Beyond Identity: Exploring Race & Culture in South Africa

What remains with me from this retreat is both a sense of the immensity of the task of bringing about healing and reconciliation in the relationship among races in South Africa, and a sense of respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards that healing and reconciliation. It seemed apparent to me that we are all in need of restoration of our basic human modesty, dignity, and relatedness out of our respective internalized conditionings of privilege and oppression.

Friends, please take a pause from the busyness of the day to read this. We would like to share with you reflections from our retreat “Beyond Identity, Into Experience: Exploring Race and Culture in South Africa” which took place in June 2016 at Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre, KwaZulu Natal. The comments below are from our group, who journeyed together into uncomfortable territory; there we expressed and learnt important things — for ourselves, society, and for our world. Thanks for taking time with us as you read this, we appreciate your open-mindedness and authentic hearts.

beyond identity

Our small retreat community

Retreat leaders, Nolitha Tsengiwe and Chandasara, lay out the context of the retreat: 

nolithaUsing Insight Dialogue and meditation enabled the participants to engage an in-depth inquiry into the impact of growing up through Apartheid South Africa.

What was it like for you growing up in South Africa as Black or White, Coloured or Indian and when did you first experience yourself in terms of this identity? How did you perceive yourself and others of your own race, and how did you perceive people of different races?  How did you feel about your life as a person of your own race?  What did you think about the lives of other people of different races?

Are we ready for this dialogue?  Can we share our perceptions and experiences related to our racial identities on a personal level?  Can we go beneath the political, economic and ideological debates to explore and share the underlying personal experiences?  Can this lead us towards greater understanding and help us to cultivate empathy in our relationships with each other?

These were some of the questions it was hoped that this retreat would address by using Insight Dialogue as a meditative container for this process. Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice which helps to bring the meditative qualities of spaciousness, mindfulness and insight into our interactions with other people. Insight Dialogue involves dialogues mostly in pairs and occasionally in groups of three or four.[1]

Each day began and ended with a period of silent meditation as did each Insight Dialogue chandasarasession. Each session had a particular theme or focus for the dialogues during that session and each session closed with a brief group sharing about the experience. The focus of the first session was on bodily experience in the present moment as a way of grounding awareness in the body and as an experiential introduction to the practice of Insight Dialogue. In the second session, the focus for the dialogues was on attitudes, views, beliefs and values that we have learned or become aware of from our families and cultures about other races as well as our own race. In the third session, the dialogue was a reflection on the morning’s practice and dialogues – reflecting on the use of the Insight Dialogue guidelines (see footnote above) and on what had emerged and remained present from the dialogues. The last part of the session involved partners simply being together and breathing together silently and observing this process of non-verbal connectedness.

The fourth session focused firstly, on reflections on what remained with us from the previous evening’s group sharing, and secondly, on our own personal experiences currently as adults in relation to our racial identities and those of other racial identities. In the fifth session the focus was initially on exploring the essence of the impact on us of growing up under Apartheid or its legacy, and closed again with dialogue partners simply being together and breathing together silently and observing this process of non-verbal connectedness.

The focus of the sixth and last Insight Dialogue session was on dreams and visions: having voiced our stories about our experiences and perceptions, how would we want these stories to change – how would we like them to be different now? What possibilities do we see? What could we change or do in our lives or environments that would help to make these aspirations become our reality?

