Talking about our difficult histories and conducting respectful and caring dialogue with others has been healing. What stands out for me as a descendent of Nazi parents and now, as a benefitting white resident in South Africa is the opposite: silence. It is the inability of many who accepted the apartheid ideology of discrimination, exclusion and violence to speak about their choices. Post-Nazi Germany was just like that for many years. Denial, excuses and deep-seated shame covered the country like a suffocating blanket of silence.
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.