Wanting to know more

Narrative Burden: The pressure or expectation to share one’s life narrative.

We all have narratives – a story. We all have things we share and don’t share. I am learning more and more though, as I read and listen that certain people’s stories feel and seem more public than others.

One of my biggest frustrations, in response to well-intentioned actions/ questions, when my own personal filters get tested, has been to have to hear “It was well meant”. One of the most helpful things I have recently read in a book by Gail Steinberg & Beth Hall called Inside Transracial Adoption was that it’s not just about the intent it’s also about the impact. I think that this sums up brilliantly what I have often clumsily tried to say.

It’s not just about INTENT. It’s also about IMPACT.

(It was in this book that narrative burden got given a name for me.)

The more I reflect on narrative burden, the more I realise that while it is a term used in adoption circles with transracial/ cross-cultural adoptees, it’s a really helpful term in understanding some of my (other race) friends’ stories too. The friend whose model C school accent doesn’t reveal that she grew up in a rural Eastern Cape village or the friend who ‘defied the odds’ and whose story then becomes public property with people wanting to understand and know and be intrigued as to how he or she got to where they are. All well intentioned in terms of meaning to be encouraging and seeking understanding but also potentially having an impact not intended – that of being seen as the exception, or as previously blogged about meeting a particular standard suddenly which is not always so encouraging.

In my circles I am seeing a push to more and more open, deep dialogue with the intention to bring healing and understanding around issues of justice and race. We can only do this with people we feel safe sharing the deeper stuff with. We can only do this within appropriate parameters. We can only do this well when we feel like we have a choice and know that what our stories will be heard and respected. Otherwise it feels well intentioned, but actually might have a very different impact.

Part of our official adoption prep has been to listen, to read, to discuss and to explore specific topics.

Part of my personal prep has been speaking to different friends, not in my professional capacity, but as a friend, who have adopted and listening to some of their learnings and frustrations and joys as adoptive parents. One of these friends recently confided that it was hard being asked to share their adoption experience (through writing a requested article) simply as it felt like speaking out their child’s story without their child being able to choose if this is something that they would be comfortable with, or not. This really struck me. Despite the fact that nothing private would be disclosed, their family would once more be on display in a way. It struck me how much this person who is an advocate for adoption and family and people was advocating for their child’s privacy and safety in sharing. It struck me also how conflicted this felt for them.

My guy and I have been speaking about what do we do to keep and protect our future child’s story safe?

We would like our child to have their own story – one which they can choose to tell and engage with as they are developmentally ready to do so. No one asks biological children to explain the private aspects of their stories of origin, and yet in some ways I am realising, more and more, again and again – through reading, through listening and through discussions, that adopted children & especially obviously adopted children don’t get offered the same right to privacy that most of us expect to have – whatever our story is.

I have often thought (and will confess to having said on occasion) ‘tongue-in-cheek’ to people who allude to wanting the full disclosure and details of a child’s story of origin that is kind of like asking parents of biological children to go into the personal details of the circumstances around conception of their children. It’s just something that we (generally) respect as being private. Yet with adopted children there is a narrative burden to tell this story– both on the child as they grow to explain it and on parents who get asked along the way.

Maybe this is a part of our ‘talk-show’, reality TV, social media culture we now live?

Part of my wanting to respect & figure out the ‘narrative burden’ has also meant re-looking at how and what we share – and recognising that I can tell my story only while there is no potential impact on my child or my family. My family has stories which are ours. Which we don’t tell randomly. My small is going to have to develop skills I didn’t need to growing up to help manage this challenge. This is not a shame based response. It’s not an ‘adoption is a secret’ response. It’s a response, for me, which recognises that adopted children don’t get the gift of privacy, or only having their parents know their starting story – social workers, foster parents, sometimes police, and sometimes multiple people in these roles amongst others all know their story which started with saying goodbye without a choice. I want to know better how to give our child the gift of being able to choose.

