I Share My Story So Apartheid Does Not Happen Again


Photo 2016-05-31, 9 26 49 PM“You know, it may sound funny,” my African-American friend from North Carolina said recently, “but I’m glad you were born in South Africa during Apartheid.”

“If you hadn’t been born there at that time,” he added, “you may not be as passionate against racism.”

We thought about it for a moment and then I nodded. I am beginning to see the redemption in this larger story. Slowly, but hopefully surely.

I long for my life to be a kind of restitution. It’s a large prayer and most days when I feel so small, all I can remember is to do small, but intentional things.

Like sitting together in the upstairs of a church in Winnipeg for three days, hosting a conversation we titled, Not My White Jesus.

I started off with a prayer from Yvonne Johnson, a Cree woman, whose prayer at the beginning of her book, A Stolen Life, is helping me stand in my story, write my story and share from my life right now.

She prays:

O Creator of all, I pray you, look at me, for I am weak and pitiful.
I pray,
help me to make amends to all those I have harmed;
Grant them love and peace, so that they may understand I am sorry;
Help me to share my shame and pain, so that others
Will do the same, and so awaken to themselves
And to all the peoples of the world.

Hai hai
Yvonne Johnson
Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, April 1998

It’s both ridiculous and a sign of divine redemption that I get to facilitate a conversation on racism. As a white Afrikaner daughter of Apartheid, I have benefitted from racism and I have eaten its fruit. I have learned that racism eradicates our soul, our soil and our societies. When we eat the fruit of racist systems, we participate in the pain and we are not immune to its poison.

I cannot wash my hands in innocence.

That’s why we sat in a circle together for three days and I asked the group:

Tell us the story of your first awakening to racism.
Tell us a story of a time when you realized all is not right in our world.
Tell us a story of your first experience of racism.

Day after day, as each person spoke up, I realized there was something so much Larger at work in our circle. We had created a safe space. We had honored it as a sacred space and that allowed us to bring our stories, our pain, our anger, our struggle, our evil, our shame, our guilt, our tears, but also our Grace, our love and our compassion to the circle.

At the beginning of our three days, I imagined we would work on some kind of definition of racism together. It became very clear, by the end of day two, that I was wrong.

When you define racism, you make it about the head only, one of the participants said.

As we listened to story after story, we realized together, that racism is not something that happens in our heads only. Racism is in the spaces between us and in the cracks in the walls. It happens in our hearts, in our gut, in our skin, in our souls. It is pervasive. Racism rips at all of us—oppressor and oppressed.  Sometimes it cuts, sometimes it shreds. Sometimes it shatters.

I was 16 when I walked up to the counter of the library in my town to check out A Dry White Season. Until that time, all books that criticized the Apartheid government in South Africa, had been banned. Nobody could say or write or record anything against the Apartheid government. It was even illegal to have any images or visual representations of Nelson Mandela. Then, with increased international pressure, the ban on books and literature lifted and the library in our town started stocking some of these previously banned books.

As I read that book, I was confronted with the very real possibility that a different, very ugly reality existed. It confronted me with the very strong possibility that everything I had told, everything I had read, the world as I knew and understood it, was not the only truth. And the part that had been covered up wrecked me.

It was like an earthquake ripped through my being. My life. My understanding. My mind. My brain.

When I closed the book, it was like climbing out from the ruins of a world I once had believed to be true. Life as I had understood it, suddenly was wrong. Incomplete. A mess.

And I was not a hero in the story.
I was a villain.
A perpetrator.
Evil, even.

I wanted to shake it all off me, but I couldn’t. I wanted it to go away, but it didn’t.

I had to acknowledge my participation in the evil of racism.
I had to be shattered.

As I shared my story of shame with the circle, one by one, others shared their stories too.

Acknowledging our pain. Acknowledging our evil. Acknowledging our inability to put language to it. Acknowledging our struggle. Acknowledging each other’s stories.

It became a deeply sacred process.

While we were listening, I asked the circle to write down on small 3×5 note cards what they were hearing about racism in each other’s stories.

Not long sentences; just one or two words. What could we hear about the nature of racism? What is it like? What does racism do?

The note cards started dropping into the circle. One by one. Sometimes five cards at a time. By the end of the morning, we had a whole pile, lying at our feet.

I pulled the little stack of cards out that night and as I held the pile in my hands, it dawned on me:

No wonder we have such a hard time defining racism.
No wonder we have such a hard time naming the injustices.
No wonder we have such a hard time naming the pain.

It’s so big.
It’s so deep.
It’s so painful.
It’s so pervasive.

Every card in my hand—over 40 of them—and by no means an exhaustive naming of racism, splayed open the beast. Not one card in itself was enough to tell the whole story. But every card told a part of the story. Holding the stack, I was mindful of the many stories, the individual pain, the unique experiences.

Holding the cards in my hand, I knew:

Together, we acknowledged just how complicated racism is.
Acknowledging its complexity, is part of the healing.

Acknowledging the complexity, gives us permission to fumble and make mistakes and not have all the words. It doesn’t give us permission not to own our part in the injustices in our world. It doesn’t give us permission to look away. It reminds us that this is hard work, painful work and sometimes uncomfortable work. It reminds us that it’s ok to be wrecked by it.

I am wrecked that racism is so pervasive. I am wrecked that it’s happened in South Africa and still happens there and in our world. I am wrecked as I hear the familiar evil rhetoric in our world today. It sounds so eerily familiar to the hate-filled speeches of Hitler and the “logical” reasoning of the Afrikaner leaders of Apartheid.

Racism. Superiority. Supremacy. Inequality. Unwillingness to take responsibility for the evil in our own hearts.

Have we not learned the lessons of history?

When I was on Robben Island in January, Ruth Padilla DeBorst asked our group this question: Why do you write?

Immediately I wrote down: So Apartheid doesn’t happen again.

It’s why I write and maybe even now, why I live.
I tell my story so perhaps some will understand that we cannot oppress others, without carrying the oppression in our own souls.
I tell my story, so perhaps we can learn to Love and live into a different world together.

May I share my shame and my pain, so that others will do the same.
May I share my shame and my pain, so that we may awaken to ourselves and to all the peoples of the world.

May Redemption always grow larger than the suffering we may have caused.
May Redemption always grow larger than the pain we have experienced.


In July, I will be hosting a similar conversation at Simply Jesus in Colorado. Want to join me? I’d love to see you there and sit in a circle with you.

SO: This post kicks off our month of WHAT THE HECK?! Or: If you’d like to think of it in slightly gentler terms: DETOURS. We will be exploring together some of the ideas and stories that have made us say, What the Heck?! We’ll hear stories of detours and finding God on the way.