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.