Some comments, themes, and subjects that were raised during the group sharing sessions included:

  • It felt like there was so much to say and not enough time to say it all – as if there is a mass of built up material waiting to find expression.
  • The problem is big – much bigger than SA – it is part of a global system of white western patriarchal capitalism whose values have become the standard by which all else is evaluated, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • Reflection on which is better – black culture or white culture? What has manifested as racism in South Africa was described as part of the globalization of white western patriarchal capitalism which privileges mostly white wealthy male minority elites. The problem of addressing race in South Africa was seen to be massive considering this wider context. Two metaphors used to describe this process in South Africa were the cappuccino metaphor – a sprinkling of black on top of a thick layer of rich creamy white resting on a large body underneath of plain black coffee; and a big pot of white western capitalism into which blacks are gradually being thrown and stirred up in. This dominant culture was described as seriously damaging the planet, climate, and people. This was contrasted with a description of black culture as being based on ubuntu – a sense of community, relatedness, wholeness, closer to the earth and caring for people.
  • The consideration of which is better seemed also related to a need to assert, affirm and reclaim the positive humanist values in races, cultures, and genders which have been denigrated, dismissed and undermined to counter the enormously damaging effects of internalizing this kind of conditioning.
  • How do we de-condition ourselves from conditioned inferiority and superiority? Partly by expanding our awareness of our own racial conditioning through exposure to each other’s worlds and worldviews, being open to feedback about our behaviour, and being willing to “sit in the fire” of the powerful emotions that such exposure can evoke.
  • What is the role of whites in this process of de-conditioning? It was suggested that instead of “supporting” the black struggle, whites should work on changing whites because that is where the problem is. It is not the role of whites to support the black struggle because that is just stepping into a power position again and thinking whites know what to do and how best to do it.
  • Whites who oppose racism have a strong desire to be seen as “good” whites – not being racist and being helpful and supportive of black initiatives to counter racism. Actually facing and addressing racism in the white community seemed to feel overwhelming – easier to support blacks than to work to change white racist attitudes.
  • The topic of white “collective suicide” was put on the table defined as meaning the death of the mentality that underpins racism.
  • It became apparent that ignorance about each other is vast – brought about through separation and enculturation – we are ignorant about each other and our respective communities. There were some moments of surprise – ‘oh, they are actually just like us’ or ‘I had no idea that there were serious disagreements in the white community about race – I assumed all whites thought the same way’.
  • The theme of the strong tendency to blame, punish, and justify was examined – the pervasiveness of blaming each other and justifying ourselves – and the unhelpfulness of this. When did it start? Whose fault is it? Who is responsible?
  • A sense of futility and disenchantment was expressed with dialogue and trying to change the other, trying to get them to understand. Why are we doing this? Does it get us anywhere? Are we just simply in the end all just tribal?
  • The assertion that all whites are racist whether they want to be or not was discussed. Because racism is a system that is perpetrated against blacks and not whites, blacks by definition cannot be racist – they have not created a system of oppression against whites. Blacks may be and sometimes are racially prejudiced, but they are not racist.
  • Strong frustration was expressed about the argument often heard that since it is already twenty years since the end of Apartheid, it is time for people to stop blaming Apartheid for things that are still wrong as if it is possible to wipe out the effects of 360 years of colonialism followed by Apartheid in only twenty years.
  • Political freedom has had very little effect on alleviating inequality and poverty – how can this be? What about economic freedom? Does Malema have the solution?
  • Corruption – what underlies it – what are the causes? – why don’t we look more at that?
  • The roles of love, hate, anger, perseverance and patience in this process of change. ‘You have to meet hatred with love – it will eventually erode all obstacles away’. ‘I wish I could be like that but I am so tired and disillusioned’.
  • A white sense of uncertain belonging in Africa and of lack of acknowledgement of white victimization.
  • Privilege – layerings and degrees of relative privilege – isn’t it inevitable – what is the alternative – a uniform society of everyone being exactly the same and having exactly the same? In addition to race, other factors such as personality traits, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, gender, language, accent, and many others are also gateways in certain circumstances to privilege.
  • Is education the solution or is this a myth? Does education inevitably open doors to wealth and status? Are wealth and status the goals?
  • Acknowledgement of the toxicity of ignorance, prejudice, harshness, rudeness, dismissiveness that have become entrenched in our society.
  • Differences in the older and younger generations of blacks – the tendency of older generations to keep racial awareness alive in the younger generations who are less conscious of racial identities.
  • The tendency through internalized oppression of blacks to see blacks who are successful as becoming ‘white’ and the inclination to want to hold each other down or back as a means of maintaining ‘black’ unity and identity.
  • Racism and the value of life – the ANC government does not value black lives or black dignity – still they haven’t provided basic necessities like water to many black areas – and this seems not to matter to them. These ANC leaders have internalized oppression and don’t consider black lives to be of any more value than the government before them.
  • Acknowledgement of the demanding role of black women in upholding the whole nation: nurturing black men in their undermined masculinity, being the peacemakers trying to help people to understand each other, historically looking after white children and then suffering later alienation.
  • The absence of black men on the retreat – why aren’t they here? Frustration expressed with black men being messed up – and expressions of empathy with them for having had their masculinity undermined in the past – not being able to fulfil their roles as protectors and providers living with their families – black children growing up without present fathers – boys not having masculine role models – and being subjected to humiliations from whites – not being able to occupy and live out their social roles. The experience of one black man was conveyed to the group – of being brought up with unconditional love which has given him the capacity for patience and living at peace with uncertainty. Thus there was some balance of both criticism and appreciation of black males.

