm created by white people because of something so ridiculous as thinking a darker colour of skin was somehow inferior. His fight had been for black people and against a white people’s regime.
How disgusting that such a situation as apartheid ever existed. How disgusting that white people didn’t do more to stop it. How disgusting that it took so long to defeat. (Has it been defeated? I think not.) How disgusting that fair voting didn’t exist until as late as 1994! Too much of the world had been controlled for too long by white men to the detriment of people-of-colour, and most of us non-people-of-colour and our ancestors didn’t do anywhere near enough to challenge it. Where was our unwavering respect for fellow humans? Where was our fury at injustice and gob-smackingly cruel inequality? My mother refused loudly to buy South African apples in the green grocer’s in the 1980s (much to our embarrassment), we bought and played “Free Nelson Mandela” by The Special AKA, we tutted a lot at the news, we watched the news of Mandela’s release with tears in our eyes, we behaved ourselves back home here in the UK. We didn’t have black maids, we didn’t tell black people to sit somewhere else, we understood in theory that everyone is equal no matter what colour their skin.
But. Let’s face it: we didn’t do enough. The inequality went on too long, the fight took too long; the right people were made to feel like the wrong people. There was apathy everywhere. Inequality still exists – and not just on streets but in hearts. And it still exists everywhere.
If I may, I would like to make a rather sketchy comparison between the inequality of skin colour with the inequality between sexes. Long after the amazing discovery that women are equal to men, some people have only taken on this information in theory and some haven’t even managed that. Most men are saying equality exists. Men are accepting women should be paid as much as them for doing the same job (why did that take so long?!). Men aren’t really supposed to say housework and child-rearing is women’s work. But it’s not really happening. For all the decent, sensitive, feminist men who see a need for more effort and fairness there are many who think we’ve already got there and those who think it’s all a bit of a joke. The fight is very much still on, and so because of this even the well-meaning non-women need to keep themselves in check.
You see, however hard they try men can never know what it is like to be a woman: to be bombarded from birth by obsessions about appearance, to be excluded from things such as sport and engineering and banter designed for men by men, to be pressured to be all things to everyone, to never kick up too much of a fuss in case it doesn’t look feminine or nice enough. Most men have no idea about the in-fighting that exists between women they have caused because of their opinions about what being a woman actually means. Whether they are party to the prejudices within society or not, all men are within that group that caused us harm, that kept us back, that refused us the vote, that told us how to behave, that didn’t pay us fairly, that made us feel inferior, that treated us as objects, that still jokes about us, that calls us bitches, that forces unpleasant sexual acts upon us, that compares us with other women. Need I go on? The best men can do is think, ‘I hope I’m being fair to women but I accept there’s still a long way to go and I must keep trying.’
So, in same the way that all men are tied by their sex and should be obliged through the acts of other men to keep themselves in check, to treat us as individuals, to remember how we have suffered in the past and how we still suffer now – whether they are directly causing any harm or not, we white people must also remember we are tied by the acts of fellow white people, and how there is still much work to be done and much respect to be found. For all our empathy, imagination and feelings of solidarity, for all our reading of books by Maya Angelou and downloads of world music and posters of Bob Marley we do not know what it is to be a person of colour, what it is like to be treated as different or inferior or bullied by a white person, and so Nelson Mandela is and always will be, a hero for people of colour and we white people can only imagine what that feels like.
I thoroughly respect and admire the great healing process that Nelson Mandela began. I feel an overwhelming fondness for a man whose kindness and forgiveness shone across the world through my TV screen over the years, but I am ashamed that as a black man he had to risk his own life, freedom and future to tear down the walls created by white man and I understand as a white person we need to make sure it never happens again and continue to fight for freedom by watching our own behaviour.
His fight was for his race. His message is for all of us.