On 2 June 2020 we stood together in unity and blacked out our social media with a movement that was, in my opinion, a well overdue deep-dive into issues that still plague our world. Being a white, priviledged mama raising white children in South Africa I have, especially in the past months, felt an incredible need to learn as much as possible, to enable me to share as much as possible so we are all empowered with knowledge and the know-how to DO better. That little black square that on the 2nd helped me feel like I was supporting, by the 3rd of June brought with it a deep guilt that I wasn’t doing enough. So on June 4th 2020, after wracking my brain on trying to figure out a way to be part of the change that we so need, I decided to ask for help. I reached out to a woman of colour who I highly respect and have grown to love; the gorgeous Leanne Dlamini.
Leanne graciously accepted the challenge and I received her message to us white mamas in my inbox today. It really touched me, enlightened me, and given me some pointers to help me do right by my children – to open their eyes and hearts, in order to do right by ALL children, here and abroad.
Before we get to Leanne’s open letter to all white mamas, I want to share an experience I had with Jackson. You will see that Leanne roasts me in her piece 😉 the back-story to that is; Long-story short, month-end May, just ahead of 2 June black out, our business’ driver drove our Gogo (nanny) and domestic workers both home for the weekend. As they drove away Jackson turned to me and said something that stuck me and made me feel as though I had failed him. He said, “Mommy it is so strange to see three brown people in a car”. He adores his Gogo more than anything in the world – his second mother, and even though his comment was full of naive innocence, my heart literally ached as the words left his lips. He has friends of colour at school. His best friend is coloured. But it was clear to me that from his observation, through his eyes, he was not seeing enough diversity. I knew instantly that needed to change.
Youth day 2020 I shared with my boys the history of how & why we commemorate Youth Day in SA and reserve it as a holiday. I shared of how lives were lost. I shared our very real and raw history with them. They listened intently, and Jackson asked to see some pictures. It was actually Leanne’s pictures she had posted I was showing him, and I knew the image that was coming… and I felt that the time was right for him to see it, as much as I have tried to protect him from things like this up until this point, I felt that in order for him to truly empathize and truly try to understand the importance of what we were sharing with him, I showed him these pictures:
He looked at the first two and I told him their signs read “Don’t Shoot We Are Not Fighting”, and then I hesitated but felt to show him the third image. As I swiped to the image he pulled away in shock and tears instantly filled his eyes. He came back to me and it was one of the most intimate moments I have ever shared with him. We hugged and we cried and we held each other as we together felt but a fraction of the pain those children/brothers/sisters/mothers/fathers/communities felt.
It is my hope that white mamas everywhere can read this letter from Leanne with open hearts, to listen and to learn, and to try and do better alongside me. We are mothers and have the potential to shape the future generations to come; if that isn’t power then I don’t know what is! Use your mama-power wisely.
To all mamas reading this, please share here or on my IG post. Share your thoughts, feelings, advice and encouragement. Let’s use this as a starting block to break these conversations wide open, in love. As Leanne pointed out in her piece, there were conversations that needed to be had, but never were, and in so doing in many ways we have tried to build relationships with one another without getting to root issues & understanding – therefore without solid foundation. Once we can deeply understand one another we are only then able to feel heard, feel respected, and from there only build deep and meaningful connections with one another.
Thank you so much, Leanne, for writing these words for us;
AN OPEN LETTER TO MY WHITE SISTERSLeanne Dlamini
Let’s start with this.
Let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable. If there is any country who has the capability to navigate deeply unsettling conversations, it is South Africans.
At the same time, from my perspective, I believe there is a desire to understand one another and to work through the uncomfortable and the painful. It is only when we are willing to embrace it, immerse ourselves into what can be painful, that we will stop digging and start building. Just like starting a journey to fitness is uncomfortable and painful, sticking to it sculpts an entirely new mindset and person and what was once uncomfortable, you now embrace as part of who you are.
Secondly, get comfortable to get it wrong.
