Story Time with Quinton Pretorius
“I am a recovering racist. I grew up in a country and a family that taught me I was better than people who did not look like me.”
With these brutally honest words, Quinton Pretorius starts telling us his story of growing up in a working-class white family in apartheid South Africa and the life-changing commitment he made almost three decades ago, leading him to become one of the country’s most compelling and thought-provoking speakers and facilitators on issues of cultural intelligence, and diversity, equity & inclusion.
Growing up White in Apartheid South Africa
The first time I met a black person my age was in 1995 when I joined a dance and drama team with a nonprofit organization. As soon as I learned that I had to share my room with a black man I thought ‘how am I going to smell after being in the same room with this guy? What kind of conversations would I be able to have with him? How would I be able to trust putting my money in front of him?’
I never verbalized these thoughts, but they were going on in my mind while thinking of this faceless and nameless black man I would have to live with.
I was raised in a typical white working-class home in South Africa during the apartheid; we had an African woman who worked in our home, she had her own cups, spoons, and plates under the sink. She was not allowed to use any of our cutlery. She would have to ask my parents’ permission to go out, she never called me by my real name; she used to call me Klein Boss, which means little boss as opposed to my father, the big boss.
When Gladys -one of the domestic workers who worked for us- was pregnant, she was not entitled to maternity leave. She gave birth to her son in a backroom on our property where domestic workers lived. Her son stayed with us for three years and after that, he disappeared. It was only when I got on the other side of history did I realize that he was brought up by his grandmother and aunt because having a little black kid in our home was an inconvenience to my family, all whilst Gladys brought up my sister like her own child.
The only black man I had ever engaged with was our gardener. I can’t remember his name; I used to call him ‘boy’. I, a 9-year-old kid would call this 40-year-old man that worked in our garden ‘boy’, and my responsibility was to give him water and sandwiches.
It was on the backdrop of this deeply embedded system of racism and cultural separation that I grew up learning that black people have a distinct smell, and if I were to hang out with them, I will start smelling like them. They taught me that black people are intellectually inferior to us and that I cannot trust black people. Then in 1995, I met Oscar.
I smelled Oscar before I saw him. He bathed himself in perfume and he was a beautiful looking human being. He was an embodiment of what we would call back then a metrosexual. He was very well educated and spoke English better than I did. It was quite the plot twist to me, I thought; ‘this guy is way better than I, now he must be asking himself how he could trust this working-class white guy and interact with him.’
Oscar was the one person that immediately broke every single black stereotype I had. It was the first time I used the same toilet as black people, the first time I ate at a table with black people, it might seem marginal, but it was life-changing to me. I learned so much.
It was the first time I realized black people in our country had two names: their original African name given to them by their families, and an English name was given to them so they would be able to work, because back then it was much easier to employ Peter than Lehlohonolo In other terms, it was a complete robbery of their identity.
Committing to Building Bridges
In 1995 I made the commitment to start building bridges anywhere I can, starting with my own group and my own family. In that year, it was the first time I invited Buhle, a black man, into our home. He would be the first black person in our house that my family never employed and over whom they never had power. It was fascinating for me to see which cup of coffee they would serve him, the “black only” cup from under the sink or the normal cup. And I was glad to see it was the “normal” cup.
The conversations that ensued between Buhle, Seth an Indian-Asian, and I were fascinating and life-changing. These conversations did not take place only at my house around my white family, but also around black people and colored people (South African term for mixed-race people) in their homes. I spent a significant amount of time living in black townships and black homes and learned an immense amount about black culture. Then, I had the chance to travel with the dance and drama team in 1999 around the world telling the story of South Africa on race and reconciliation.
I Am Sorry
I remember we were in East Germany getting into a vehicle after our performance when a man started hurling racial slurs at Seth. For the next two hours, nobody said a word in the car. When we arrived at our next destination, I saw Buhle standing by himself he was upset, so I went to him. He was crying, I started crying, we were both crying, and I had no idea why we were crying.
He then said these words to me: ‘why am I black? why do people hate me because of the color of my skin?’ I didn’t know what to say to him. I was the only white South African in the group. The only thing that made sense for me to say to my friend at the time was ‘I am sorry.’ ‘I am sorry for what I represent, I am sorry for what my family did.’
In 1999 I started apologizing for what I represented and for what people who look like me did and were still doing. And that apology has set me free from my guilt and my shame as a white person. It enabled me to walk into a room and engage with people who don’t look like me and who don’t have the same privileges as me. But that was not enough, I had to move beyond the apology towards solidarity, and I started my journey working on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to make true tangible change.
I realized that to make a true change in society, it is the people who look like and sound like me that must do the work, not only the black people in the organization. As a white male, I am blind to the privileges I have, and I don’t see them. But, I must dismantle the same privileges that I have benefitted from. What Cultural Intelligence (CQ) did was give me the skill to dismantle the systems that allowed me and others to move forward, and that was the key to understanding (DEI).
The CQ Framework Gave Me Words to Things I was Thinking
When I was introduced to the CQ Framework in 2013, it was like I finally discovered words to things I was feeling and thinking. It was no longer a guessing game, and we finally have this amazing academic work underpinning our efforts to start making a real behavioral change in organizations. The framework also removed the emotional component of the conversation and allowed us to move beyond just awareness to achieve more practical skills that people can implement in the workplace.
This is a real work in progress, and I believe CQ would represent an integral human skill in the future by becoming more mainstream and more understood by regular people, and not remaining on the fringes of academics and people on the sidelines that are trying to do this work.
Quinton is a compelling and thought-provoking facilitator and speaker who taps into his extensive experience in the corporate and NGO sectors, in South Africa and abroad, to engage with his audiences on issues of diversity, equity & inclusion, interpersonal communication, and personal potential development. He has developed a reputation as one of the best facilitators in the country and is known for speaking with genuine conviction, passion, and an inimitable frankness that inspires and provokes individuals and organizations to expand the scope of their vision. Through a facilitation style that is highly interactive and probing, he is able to help diverse audiences make the transition from a subjective worldview and interaction style to a broader state of appreciation for the real breadth and complexity of social interactions in multicultural environments. He is well-known for his use of immersive exercises, engaging storytelling, and a good measure of light-hearted humor as he weaves together lessons that leave lasting impressions on his audiences.
“In each of us, there is a desire for more. We can think about this desire but until we start intentionally acting on it, it seldom becomes a reality. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have the ability to create change and find our personal greatness.” Quinton Pretorius
Connect with Quinton via LinkedIn.
About the Cultural Intelligence Center
The Cultural Intelligence Center is an innovative, research-based training and consulting firm that draws upon empirical findings to help organizations and individuals around the world assess and improve cultural intelligence (CQ)- the ability to work effectively with people from different nationalities, ethnicities, age groups, and more. We provide you with innovative solutions that improve multicultural performance based on rigorous academic research. More information about the Cultural Intelligence Center can be found on our website.