I HAVE always found the term non-whites in reference to black people derogatory.

I HAVE always found the term non-whites in reference to black people derogatory.

It implies that the standard of definition is "whiteness", and anything else cannot be given its legitimate name but has to draw its definition from being non-white.

In describing a people it is more appropriate to define them according to what and who they are, rather than what they are not.

I'd rather part with my high heels, which is a sacrifice worse than death, than call any person "non-white".

But what term do I use to refer to everyone else, except white people? I have a dilemma because I want to say that every nation I know seems to have a higher tolerance for poverty than white people do.

I cannot say that blacks are more accepting of poverty because the reality is that there are poor people in Asia, China and Latin America, for example.

It is the absolute truth that the face of poverty all over the world has a darker hue, and the slums of Africa, Asia, South and North America are populated by darker people.

It has always intrigued me that the presence of a white person in a shack is regarded as a headline-making story.

But I am not surprised because the history of the world has favoured colonisers over the colonised, so it makes sense that most white people are not living below the bread line.

Those who are desperately poor attract the interest of writers, filmmakers and researchers. Think of some of the documentaries here at home about "poor whites", or a report about a white person who lives in a township.

These situations make news and jostle us out of our reverie precisely because we, black and white, have accepted that poverty and indigence in South Africa are the preserve of everybody else but whites.

I mentioned to a friend that we have a white cleaner at work, who is a dignified middle-aged woman with two children. Every day she puts on her uniform and cleans our toilets, sweeps the floors and picks up our rubbish.

To say my friend's jaw dropped would be an understatement. The mere presence of a white cleaner caused great interest at work and was the subject of a long discussion. Even her black colleagues could not believe that she was in their midst.

It is clearly a shock to the system and our minds can still not countenance this possibility. The fact that this was a story worth relating proves the uniqueness of it, because I have never bored anyone with details of black cleaners.

Why? Because it is something we are used to.

This week, nine members of a family were burnt to death in a shack fire started by a candle. It was reported that the residents of Site B, Khayelitsha in Cape Town, were helpless to stop the blaze in which five children and four adults perished.

Any decent person would bemoan such a calamity. Unfortunately it is typical. It is not just the loss of life that should make this event dramatic, but the poverty and desperation that it reflects is equally tragic.

You have to be desperately poor to be living in a shack lacking a basic commodity like electricity.

While platitudes of "pushing back the frontiers of poverty" roll off many politicians' tongues, it is evident that at some level we have all come to accept that these kinds of living conditions are a normal part of our society. Though we ourselves might not be residents of squatter camps, we seem to be in agreement that other people belong there, and those people are black.

Like most South Africans I would love to live in a country where no person has to live in a shack, rely on candles for light and possibly go to bed on an empty stomach.

I want to live in a country where the poverty of all people, not just blacks, is an anomaly.