The Ashtray

Last night I was the ashtray for a white man’s disgruntlement.

Last night, a white man burned with anger and frustration and decided that it was time for another black female to bear his heavy burdens.

It started as a sanitized, harmless conversation then gravitated to a discussion about advertising and transformation. And then it all rapidly unraveled. He spoke to me about his passion for nurturing and growing young, black talent. And I genuinely was inspired and admired him for this.

But then he began to complain about how undervalued he feels as a white male in advertising. Before I knew it, I heard myself saying, “How do you think us black people felt all these years?” Silence.

I knew at that moment that I was opening myself up to a very precarious discussion. I felt my ears get hot and my inner voice tugging on the levers and pulleys to make me slow down and temper my words. Instead, I hurtled forward like a freight train.

I spoke about the problems we face as an industry that is yet in need of legitimate transformation. He accused me of making blanket comments. And though he didn’t, I knew he wanted to use “#NotAllWhiteMen” so I held back on reminding him how that one is closely related to the other problematic hashtag: “#NotAllMen. We both exchanged impassioned arguments. I tried to relate and share his own perspective. But soon I started to feel that my inherent brownness served as a direct affront to this man.

I turned to look at the beautifully inclusive and integrated gathering of humans on the dance floor next to us and said, “See this? This is what I wish our industry looked like. But right now, it’s still very white and very male.” He looked at me and said, “This is exactly why I’m so sick and tired…And because of what you just said – that is the reason I’m leaving South Africa.”

I knew our conversation was over. I put my hand on his chest, said, “Good luck” and walked away.

And then I cried.

I respect the complexity of being a white male in South Africa today. I see the weight of caution, the silent suffering and strange vulnerability that comes with that. But I also see when I become the punching bag for some man who decides that it is okay and right to blame me for his own departure, his own diminished sense of self and his own guilt.

I woke up this morning feeling like an overflowing ashtray. The stink is still present and it’s not even mine to cling to. But I feel this way because, ultimately, I lost the battle and shifted nothing. And until such time other white men add their voices, there’s no chance of ever winning.

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3 thoughts on “The Ashtray

  1. The temperate voice says:

    ‘Ashtray’ and ‘punching bag’. Very evocative language.

    May I suggest putting yourself in his shoes? As a black man, I find it a useful tool. Viewing the world through his eyes, he feels threatened, potentially marginalised and perhaps at times attacked by ‘black’ people in the work place. I think of affirmative action.

    This debate will grumble on into eternity, based on the supercilious nature of the supposed minority, when in reality, we should all concentrate on getting on with change and distancing ourselves from being too emotionally attached, punch bag or not.

    • Su says:

      First….Maybe I use evocative language because I remain stunned by how easily the man I refer to chose to use me and others like me as his excuse for departure. This is not acceptable behaviour. If you want to leave, leave but don’t blame me for it. Second….why would you ask me to put myself in his shoes when I spent all my growing up years (during apartheid) hoping one day to know what it feels like to be in the shoes of white people? Lastly….it doesn’t escape me how easy it is for men to ask women to step into a their shoes. If that’s your tactic, clearly you didn’t apply it in your response to this post. Nonetheless, thank you for reading. Good night.

      • The temperate voice says:


        By your own admission, how does it feel to put yourself in his shoes? Is it perhaps hubris on your part to suggest people like you are a reason for him moving abroad?

        My comments aren’t intended to be inflammatory to yourself, but merely to highlight that the emphasis of ALL parties should be education, reconciliation and understanding; rather than to blame yet another racial group or sex for your or others emotional distress or other misfortune. One may parry my response with another tale of (undoubted) strife, but I do not think it is helpful in the least.

        Indeed, I wish you a goodnight.

        Best wishes,

        The temperate voice

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