black voices rejecting white attempts as decentering

June 14, 2010

A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.

The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me  not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating  a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).

Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.

What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.

2 Responses to “black voices rejecting white attempts as decentering”

  1. Steve Says:

    Cobus,

    I think you need to check your second paragraph again — it’s not clear whether the interpreter was saying that you should or shouldn’t say you are sorry.

    I’m also not sure what you mean by decentring, but perhaps I should read Antje Krog’s book for that.

    But if the interpreter was saying you should not say you are sorry, perhaps he is quite right. If your visitors are from the Congo, and will return there, they are visiting a strange country, and are trying to make sense of things they see and experience. If they ask a question about something they see, and you preface your answer with an apology, it muddies the waters, and interposes a barrier. If I’ve misunderstood the situation, and it wasn’t like that, then I’m sorry.

    But it might be better to try to give a factual answer — that in the past the leaders of the NGK thought that it was right that people of different races should be kept separate, even in church, and that is why they saw what they saw. You could also say that you think that they were wrong to think that, and that you hope that things will change in future.

    As I said, I may be misreading the situation, and please forgive me if I am, but I know I would be embarrassed to receive apologies in such circumstances. When you are in a strange country, with a different culture and history, being plunged into someone’s existential battles on dealing with the situation can make you feel that you are getting into deep water, way over your head.


  2. I think I disagree with Steve. I doubt very much if this pastor had no idea at all why the church was completely white (the story of apartheid is pretty well known on the continent). I think his question was more subtle and intelligent than that. He wanted to know if you realise that this state of affairs is wrong and if you are doing anything practical about it. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. In that case, the apology is absolutely the right response. People don’t understand what we believe in this country. Years ago on outreach I met a missionary who thought he knew me. White South African. Simple mixture of guilt and pride. But he was wrong and I hope the long conversations we had in the back of a rattling jeep helped us to understand each other better. Keep saying what you believe, mate. People need to know.


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