I am white, and I live in America, and like all Americans my story starts elsewhere. My ancestors, hardscrabble and outcast, arrived on South Africa’s rocky shores four hundred years ago. They quickly set about making that wild landscape in their image. Farms, towns, and political systems – quickly, brutally, haphazardly, they formed the Afrikaans culture that three hundred years later would birth one of the most oppressive and racist regimes known to human history. Apartheid. My ancestors were willing participants – undeniable agents of oppression.
I was born in 1988, on America’s ever so slightly less oppressive shores. Oblivious to my privileged inheritance, I grew up blithely accepting my white privilege as most white children do, which is to say, I did not notice or acknowledge it at all. As it was told to me, my ancestors were hardworking and innovative, they arrived with “nothing,” and created a country. And now, I was in another country created by hardscrabble immigrants, a country also dealing with its racist past. In college, I had an awakening. My family’s past became clear, and as I read, and read, and read, my individuality and obliviousness came crashing down. I was not a product of my own doing; I was a part of a puzzle whose first piece was laid a long time ago. I vowed to not complete the jigsaw, to be the square peg that disrupts the circle, to not allow my past to define my future. And yet, what choice did I really have?
In college, I dated several black girls. Slept with several black girls. I was attracted to them. I did not want to live up to my predetermined expectations, and I certainly did not want to perpetuate a homogenous and segregated destiny. My dating of black girls was not only based on my attraction to them, it was a part of my newfound political defiance. Here I am, I thought, sticking it to The Man, proving that society can change, that my ancestors do not determine my progeny. I was so misguided, so innocent and naïve. My sexual relationships in college with black girls did not result in walls crashing down, or in the timbers of society falling. Those relationships were fun, but inconsequential. As I dove deeper into my study of race, gender and sexuality, my mind went deeper into the abyss of inevitability and inconsequence. I must change the system, I must do my part, and yet what hope, as a white man, do I really have? What change can I really make? Is my shining example of tolerance really going to push change? Is it really going to be a salve for history’s burn?
My history. It kept coming back to me. I read Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. That’s what I am, I claimed with pride. A traitor. A traitor to power, a traitor to my racist past. A proud traitor. Sure I was. Just another do-gooder, another blind white man seeking to undo what has already been done. And so I asked myself the question: Can I date a black girl? Can I connect with her on a level that allows us to share intimacy and trust in a way that overcomes the chasm of racism and history that lies between us? Can my 26 years, of which only the last five have been what I would call “radical,” really be enough to overcome hundreds of years of difference?
I recently went on a date with a black girl. Long gone are the days of college innocence and optimism. I wade thickly in the mud of skepticism, of self-doubt, of confusion. What I thought I knew, what I thought I could accomplish, I now resolutely doubt. I just don’t know. This woman that I was on a date with pulled no punches, showed no optimism or hope. “I don’t know if I can date a white man,” she said. She is beautiful, and intelligent, and has a whip-smart view of politics. She appeals to me on every level – emotional, political, and physical. And yet, her doubt is my doubt; her confusion is my confusion. I should stand tall, as a member of the 21st century, and a voter for Barack Obama, and say with total certitude, Of course I can date a black girl. But can I really?
My question remains unanswered, and my doubt lingers like fog. The worst part is that the answer to my question is out of my control. I would like to date a black girl. I would like to celebrate our difference, to revel in our rebellion, to dance in the face of oppression and prejudice. But thinking this way is white entitlement and privilege at its apex. Thinking this way is presuming I have the right to do what I please, that society should bend to my will, that I am owed something. I am owed nothing. My ancestors have taken for centuries; is it not high time for me to suffer the consequences? Should I not, for once, be given the short end of the stick? Should I not, for once, be told, no, you can’t? I still don’t know. But I’d sure like a second date.