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The White Smile

By Hilary Vice

I was in a group many years ago with a young man I will call Peter. In a break in the conversation he suddenly leaned forward and said:

“When I get into a lift and a white person gets in with me, I know I am going to get the “white smile.” (He looked around at the group.) I think all the other black people here will know what I mean! It’s a smile that uses the lips, just a little twitch of the lips, but it doesn’t reach the eyes. Just the lips, guys, that smile doesn’t reach the eyes. No other facial involvement at all! That’s the smile white people use for black people ….”

Lots of laughter accompanied this explanation but I sat there feeling as though his words had pierced through me. It was hard to hear an aspect of my whiteness being mocked, and I wanted to defend myself, but at the same time I recognised myself in that story! I sat thinking to myself: “But I am a reserved person. It is not in my nature to engage with people in lifts and in queues! But …. could it be true that I smile that “white smile” more to black people than to white people? Is that true of me? And even if it isn’t, am I unwittingly offending people or making them feel diminished and ashamed as I am feeling now?”

You see, I had been brought up to believe that it was not polite to effusively engage with anybody until it was clear that they wanted to engage with you! Nobody ever told me this in words of course. I simply took it in unconsciously from my social network of family, friends and community.

This insight, that what I saw as “respectful” behaviour might be interpreted differently by others, motivated me to change. I had to make a conscious effort, as it is difficult to overcome ingrained habits and ways of interacting. I began to engage more with all people in public spaces, and when I found that I did not get rebuffed, I began to enjoy this new way of being.

I have discovered over time that it is not so difficult after all just to be a bit friendlier. And guess what? Those moments of real connection with others light up my day.

Thank you, Peter, for your gift to me!

Hilary is the chairperson of the Working with Groups course at Ububele.

Members of the Working with Groups courses often refer to relational moments, like the one described above, that have had a transformative effect on their social relationships.

If you'd like to find out more about Ububele's Working with Groups Introductory Course you can email Safiya Bobat at

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