This conversation is being had in 2020 because it was not had amongst the general population. Partly because it was too painful, on all sides and partly because we had a beacon of hope…Tata Madiba was a warm light we followed out of a place of darkness in our country and we didn’t understand that as much as we needed to grab hold of the spectacular vision and dream he had for us, we still had a lot of conversations to unearth that would help us navigate not only building a new nation but for us as people of Colour, building our self-image.
Fellow Mothers, your role as a parent is, in the words of Dr Traci Baxley (of Social Justice Parenting), a form of activism.
What we tell our children is important, but what we actually do is crucial. Children learn to understand how to love and be kind in the home.
You can’t tell your children to not be racist but still make racist remarks or jokes or still hang around racist family members.
Change your practices so your children can see what anti-racist actions look like.
On that note sisters, perhaps we then focus our attention on a snippet into our world. Understanding who we are will help you understand what it means to be a black mother in SA.
Women of Colour have conformed to the popular culture, the culture of what will make them feel accepted and comfortable. We wore our hair straight or weaves initially not because we wanted to, but because that was the constructed image of beauty based on the overriding culture at the time. As a result, one of the things we do is consciously dispel myths and stereotypes
I made it a point from a very young age to constantly tell my girls how beautiful they were just the way they are.
I would encourage them to love their natural hair, whether it was curly or straight. It’s up to me to show them how beautiful their skin is no matter what shade of brown it is.
I would even speak on things like the shape of their nose, their lips and as I saw Zani-Lee, my eldest daughter develop that coveted derriere and become curvier, I would constantly affirm how beautiful her body was and I did that only because I knew these were physical features that other children/people, mostly white people in the real world would pick on. Also, I know that in my own experience, growing up beauty and beauty standards were white-washed and we have to actively work to embrace who we are.
As Tracée Ellis Ross so aptly says: “I need to see my own beauty and to continue to be reminded that I am enough, that I am worthy of love without effort, that I am beautiful, that the texture of my hair and that the shape of my curves, the size of my lips, the colour of my skin, and the feelings that I have are all worthy and okay.”
The truth is I’m raising Coloured girls: their Zimbabwean culture is inherited from their father and the Coloured culture from me. Two myths I will need to teach them and the young boys in our extended family are that they don’t have to accept the pervading stereotype that black fathers are absent or that Coloured fathers are drunk and abusive. I will also have to teach them coloured girls are not “always ready to fight.” There is so much more to us than the stereotypes that have inhibited most of our people from rising up to fulfil their potential. Our words carry life and I choose to speak life over who we are until we believe it.
Also, we have to expose them to a world outside of our own privilege. Not all of us are in the same boat as people of colour so how do we send the ladder back down?
My husband and I have been very blessed to be able to give our children a great life, but it’s been very important for us to show them that not everyone lives the way we do.
I take my girls to visit my family and friends who still live in the townships. They see the environments that other children live in and the schools they go to and I think this is something white parents need to expose their children to as well so they’re not surprised and say “ It’s so strange to see 3 brown people in a car together,“ when they see 3 black people in a car! Sorry Shan, I had to 🙂
While our children grow into suburban culture and life, while we expose them to the realities of their roots, it is your job to expose your children to these realities too and it is your responsibility to paint as honest a picture of history as you can.
Simultaneously, we have to work to not feel guilty about our success. We have to remind ourselves that our success wasn’t by chance…we have worked hard, our parents of colour have given us a slight advantage and our girls get to stand on our shoulders. They don’t have to feel guilty for the lives we can give them.
It was Bell Hooks who said, “If we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them.”
This is exactly what I did. I’ve reinforced self-love and the importance of it so they never have to question their value or worth when life throws a curveball at them.
As Mothers Of Colour, we make a concerted effort of teaching history and purposefully demonstrating how not to respond in hate or anger. These emotions do not serve us as we move forward. The entirety of our history has not been taught in schools. There were black thriving education institutions and developments that we were stripped of. Coloured people played a big role in creating the Afrikaans language. So we have to teach them. Teaching my girls about our history was and still is so important.
They need to know where we come from and the challenges we faced and still face as people of colour. At the same time, it is our responsibility to teach them that they can put anger aside and not respond in hatred.
There is power in teaching them to authentically relate to people. This means teaching them to suspend the voices of criticism, judgement and fear when engaging with someone. Why? Because racism and prejudice rooted in pride and this is where baseless superiority complexes develop.
