Red Herrings, Race, Penises and Reconciliation
How to start a piece of writing about a topic that has enraged and resulted in vehement debate in a country such as ours? I know that there will be people who accuse me of being idealistic. There will be people who think that I am failing to recognise the past. There will be people who think that I am failing to recognise the present objectively. In discussions with a friend (she is black)whose heart seeks reconciliation, healing and forward growth for South Africa, I admitted that I am tired of feeling like just because my skin is paler than the majority of my fellow South African’s, I am not allowed an opinion on South Africa, or on the Spear and the dialogue it produced. It is hard when I listen to people argue so objectively that they can’t or won’t acknowledge people’s subjective experiences which result in seemingly irrational behaviour. It is painful that when I dare voice anything I know that half the people who may read it through other friends’ debating and sharing will make assumptions about me based on the fact that I am white and should therefore be quiet, or that I am not allowed to be heard. My words to her were in fact:
“Siki, it is hard to be heard when I know that many of my white peers will think that I am not being objective enough in seeking understanding whilst there are people of colour(s) will dismiss what I have to say without hearing or knowing me simply because I have green eyes, dark hair and a paler complexion with freckles!”.
Siki responded to this with “Lex, you need to say that, you need to say these things out loud and we need more people willing to listen and talk and being willing to defy the perceived stereotypes from all sides”
So, I now I am saying what I think – not because I think I know better than anyone else, but simply because I have been listening to a lot of what is being said and spoken and actioned in an attempt to understand what has been unfolding 5km from my home. I currently live close to the Goodman Gallery where the infamous “Spear” painting is being shown; where the word race and racism has been touted about – a lot.
RACE – what a loaded word in South Africa. Theories abound – I have heard people say that black people can’t be racist – which makes little sense to me in the context of Xenophobia and Black on Black violence. I have seen people walk out of lectures when I was at university in response to a lecturer trying to prove this – black and white people who got more and more irritated with her. I have also been told that black people can’t be racist towards white people. Again, something that makes no sense to me and never has. Surely racism is what happens when we are prejudiced or assume something about another person based on what we understand their race or ethnicity to be about? I have engaged in cross-cultural spaces personally and professionally from the age of 15. One of my earliest childhood memories was leaning to give our helper a hug and a kiss when she returned home from being on holidays and being told by her not to do that; if the wrong people see there will be trouble –she literally recoiled into the corner and pushed me away. This was how I learnt about apartheid. I wasn’t allowed to hug someone who looked after me when my mom couldn’t and made sure I had fun, who disciplined me when I needed it, with my parents’ approval, someone who I loved because “some people don’t understand that it’s okay for people of different colours to love each other” (my wise mom).
In response to a lot of the “racist” cries, many paler Africans are crying, people need to get over apartheid and stop yelling! No, not everything is racist, but as Max du Preez pointed out, how much animosity still exists in certain communities over the Anglo-Boer war? I can take you to places where people refuse to speak English, and other places where people refuse to acknowledge that Afrikaners aren’t all thugs – I can speak about this- I am a product of both. When my mom chose to marry my father, she was asked: “Ai, JB, kan jy nie met n ordentelike boer trou nie?” (Ai, JB, can’t you marry a nice Afrikaans boy?). My Ouma and Oupa were accepting and welcoming to my English “rooinek” father –the rest of the family – well, and I can brag that I was once a peace child… My Oupa (grandpa) took my English father and his first granddaughter (me) for a walk once –without telling my dad where we were going. It only emerged when they reached someone’s home that it was to a family member who was disgusted that my mom had married ‘the enemy’ so to speak but due there being a baby present, the door was opened and some sense of peace brokered. Well, for a moment anyway 😉
So, next time, as a white person you are tempted to yell, let’s get over this already, try speaking English in metaphorical “Blikkiesfontein” and note the response? Or listen to your own gut instinct when a man dressed in veldskoen (vellies), two tone shirts and a fiat bakkie pulls up – what is your immediate thought?