Reflections from facilitators and retreatants:

Nolitha:  My most present feeling post the race dialogue is the feeling of gratitude and hope. I am hopeful and excited about what I observed in this retreat as capacity and willingness to ‘sit in the fire’ , engage from a place of vulnerability and courage, on such a hot and complex topic. Most energizing were emerging insights shared by retreatants that allowed for depth of understanding and expanded views/perspectives on the subject of race and identity. This for me enabled clarity of intention in doing this work. That I do this work to create safety to engage in ways that allow for self awareness for an expanded identity. It’s clear for me that our work is to see our blind spots, these relate largely to blindness to our conditioning. For black people it’s seeing how our internalized oppression keeps us in self-hate and self doubt and for white people it’s the blindness on privilege of whiteness that comes with superiority thinking that seems to say “I have the right view”.   My own experience of the retreat says we need each other as a mirror for growing our self awareness and awareness of the impact we have on each. The mirror becomes a source of insights and healing.

Insight dialogue as a tool enabled a deep quality of listening. Most of the insights seemed to surface with the invitation to share your experience of your speaking and share your experience of listening to the other. What I noticed is that it’s at this point in the Insight Dialogue process that people gain self-awareness, which becomes a doorway for an expanded perspective. This happens in an intimate relational space that Insight Dialogue offers. In speaking about your experience of speaking you see through your blindness or unconsciousness. Often an unsatisfying moment of really “seeing’. The beauty is that nobody has to point out your unconscious bias, you see it yourself.

It was an eye opener for me to hear retreatants noticing the difference in how we show up differently in the intimate space of dyads and how we show up in the bigger circle. My sense is that we are more real and open to being vulnerable in the dyads , whereas in the circle we can show up as being in a role. I know for myself shifting from time to time from the role of facilitator to being a participant allowed for a much richer experience. In the facilitator role I am aware of the responsibility of maintaining safety for all, a desire that all voices get heard. As a participant I can just be me.

I left the retreat with a warm sense of belonging, over just 3 days we created a community.

Chandasara:  What remains with me from this retreat is both a sense of the immensity of the task of bringing about healing and reconciliation in the relationship among races in South Africa, and a sense of respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards that healing and reconciliation. It seemed apparent to me that we are all in need of restoration of our basic human modesty, dignity, and relatedness out of our respective internalized conditionings of privilege and oppression.

The sense of the immensity of the task of healing and reconciliation came from seeing some of the effects of having been so profoundly separated from each other over such a long period of history – that we have been so insulated from each others’ realities that we don’t really know much about the complexities of each others’ lives or know how to even begin to find each other. The legislated separation under Apartheid was in a sense only the tip of an iceberg: under that surface lies the vast psychological separation from where we view each other across chasms of ignorance filled in by supposition, projection, stereotypes, isolated experiences and perceptions, opinions and ideologies. How to communicate now without triggering rigorous defences against powerful emotions of bitterness and fear is an enormous challenge.

The respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards healing and reconciliation came through feeling deeply touched by sincere efforts to communicate feelings and perspectives that were difficult to express and to hear, and by the willingness to return to continued interaction after experiencing difficult challenges and painful interactions. I felt very moved by the depth of pain and trauma expressed at times, by admissions of ignorance and changed perspectives about the lives and experiences of the “other”, by some very beautiful, generous and loving expressions of appreciation and magnanimity that were offered into the group, and by some informal demonstrations of mutual affection and bonding despite the pain and alienation of our history. In this I sensed a deep desire for healing and reconciliation and felt the potential for community to develop.

Participating in some of the dialogues in dyads I experienced an expansion of my own awareness of some of the profoundly damaging effects of internalized oppression within families on self-esteem. This left me feeling intense sorrow for the extensive wounding and harm caused by racism. I also experienced discomfort, fear and shame around my own racial conditioning in the awareness that however deeply I don’t want this conditioning, having grown up in this society, traces of it remain, and it is difficult and sometimes excruciating to come face-to-face with it. When one of the participants commented that since it is so difficult for black people to free themselves of the effects of their racial conditioning, it must also be true that it is perhaps just as difficult for white people to free themselves of their own racial conditioning – I felt so grateful for this empathic understanding.

Lerato: As I was preparing for the retreat, I had a lot of reasons for wanting to be there and I decided to go as a blank canvass. I was going to allow myself to be guided whilst also doing what felt good in my soul.

It was an unbelievable experience and answered to my wishes – I had always toyed with the idea of a silent retreat (I talk too much sometimes – hehehe), I wanted to meditate daily, I wanted to hear from other races their true experiences and all of these were actually granted. I also wanted to be facilitated by Nolitha (yea I did).

The methodology was new, frustrating at some points when time was up and we were still deep in discussion. Even with that, the discussions were targeted and I had to learn to say what I needed to say in the allocated time. In my years of doing diversity facilitation I have never learnt as much as I did at this weekend, the authenticity was rich, the stories real, the debates were interesting, the view points enlightening and the sharing of personal stories was heartfelt.

I was challenged by other “Black” stories as sometimes we take these for granted and we forget in true “privilege” mentality that we are individuals and not a collective. I was brought to my knees by the other races in the room. I came out with the knowledge that I need to believe what people say as we also grew up not believing others’ stories believing they were always “comfortable”.

This experience was good for my overall being. The different diet, the physical environment and the setting added to the ambiance that led me to further growth. Both the facilitators were amazing and I would like to thank the managers of Dharmagiri. I am thankful for the scholarships for me and the other participants as without them the interactions would not have been as wealthy. I would like to volunteer at the centre when there is a need. Please let me know so more people can pass through the centre and get the same experience.

I wish this experience for everyone in South Africa.

Jolanna: Experiencing the richness and wisdom that can sprout from the intention to be truly present with kindness and attention, is what made this Insight Dialogue retreat so great.  Experiencing the raw emotions and pain the history and present life in South Africa inflicts is what makes this dialogue so important.  May I continue to learn from this experience, and may this be the start of true change.

BuyiswaThank you very much for the opportunity to join the Retreat. For me it was a good chance to learn a lot of things in my life, to have a good communication with myself and to meet with good caring people.  I am looking forward to joining the Retreat again next year and I would like to say a big thank you to Annika and her husband for giving me the opportunity to be part of the Retreat.

Zak: This retreat took me through the whole gamut of emotions and reflections. I came in comfort, descended into self-doubt, questioned my place and role in the country, experienced realization, doubt, acceptance, peace, determination, doubt, peace, doubt, peace, excitement, doubt, despair, hope, peace, and doubt, all at once some times.