As a mother raising daughters of Colour, I have to be very conscious of not passing down my own baggage. Lessons from my experiences are important but changing the narrative starts in the home.
Understand that we are fighting a war on all fronts. The legacy of Apartheid weals creating segregation amongst people of Colour and we are still working on winning that war.
So, within the safety of friendship, white mothers, this is what you need to do as you hold the space for us :
Own up to your privilege and teach your children that you’re ahead not because you’re better, but because you don’t have to overcome the collective trauma of oppression and lack of education.
Teach your children what white privilege is.
White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard or you won’t face any challenges, it means that your skin tone isn’t one of the things making it harder.
I’ve read that you should give your children contextual examples of their privilege like being out with a group of their white friends and not being followed as opposed to a group of black kids being followed because they’re automatically seen as troublemakers.
Please speak to your children about race.
Saying “we don’t see the colour” or “my children are colour blind” is not going to work. Different colours exist purely because of 0,1% difference in genetics, the environments that we have evolved within etc. I know it’s not a comfortable topic but it’s an important one to have. Speak to your children about diversity and why it’s so important. The goal is for us to raise anti-racist children and sadly you need to recognize and tell them what racist behaviour is and even give examples so they know what they’re working against. You cannot expect your children to be kind without pointing out unkindness. You cannot expect your children to be anti-racist if you don’t broach the topic of race with love and authenticity.
Normalise black beauty
This starts with integrating black beauty into your home. It’s the black models on magazine covers and edifying beautiful black people, especially when they are not around. Intentionally include books by black authors and the stories of black people.
Show up for our children of colour in schools.
Push for racially diverse representation, whether it be in the classroom or the swimming team.
As moms of colour, we scream and shout and make our voices heard, but our voices don’t carry the same weight as white voices. As Sarah Jakes Roberts highlights you can carry our voices into spaces that aren’t open to us yet; you don’t know the power you carry as white women, especially in suburban South Africa.
In Christine Caine and Sarah Jakes Roberts discussion, Navigating Race And Friendship, they make a point I would like to reinforce: speak to your friends of colour to really understand where they’re coming from and what they experience has been. This will help you understand us better too.
As our own Desmond Tutu teaches us; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Really listen when POC are sharing their experiences. You cannot decide what is hurtful or not for us. Speak up when you see injustice or have an opportunity to educate. We need you to be our active ally.
You will encounter many people of colour at different stages of dealing with the collective trauma that we have undergone, so be kind and learn to relate to that individual at that moment. There is no blanket approach to this because of the immense diversity in SA. Teach your children empathy as a result. Brene Brown highlights that empathy is ”connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or circumstance.” And finally, as she points out, be ok to get it wrong…uncomfortable conversations need to happen in safe spaces so that when you get it wrong, you have breathing space to reflect and correct.
Demonstrate your acceptance.
If your son brings home a black girlfriend, love on them both, accept them and work at putting your stereotypes aside.
Further for you to consider: This is the invisible load of motherhood: Mothering Black Children. I have adapted slightly for a South African context but this is with thanks to @momfully_you and @_happyasamother
- Protecting their childhood innocence (it’s equally difficult to broach the topic of our skin and history with our own children. We see the innocence with which they and their young friends view the world).
- Convincing the world of our children’s worth
- Teaching them how to respond to racism
- Choosing preschools that have representation
- Educating them on a South Africa history that is not taught at schools so that they have a greater appreciation for their own cultures.
- Worrying about unequal opportunities but simultaneously, having to convince them when they are older that they did not “just get the opportunity because you’re black.”
- Worrying about your child being perceived as a threat when walking down the road
- Teaching them to love their skin and hair
- Inspiring them to break the stereotypes
Remember, this piece is written to be thought-provoking. Take a moment to pause as you read and allow it to settle. See my heart and know that as much as you may be struggling to absorb all of this, it was as difficult for me to really push past the pain (it’s easier to try to forget) and voice the struggles. So sit with this, drink it in and as you do so, remember it was written in love with the simple intention of bringing understanding.