What does this have to do with The Spear? Well, firstly, I think that we need to take a long hard look at ourselves before shouting out in indignation (some righteous, some self-righteous) about the “ANC and its’ race card”. What I learnt over the past few days about what some other middle class, educated black South Africans’ are saying with the word race is the following – and before you read this list, agree to just hear what they are saying, rather than getting defensive immediately or blaming the current government for not addressing these issues –listen to what I learnt:
Race…is about the social inequality
Race …is about the lack of trust
Race….is about the fact that so many black people still live in incredibly poor conditions with minimal access to electricity and water
Race …is about the housing crisis
Race…is about white people not knowing much about the past and the injustices and way in which many people of colour in this country struggled.
When I read the above list, I can understand why so many people are quick to shout RACE –it’s loaded with a whole lot of meaning that I don’t automatically give it. I can understand why someone told me to be quiet when I started talking about the need for us to know what the injustices were, and how to respond to these that could bring healing –except that once we did start speaking, there was a sense of peace – for both of us, not necessarily resolution but a better understanding. The more I engaged with one person’s thinking about this, as she wrote in response to an article written by a mutual friend, the more it made sense to me why people were so upset.
I get that technically and legally the above aren’t definitions of race – but it helped me understand.
I so appreciated this woman telling me that when she drove along the highway, she realised that she did begrudge white people – yes she had white friends, but she got mad all over again at white people when she has a colleague at work who has to wake up at 4:30 to boil water to get to work by 7:30 – this woman takes 20 minutes to get to work, so she isn’t speaking as someone who uses public transport, but rather who sees inside the shacks she drives past. I appreciated this simply because it irks me too – but I don’t label it race. I label it social injustice and the way that wealth is distributed and the fact some of this wealth is mismanaged – which as a black friend of mine pointed out is a favourite expression of “white folk”. I heard him. I did. BUT I also know that the fact that poverty exists now isn’t just the fact that wealth is mismanaged now – it was also mismanaged under apartheid with funds being allocated to state security, rather than addressing the needs of all people who live in South Africa and if we want to be honest, funds were badly allocated to a select few. When I look at communities now, when I look at the new elite class that has emerged, and the level of poverty that remains, wealth is still not allocated equally. Not here in South Africa, not in Africa, not in the world. If it was, poverty wouldn’t exist at all.
The Spear, along with the rest of Brett Murray’s exhibition, was social commentary on what many people (both black and white if you read popular media and blogs) had been struggling with in South Africa and see as a lack of delivery, as well as concerns with regards to the gender issues in this country, so objectively if I listen to these concerns I see direct correlations with the list above – and when I am willing to listen to other people’s hearts in this I can find things that we can agree on- as well as ask questions about should this be called race then? And how does this fit with freedom of expression in our young democracy?
Subjectively though, when my father, either personally or as the man who is viewed as a father to our country is publicly displayed in the way in which President Zuma was, it is very hard to stay objective in responses – especially when it stirs up so much controversy which pushes all the buttons in many and serves as a reminder of much of the indignity of apartheid. See, I heard that and was confused by this statement, until 2 black peers independently told me that under apartheid, black men would be stripped naked and exposed to white female policewoman for review –for whatever purpose. Now, I am not sure if loads of my peers knew this, I didn’t consider this at all. And I already hear some of you saying “Lex, what has that got to do with anything?” Well, if we are all already struggling with working out how to manage life in South Africa with its history- and some of it feeling more personal than other stuff, and this button gets pushed – and ironically in some ways repeatedly pushed by the people who were offended by it – as some of you are thinking, it has a lot to do with everything.
People don’t live ALL subjectively or ALL objectively – even those of us touting seemingly objective arguments in either direction about The Spear have emotional reactions to what is said to us and about us and apparently on behalf of us in this dialogue.
As a South African, who lives on this continent and is passionate about people and purpose and seeing hearts healed and understood, it’s intensely frustrating to feel that I am not allowed to have an opinion or share what I have learnt from people who are willing to share their sensitive areas with me. It’s hard to not want to yell back when I get told I don’t understand racism and I know that there are people who won’t give me the time of day as a person because they have already made assumptions about me. See, I shouldn’t have to tell you the following every time I want to express an opinion as a white South African that this is on my CV:
– That I grew up in a family where we were part of racial reconciliation meetings and listening to stories from when I was 16 years old. This was pre 1994…. It was whilst I was still in school. We camped in communities that legally we shouldn’t have been in, but it was “ignored” (probably silently watched) as it was on church property.
