Trying to be a useful white guy – some thoughts on racism and repentance

I have recently revisited Antjie Krogs’, “Country of My Skull’ (a retelling of the stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and it has reminded me afresh of how ignorant I am as a white South African male. I was born in 1979 and so lived through the dying breaths of apartheid, but I was still educated for the most part under the grip of its ideology of the supremacy of whites over blacks. My parents did their level best to continually erode that system of thinking in me, but it is amazing how it crept in, even if that was just in the way that I spent most of my life in environments that were exclusively or predominately white. That was my normal. It created deep ignorance in me. Ignorance of black pain. Ignorance of privilege. Ignorance of white bigotry and prejudice. Ignorance of the splendid tapestry of diversity that just far supersedes homogeny in every possible way. I still live with the hangover of that ignorance and it has surfaced in my life afresh over the last few weeks. Here are some of the ways it has surfaced.

I have the had the opportunity to speak with three black families about the price they pay in order to stay in our predominately white church community. I was ignorant of that price. I still am largely ignorant of it, because I have never had to experience it. I was ignorant of the predominance of white thinking and culture in our community as I have tended to think of myself as culturally neutral or normal, when in fact I am part of a very small minority in our land.

I have listened to and read of white Christians proposing and defending racist and hurtful statements about and towards black South Africans. I was ignorant of the prevalence of these prevailing attitudes, and I was ignorant of the pain that I caused when I remained silent, not thinking that for many my silence looks like indifference or even agreement.

I have sat in a room full of black African church leaders and have had to wrestle the temptation continually that says that my voice is what they need to hear, as if I am some white saviour. The weird dynamic is that I spoke to some of these pastors afterwards about it (I have started becoming comfortable with awkward conversations like this), and they said that they too were tempted to default to my opinion as for some reason the white guy in the room is looked at as the most informed, in spite of the fact that several of these men have PhD’s. Some of the true wickedness of white supremacy then is that it isn’t always just white people who believe it. How wicked is that? I was ignorant of how my own sense of supremacy still lingers in unexplored corners of my heart.

And so I have been doing a lot of thinking, praying and reflecting over the last few weeks about how to be a useful white South African. How do I continue to break down my own ignorance and how can I be some sort of voice speaking into the brokenness of the past and present and the hopefulness of the future? I know for a fact that I can’t and mustn’t speak on anyone’s behalf. I have no right to speak on behalf of white South Africans, and the last thing that is needed is another white guy speaking on behalf of black South Africans. So I speak purely on my own behalf, but perhaps my journey might be of some use or encouragement to others.

Here are four things I have committed to as a white South African. It is a pitiable start, but it feels like something to keep me focused.

Owning my issues.

I need to repent of the times when I act and think in a racist way. Repentance is an ongoing walking away from my sinful preference. What I have seen so much of recently is apologies when repentance was needed. “I am sorry people took it that way” and “I am sorry for my choice of words” is insufficient, because it doesn’t actually diagnose or treat the sinfulness of the heart. “I am repentant of having a racist heart that results in racist words and actions” is better, “I am doing tangible things to address and redress the hurt that I have caused” is better still.

Dropping defensiveness.

Often when I feel like I am being rebuked as a white person, or even just exposed in my white thinking, my heart wants to point out some other way I am being sinned against. There are lots of useful distractions for a South African to turn to. What about government corruption? What about crime? What about prejudiced and hateful utterances from black leaders? These questions matter, but they are unhelpful when trying to address your own heart. I have to learn to listen to people’s pain without trying to interject with some of my own as some sort of counter-balance.

Figuring out where I fit.

I am privileged and I am a minority. It is good for me to remember both of those things. My privilege has afforded me wonderful opportunity and led me to a life where I have been in the front of the line for most things. It is pointless denying that. What matters is what I will do with it. It is currency that I can spend on myself ensuring that my nuclear family maintains that head start, or I could spend it closing the gap to the many who haven’t had it. I want to spend the currency of my privilege well. I can’t undo it, but I can use it well, and I can use with the humility of someone who knows that he never earned it.

Believing the gospel.

I honestly believe that in the gospel, the wall of hostility that kept people apart from each other has been broken down (Ephesians 2:14-16), and that through the death and resurrection of this wonderful Middle Eastern messiah, Jesus, a new community can be raised up that points to the new heaven and the new earth in the Kingdom to come (Revelation 7:9). It grieves me deeply to see people using the message of Jesus to keep people apart when it was supposed to create transcultural communities united in belief in him. I love what DA Carson said, “The church itself is not made up of natural friends…What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance they commit themselves to doing what he says – and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.”

Reconciliation is slow, costly and usually painful. I am committed to doing the little that I can to see more of it happen.


19 thoughts on “Trying to be a useful white guy – some thoughts on racism and repentance

  1. Thank you Ross Lester. God will use you mightily to breakdown the barriers of hostility. God bless you brother!


  2. As a black south african I could only pray for people like you ,not only white but from all races and sectors of live ,then we would have a prosperous future


  3. Thank you Ross such too is the reflection of my heart as we try to reflect the divercity of the city not only in rooted fellowship community but to our own families and extended circles of influence. This was worded for me on paper by a fellow brother in Christ so I too will be “repenting and trying to be a useful white guy too”


  4. Your thoughts are good and helpful because of Christ glorifying intentions for change. I have always found great encouragement whenever I have gathered with God’s people @ BBC. May these thoughts go on to transform hearts and minds, forming a true people of God having all things in common for Christ’s sake and glory.


  5. Thank you for your honesty. Your thoughts are inspiring and resonates well within. “Tangible” deeds to make a difference, stays with me. Blessings.


  6. Well said…appreciate your honesty…..and the fact that you did not justify anything by using I prove you spoke from your heart….


  7. As an Arab Christian, i wonder why you call Jesus a “middle eastern messiah”. That is supporting a nationalistic tendency. Jesus is savior for all the world. His heritage has nothing to do with any of his messages, acts, works, deeds, because he is GOD.


  8. This is astounding humility. If more could have this revelation, things would definitely change. True cultural change starts in the hearts of individual men. God bless you.


  9. Nice sentiments, Ross, but your last sentence screwed it up royally. Doing the little that you can? Go and do a lot! And bless you.


  10. What depth of character and clarity of thinking, this is what priviledge should have offered a white south african – the ability to think clearly and objectively.
    Thank you so much Ross


  11. Just when I thought all white Christian men are a problem to be dealt with in this country. This is what we need. Aluta continua and I recognize you for taking your position.


  12. Thank you for the honest reflection, praying and hoping more christian pastors can imitate you ( as you imitate Christ)!


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