Being 32, I had never known a world without Mandela, and although I had read of his ill health for years, I must have assumed his immortality—as most of us do for public figures we have never met. Perhaps we conceive of them as characters in a film—always there to return to. Always there to draw solace and courage from.
But Mandela still matters.
Because racism still exists.
And discrimination still exists.
And the hegemony of the powerful few over powerless multitudes still exists.
And Mandela knew how to carve a meaningful life out of this cloth—a life that mattered, a life of grace. The world looked at him and “saw a gentle man, a beautiful man, a man prepared to forgive” (Athol Fugard).
But as we begin to trace the outlines of the legacy he has left us, we must remember that forgiveness is not absolution—and we still have a long way to go.
Our Collective Loss Is Personal
The years of Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999) coincided exactly with my high school years. It would be many years before I learned how deeply human he was, with his difficult personal life and the sorrows beyond racist indignities and injustice.
In high school, I simply needed an idol—a champion for the underdog. I was a skinny white girl with glasses who ate my lunches alone or hid in my French teacher’s classroom during school assemblies.
But as Mr. Juezler, my current events teacher, waved his yard stick at the class and then swung it at the television screen, I learned about the Rwandan genocide (1994), the trial of General Pinochet (1998), Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes against humanity, and the massacres in Kosovo (1998-1999). The abundance of evil in the world felt claustrophobic and insurmountable. What ethical, dignified life could I possibly make for myself?
But then there was President Mandela.
When Mr. Juezler put him up on the screen, I could breathe.
There was hope.
Because of Mandela, I saw it was possible, amid such horrors, to incite change—and to succeed.
Racism Still Exists
As a white person, I only began to grasp what Mandela had struggled against when, for the first time, I was refused service in a restaurant because of my partner’s race. I was 21 or 22 at the time. The blonde hostess at the podium eyed my partner, then coldly dismissed us. They were all booked for the night, she said. We stepped aside, planning where to go next when another couple—both white—breezed through the door, shook off the cold, and asked how long the wait would be. The hostess smiled warmly and said she could seat them right away. We watched, stunned, for the next five to ten minutes as this happened again and again, staff accommodating each white party that came through the door—with and without reservations.
Over the ten years I was married to a Thai man, this happened again and again, and my obsequious acceptance of it gradually bloomed into rage. And then, into fatigue.
But until that first dismissal, racism was only something I’d heard of. Of course it had been happening all around me, but—not being the target of it—I was blind to it.
When my husband and I divorced, one of the most difficult acknowledgments was that racism had played no small part in the relationship’s collapse: I had simply grown tired.
But people who are the targets of racism—blacks, Latinos, Asians and Asian-Americans—don’t get to opt out. It’s not a luxury they have. They are targeted not because of the relationship they’re in—but because of the color of their skin.
One of the Many Things I Learned from Mandela
You have to have grace.
If you are a white person, remember this post the next time you meet a non-white who seems a little on-edge, a little angry or depressed or less sociable than you are comfortable with.
Remember that a white girl from the suburbs got tired of racism after ten years.
And think how much longer the person standing in front of you has put up with terrible customer service and hostile stares and antagonism from the police—all because of skin color. And then think how much more tired this individual likely is.
And then think of Mandela.
In her latest novel, Americanah, the incisive and panoramic Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writes wittily and candidly and painfully about racism. When her protagonist Ifemelu considers how to improve society, she proposes love. “Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved” (298).
Mandela showed that kind of love for his country, for his fellow South Africans—both black and white.
Next time we stand at the crossroads of difference—especially as whites—let us have the courage to offer understanding and even, if we can, that kind of boundary-busting love.