– That I spent a week in a shack in Khayalitsha, in winter, in the early 90’s, with spotlights and police sirens in the background and wondered what would happen if we weren’t invited to stay in a community wanting to see healing too. That I know what it’s like to have township dogs bark at me. That I know what its’ like to be stared at with suspicion and not spoken to, whilst my black friends who were there too were embraced. That I know what it’s like not to be able to fluently follow a conversation for lack of slang-vocabulary.
– That I used to catch mini-bus taxis into Bishop Lavis (poor socio-economic, known for its gangs – well then anyway- violent community) in the mid-90’s as I didn’t have a car and needed to walk through Cape gangsters to get to my social work agency. That I had taxi drivers who refused to stop where I needed to be dropped off and left me in the middle of Elsies’s River, which at that point in time had the highest incidence of rape (geographically) in the world. This made me just another woman at risk – but I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. A sore white thumb. That I had a female Xhosa taxi driver tell me I was a crazy white girl to even be going to work there and driving off her route to get me closer to where I needed to be to make sure I was safe (this still makes me smile). That my university supervisor at the time used to check the day after practical’s that I made it to class as she would be concerned about me until she knew, from a safety point of view, that I was okay – I found this out after the year was done!
– That my first second major high school crush was on a coloured boy (I was just a girl –this is not derogatory) but I had almost no one I knew it was safe to tell this too. I met him on a scripture union camp and he was awesome – and probably didn’t know what to make of this silly-eyed girl that just smiled at him a lot.
– That I have lived in communities where I was not altogether welcomed by the doctors and managers at work and the “white” people in town simply as I chose and preferred to have multi-cultural friendships and didn’t support their racism or ‘colonialist’ ways of working with nationals in a country where we were guests of their government effectively.
– That I have had men who refused to speak to me once they knew that I had dated across the ‘colour line’ or girlfriends who wouldn’t discuss this with me.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that I cry and cringe when I watch at the way we as human beings – all of us – yell at each other and keep yelling to be heard- whether out of pain or out of fear – but aren’t willing to stand and listen to someone else’s pain and fear so that we can heal or allow the painful, uncomfortable things to be bought out of the shadows. There are so many people wanting to see changes in this country, who are seeking the same direction, but we can’t find each other if we can’t listen to each other. And listening to each other is not about a white agenda, or a black agenda, or a coloured agenda. It’s not about one upping the other and punishing. It’s about being able to really see and hear each other together – I am in awe of the shifts in the press the last few days of more and more people taking a stand that is about the bigger picture, but acknowledging the smaller critical details too.
The Spear has highlighted that we default into fighting mode – and we cry without listening – and today reading the newspaper, all the editorials I have read by black editors – have stated this needs to stop; that we need to look at the bigger picture. The Spear neatly allowed a side step of the broader issues because it triggered the race card for many people. And in triggering it stopped, but only for a while, dialogue and discussion from happening that could be helpful in healing and exploring our constitution, and our democracy.
I am committing to stand and letting people yell at me – out of pain and fear and not yelling back – but rather being willing to reflect and hear and cry with, so that if we shift as individuals and groups little by little, maybe the macro shifts we are seeking will come.
I am committing to wanting to understand more – and choosing to respect that people’s pace and process isn’t always where I think it should be – not as a white person, but as Alexa.
I am choosing to ask why the rhetoric resonates with many often, rather than just getting infuriated by it – and responding rather than reacting.
I am choosing to honour my friend, a woman whose heart is also to understand but will often challenge the status quo and speak up to say why the so-called masses may be responding as they are – and part of that was writing this.
I am choosing to allow myself to be corrected and learn – about the objective and subjective dialogues that still need to happen, but can’t be stuck on repeat. Not because I think I know more or don’t know enough. Simply because I don’t think any of us do.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.