The format of the dialogues, beautifully facilitated, provided the right structure to deal with some very emotional topics in a way that brought out the emotions without allowing them to get overheated to the point of no longer listening to each other. There is no question that I learnt more about race, South Africa, and my own space (not role!) in it during this weekend than I have in the last five years.

As with any deep change, it’s difficult to fully express what I learnt in a few short lines, and particularly since a lot of what I learnt was doubt. I think I understand better my privilege, and my subliminal prejudices, and certainly I better understand the internal prejudices that other people hold, and how all of our differing narratives about social standing in South Africa cause us to maintain the status quo, as unuseful as that may be.

I guess the biggest take-away for me was that, as a white male, I have a role to play in rebalancing South Africa, but that role is not a leadership one, recreating my own position of privilege by another name. Rather, through recognising it and the pure luck of my birth, my role is to support and allow that narrative to change into something I probably won’t be comfortable with, and almost certainly won’t even understand, but which will see South Africa find a space that works for all of her.

Tshepiso: The weekend I spent at Dharmagiri was an emotionally moving and reflective time for me. I was nervous for the dialogue around the difficult topic of culture, race and identity, the nervousness stemmed from my intolerance of ignorance which often comes up whenever race is discussed. I found that the approach that was taken using insight dialogue was an effective method for diffusing the heated reactions that often result when we discuss race. I found myself listening more, breathing and in turn responding and engaging in a more controlled manner.

Oftentimes during the discussion I was angry and as I said to the fellow retreatants I believe that anger is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact I feel that as black South Africans we have every right to be angry. It’s what we do with that anger that determines its benefit to us, this is the aspect I have always grappled with, harnessing and controlling my anger so that it promotes effective dialogue and that’s what I felt Nolitha and Chandasara were so incredible at guiding us (me specifically) on. I am also grateful to my fellow retreatants for being open and honest with their views, it allowed us to all engage honestly with each other and consider various perspectives. The biggest thing I took away from this weekend was the amount of power that lies in silence and the necessity of reflection and meditation in our daily lives. Thank you Dharmagiri.


White man

He pushes me away

He will not hold it

He wants all of this

But none of this

Big, strong, caring, kind

Protects by crushing, hushing, ties that bind

Sister AbeChandasara and Nolitha, I am failing to thank you enough for arranging this Retreat (Beyond  Identity). I learnt a lot about dealing with the challenges of racism during our growing up time. I felt that there was so much mental and Spiritual healing. The way the retreat was done it was so touching and deep. It was a  revelation for me or us!

JennyI had read about the Insight Dialogue on the Dharmagiri website and was immediately drawn to it but also very afraid. After making many excuses to myself about why I could not go, I found myself at Dharmagiri. It felt as if the dialogue started on the drive from the airport with 2 other participants. We had open, caring and interesting conversations which made me excited and less apprehensive. We shared intimate stories from our diverse backgrounds as we drove through the KwaZulu landscape of my childhood.

But my heart was in my mouth during the evening introductory session. I realised that I was very afraid of speaking. I am still trying to understand the depth of my fear but on the surface it was fear of saying something that may offend or that may cause people to judge me. So much of my recent reading and reflection had been around the need for white people to be quiet and to listen.

It soon became easy to let go of the written words and open my ears and heart to the people sitting in front of me. The process of the Insight Dialogue was gentle, inclusive and gave space for everyone to speak, which was part of the grace of the process.

We were a relatively diverse group of South Africans willing to talk about race, which is pretty special in our country right now and probably always has been. It was a place of stories and meeting across generations, races, privileges and locations. The intimacy of one-on-one dialogue, of watching our partners’ eyes and breathing, of deep listening and exploration of self, was both profoundly difficult and a joyful opening. I was carried by stories into new understandings of how others experience living in their skins, identities, families, communities and hearts. I was deeply unsettled by my ignorance, moved into a disrupted place, often battling to breathe and regulate my heart.