Discovering ‘narrative burden’ has already been a gift. It’s encouraged me to examine what do we hold in the sacred spaces within our marriage? Within our families and close friends?

Experiencing a glimpse of this when people ask ‘why adoption’ and then offering solutions or intended encouragement especially when we aren’t particularly close, or they don’t know that this has always been plan A for us, has given me a tiny taste of this.

My strategies in being gracious in this are being refined. In learning to recognise intent and respond strategically to that as well as impact. Not just impact, or potential impact. Definitely not perfect. Just being refined.

Grace.

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Justice vs Selfishness

Is SOCIAL JUSTICE in some ways THE STRUGGLE AGAINST SELFISHNESS?

I recently had the privilege of attending a conference with various leaders seeking change in the area of poverty, inequality & unemployment. At this conference were leaders who had been involved in the struggle against apartheid as well as young leaders whose voices are loud in the current struggles that our country faces as a whole – by whole I mean people of all groups and (racial) backgrounds.
There were many reflections on things that worked, ideals that were and weren’t achieved and stories told of the political struggle that ensued to bring SA into a democracy. Rev Frank Chikane said the following which has sat with me and I have no concrete answers to this – other than we need to find this path through restitution and peace: ‘In the build up to 1994 the country was taken across a bridge in such a way that bought the country to a new place without destroying it; however the economic system wasn’t taken across the bridge’.

I sat listening to people speaking about their experience of growing up poor, of the struggle to escape an economic system that is responsible for much of the structural violence and neglect many people still suffer under and realised that this was the bigger narrative against which the smaller, personal narrative needs to unfold. As a South African who is white how do I find my space in the midst of this when I see what are emotional, angry and ‘you can’t possibly understand the other’ type responses on social media and news comments?

How do i listen to what needs to be said, but still ask or challenge or engage people to find an alternate way to that of bitterness driven responses? This morning I again saw a person of colour being allowed to respond to an emotional statement (which is allowed too) and yet when a ‘white’ person affirmed the initial response and asked the questions which I too wanted to ask was immediately shot down. It made me think that while we talk a big talk about creating a land of equal opportunity that in the midst of that we need to find ways of seeing each other – and that means looking beyond our own assumptions and stereotypes –regardless of who they are about.

Sivuyile Kotela said ‘that we need to find a way of talking about poverty and it’s link to race without being racist; that the church has a responsibility to talk about poverty differently to those who do so for political reasons and that as much as don’t want to talk about race often, in the context of poverty it’s a needed discussion’. This might not be radical enough for some of my more left wing friends. It might infuriate some of my more right wing friends that the race word has once more been used.

So in this context how does this broader narrative and story that is currently unfolding as a nation impact my personal narrative around justice? I have had FOMO watching friends engage in dialogues around this until I felt convicted that actually, justice needs to be about the way we live our lives – and yes the dialogues matter, but what matters too is actioning the things that we see and hear.

How do I acknowledge and what do I do re: my white privilege? No – that doesn’t mean I have a trust fund, it simply means that inherently if I listen to some of my best friends (who happen to have grown up differently based on their skin) tell stories of their childhood, do I acknowledge & respond to the wrongs or simply nod and move on?

Justice in my day to day life is about how I:
– Engage my community
– Engage my neighbours
– Engage those employed by me: whether at work or at home. Do I respect and value the person & her work, helping in my home enough to pay her a generous and living wage or do I worry that this will impact my disposable income too adversely?
– What do I do with disposable income and time?
– What do my friendship circles look like? Do I intentionally befriend people whose stories differ to my own so that there are bridges being built or do I surround myself with people who are like me and allow to not have to think/ talk or be the other?
– Is my faith & it’s actions private or is there a social aspect to it in terms of how I live it out?

I don’t have answers for all of the above – but when I start to ponder them the selfishness of aspects of my world are bought to light and it brings me back to consider where I need to shift again.

Race, Reconciliation and Red Herrings…a response to The Spear (2012)

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.