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27/04/2018 05:47 BST | Updated 27/04/2018 05:47 BST

The Elephant In The Room – Reflections On Freedom Day

Conversations about race take place in South Africa every single day, even when South Africans do not mention the words race, racism, black or white.

Yannis Behrakis/ Reuters

"The trauma of racism is, for the racist and the victim, the severe fragmentation of the self and has always seemed to me a cause (not a symptom) of psychosis, strangely of no interest to psychiatry." — Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

This year South Africa celebrates its 24th year of democracy. A decade ago the country could have been forgiven for its errors, but 24 years in, it is safe to say that it is time to deal with the country's problems like adults.

That means not avoiding the difficult conversations, and if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that they come in abundance. Adulthood for some signals maturity — and that also means an acknowledgement that we do not have to be a part of every conversation. It also means insisting when the necessary conversations have to take place.

Two decades after South Africa's first democratically elected government, it is time for white South Africans to have serious conversations among themselves about whiteness, power and accountability. The insistence that these conversations take place among themselves comes from knowing two truths. Firstly, that conversations about race take place in South Africa every single day, even when South Africans do not mention the words race, racism, black or white.

Secondly, anyone who is familiar with white social cues will acknowledge that white South Africans are aware of race, and that politics does become a topic of discussion around the braai fire and other social gatherings. Why then do conversations about whiteness by white people take place in public more frequently? Why must the teaching and labouring on race be done by black people?

I want to suggest that a mature democracy insists on white people talking about whiteness, power and accountability, because it is necessary that the conversation on race and racism moves away from the Miriam Webster Dictionary definition of racism and takes seriously the effects that whiteness as a social construct has on the lives of people.

Conversations about race are never easy, but as a country that is six years into its adult years, it is time that South Africans understand that real change will have some feelings being hurt — but that at times like this, comfort should not be our primary goal.

It is time that white South Africans acknowledge that because of our history of colonialism and apartheid, whiteness works as a currency that benefits them and anyone with proximity to whiteness at the expense of the black majority.

The white elephant is very big in every single room in this country. It is in the boardrooms of offices in Sandton, it is on university campuses where black students have to convince people that commemorations of genocidal white men have to be removed, and it is in the shacks and RDP houses of families who labour under extremely difficult conditions day in and day out, only to be told that their call for a minimum wage is greed.

The burden of whiteness is the elephant in the room 24 years after South Africa elected Nelson Mandela, and South Africa needs to be honest in talking about it.

Conversations about race are never easy, but as a country that is six years into its adult years, it is time that South Africans understand that real change will have some feelings being hurt — but that at times like this, comfort should not be our primary goal. It is unacceptable that a premier of a province can defend colonialism without facing any consequences.

It is also unacceptable that black people are always expected to not only begin and lead these difficult conversations, but also to comfort white people, should the reality of race in this country upset them or make them uncomfortable. Colonialism and apartheid were brutal and unjust political systems that were made possible by the construction of race and the binaries between white and black that were allowed to thrive because of that construction.

As South Africa reflects on yet another Freedom Day, it is important to insist that it needs to be white people that lead the conversations on whiteness, because as black people we have shouldered the burden of teaching others how to be more humane for far too long. That job should no longer be required of black people, because it distracts us from the necessary work of building ourselves from the fragments that have been left behind by centuries of enslavement, colonialism and apartheid.

24 years into a democratic South Africa means that it is time for white South Africans to address the white elephant found in every room.

We all experience the world through the racialised, gendered and sexualised identities that make us who we are. White South Africans need to come to terms with their identities being raced, just like all black people and people of colour. They need to come to terms with how whiteness as a political and economic commodity has shaped their lives and the relationships that they have with the rest of the human population.

Black, lesbian, feminist poet Audre Lorde, speaking specifically to white women, urges that grappling with what makes us most uncomfortable is necessary to "destroy something familiar and dependable so that something new can come, in ourselves, in our world". Lorde acknowledges that the act of denouncing what one is familiar with opens them up to an onslaught of horrors, but that it also opens people up to "wonders too... absolute wonders".

On this Freedom Day, I do not believe that it is asking too much of white people to consider what freedom could mean to everyone else, because once freedom is realised by everybody else, it will also take on a clearer picture on the faces of white people.

In her acclaimed 1977 novel "Song of Solomon", Toni Morrison claims that "there are no innocent white people". I will resist going that far, but I will implore white South Africans to consider carefully whether they want to be a part of a truly free South Africa, because being a part of that future will need hard work.

Work that includes learning and unlearning who they think they are. 24 years into a democratic South Africa means that it is time for white South Africans to address the white elephant found in every room.