One of the suggestions made during the dialogue was that white people should engage in conversations around whiteness with other white people. To engage with that privilege and work out ways of responding to this in South Africa today. It is true and necessary but made me feel exhausted and resistant. I realised how much easier it is to talk with Black friends about whiteness and racism and privilege and that with white friends there is often defensiveness and a form  of guilt which I understand so keenly.

There was in the dialogue a generosity from Black women in the room. I particularly appreciated the young black women who gave me, a middle-aged woman, an insight into their lives and struggles. I was struck by the generosity and wisdom of each participant. We all had moments of being taught and of teaching. There was rage and anger and tiredness but the most precious of all, the personal stories of lived realities of South Africans.

One of the overwhelming feelings I had during and after the insight dialogue process was around guilt – white guilt. It is a multi-faceted, painful, complex and persistent ‘condition’. I want to let go of the guilt that comes with the awareness of being white in South Africa and in the wider world and to say that I have less guilt but that I embody the conditions I have been given in this life. And therein lies my responsibility. And I hope to find and create more opportunities for dialogue, for storytelling, for ritual, for action in order to live with more dignity and compassion. It was a very special time for me. We need so much more of these spaces in our country.

Dan: I described the retreat to one of my friends as ‘intense, challenging and rewarding’. I can’t deny I found it difficult at times. The one-on-one sessions using Insight Dialogue methods were great, even when I was hearing stuff that was disparaging about my own racial group or me personally. I found it useful to hear it, and the method of allowing us to share our beliefs and attitudes with regular pauses, quiet periods and feedback to each other was valuable.  My sense is that it enabled us to say things we wouldn’t normally say to one another, and to discuss the feelings that arise. This is where we need to be going as a nation, hopefully.

The group discussions had a slightly different dynamic: I found them really interesting and I learned a lot, but on the last night I wasn’t so happy with the way the discussion went. I guess I felt it was an affront to the way I saw myself, maybe a misunderstanding. Anyway, I got over it.

The assertion that all whites are racist is not helpful in my opinion.  It may well be true, but it’s not likely to encourage whites to reflect honestly about their attitudes, and to change them. I get the point about why black people can’t be racist (racism as institutionalised discrimination, inherent belief in superiority etc.) I have even argued this point with some of my friends recently, distinguishing between prejudice and racism. White people in SA probably have the capacity to change their attitudes, but are unlikely to do so if they are demonised. White people are scared, maybe a bit angry, resentful – perhaps they don’t deserve to have these feelings after all that has happened, but they do. Attitudes need to change amongst white people, but it has to be handled skilfully – by whom I’m not sure. I am reminded of the joke: how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb must want to change.

I have a better understanding into how people feel about many things – racism, identity, prejudice, humanity, forgiveness, love. There’s lots of work to be done amongst my lot, that’s for sure.

Thanks to everyone for their participation and warmth.

Keke: This Insight Dialogue experience arrived at a time when my soul was craving some form of nourishment. Working regularly with race dialogues had me spent and feeling exhausted and a little jaded.

The wisdom in the room, the shared experience of love and the desire for the healing of South Africa brought so much hope and a deep felt energy to carry on.

Although solutions or an ultimate solution is still something to work on, a spirit of endurance has been brought to life and that is something I’ve deeply embraced.

I’m so glad I went.


[1] The Insight Dialogue guidelines for both speaking and listening are:


Regular pausing interrupts the momentum of our involvement in what we are saying or listening to so we can be aware of our immediate experience – it invokes mindfulness



Helps bring about ease by releasing the tension we notice through pausing and helps us accept whatever it is we are experiencing



Helps us to extend this ease and acceptance to the external – to what is around us and to what we are in contact with


Trust Emergence

Helps us to allow for the complexity of our ever-changing experience as it arises spontaneously in the moment from underlying causes


Listen Deeply

Here we allow our own internal dialogue and reactivity to die down so that we can be still enough inside to listen deeply


Speak the Truth

Here we commit ourselves to ethical speech, truth, kindness and consideration