I am often amazed at the ease with which white people relate to one another in and around our small, predominantly white town. Even as strangers during chance encounters people act with such familiarity, generously offering to help each other, making way, whether at the parking lot, passing through doors or waving others ahead into the traffic flow; friendly smiles and gestures as if all are intimately connected into one big family.
I feel that this is an exaggerated, mutual assurance of recognizing ‘us whites’ versus the ‘other’, black people to whom so many white people in our town behave in a demeaning way, with awkwardness, smiles whipped away into tight lipped, stern and critical faces. And body postures, sending messages of dis-approval, rejection, hostility.
There are exceptions, such a relief.
How can this be? Just about every white person I encounter has been raised by a black woman, a nanny-mother, with love, generosity, warmth, deep care for the wellbeing of the vulnerable child; washing it, comforting it during moments of pain or anguish, laughing with the child, exuding comfort, safety, joy, fun, and so often on the account of her own children, being of service to the white child day and night, weekends, holidays and Christmas too.
Black nanny-mothers give their essence of love and care to that white child. I often stop and watch such interactions at the beach, on the play meadow or the street. I see black nanny-mothers carrying their white protégé on their back, in front, in their arms, comforting a crying one; so much dedication, so tenderly protecting a fearful one; so much love given to a white child at such a young age.
Why does this child not remember these gifts of precious nurturing as it grows up but turns against and betrays its nanny-mother with racist rejection?
Those early years of bonding are so crucial for healthy development of self-worth. I remember psychologists talking about ‘double bind’, referring to mixed messages of love and rejection. What happens inside this child as it grows up? This is such a tragedy for both, the nanny-mother and the child. Are white parents aware of the trauma they inflict upon or rather pass on to their child and the black mother?
These thoughts take me back to reflecting on the behaviour of adults and their children in shopping malls. These young ones must meet their nanny-mothers there sometimes.
What goes through their minds and hearts? ‘Oh, I loved being hugged and swayed and caressed and nurtured and raised by you’. ‘I felt so safe, precious, special, thank you. But, oh no, I now must negate all these profound, early feelings and experiences of love and joy because you are black and my parents, teachers, friends, the beach club, the piano teacher, uncle and aunt they all tell me that the pure love I felt as a child was wrong because it comes from ‘bad’ people’; such tragedy, such a blow to the hope and purity of the young and the caring ones.
‘I struggle with this contradiction’ I hear from young people during dialogue.
And I hear their hesitant question ‘how does my once beloved mommy-nanny feel about my rejection, hostility, turning the other cheek?
Does she feel betrayed, angry, saddened and worrying about your
own children who got to be with you so much less because of me’? “Go and talk to her”, I answer
How will these young white people reconcile and navigate their moral and emotional coordinates as they progress in the world?
When I speak to young people during dialogue sessions about my past, I share the struggle of having loved my parents and also rejected them for their choices of participating in the Nazi brutalities.
Young white South Africans, someday, will hopefully confront their own challenges with regard to love for their parents and the struggle with the roles their parents accepted during apartheid. There is an added dimension of confronting what these young people did with the gift of love from their black mommies and how they treated their nanny-mothers. It is not just about coming to terms with their parent’s choices but also about facing their choices of betrayal of mother love and care. And who will help them find peace within themselves and empathy for their black mother, who nurtured and loved them and will they ask her forgiveness and return the love and care?
Watching young mixed race couples at the beach or parading through our small town, hand in hand, gives me much hope and excitement. These young ones must come from families who practise our human connectedness at home and value their mother-nannies.