#unfenceSA

This morning the first conversation I had with another person involved a story of her young (teenager) cousin being beaten to death by 4 other people.  She was called out of church, along with her family. On arriving at the scene of where he was barely alive, under a black bag at the local rubbish tip, his body was okay, but his face was damaged and scarred beyond what seems to be humanly possible to do to another human being.

Then I thought back to my own childhood where a story like this was unknown.  Where the drugs we were warned about including dagga and tippex thinners and stranger danger with sherbet straws or sheets of stickers – this one I have never checked on snopes to verify?!  Where a drug like TIK (yes, I know it’s everywhere) seemed highly unlikely to even get a mention.

Last weekend I sat and listened to stories of people I know and love but who because of our political history being what it was I never got to know and love growing up.  They were isolated from me and me from them based on the amount of melanin I have in my skin and they in theirs.  Based on the amount of melanin and race, secondly by ethnicity, my black friends – for black in this context incudes anyone not white – would have had their education, their life paths and their potential potentially prescribed. One of the most painful things for me to hear was someone whose family I consider one of my closest, most loved people in Cape Town talk about the battle to get to where he is and the chance that a (white) manager took on him years ago, allowing him to work in a store that my family frequented on a monthly basis to receive scripts for my mom’s blood pressure and my asthma.

How ironic, that someone who holds this much value in my world, is someone whose path I could have crossed so much earlier, but didn’t simply because my schooling and local world was 10km in a different direction.

I nearly didn’t go last weekend – when the invite came and I realised it was in the same 10 day period as 2 other preparation heavy workshop engagements, I thought maybe I need to wait for the next one.  I am really glad I did.

I sat this weekend among people I respect as people wrestling, truth speakers and people further down the road in figuring some things out that I am still working on wrapping my head around and listened.

I listened to a friend speak out, knowing that he would offend some listeners, in a safe enough environment to do so.

I watched people who would usually be deferred to first in speaking, or were used to being given the floor, listening more than they spoke.

I learnt about the depth of wisdom and a history that belongs not just to friends, but to communities to, that wasn’t my shared history.

I engaged with a friend who voiced that he wished that the white community would experience what it feels to be hopeless. Not because he is wishing hopelessness on people but because he wants the white community to experience what it is to feel like there are no choices and to mobilise from there and not just be in an inverted power dynamic.

I was reminded again about how we can be hopefully naïve and in this space it diminishes the hopelessness many feel.

Hope matters, but hope needs to be more than just a feel good thing.  It needs to be something that stirs and disturbs us when we are sitting in a place of too comfortable and too easy and too much going on to think that things need to change.

Hope matters for all of us when we are angry and scared about what things could look like, might look or won’t look like.

Hope matters when we see systems in place that still don’t serve us all well.

Hope matters when I have to speak up and out within my own community against things or for things that need to be heard.

Without Hope we all die, but without any action Hope is just a warm fuzzy thing to hold onto.

I am grateful for this weekend.

I am grateful for the reminder that actually, it takes courage to speak into spaces of privilege and power.

I am grateful for being able to think back to my first weekend, at the age of 16, as a family experiencing listening in Strandfontein 25 years ago, led by Wilson Goeda and Gerrit Wolfaardt (I stand under correction here!).That shaped me in ways that I am still figuring out.

Was I comfortably uncomfortable all the time this weekend?  No

Was I challenged to keep listening, to keep wrestling?  Yes.

Let’s #unfenceSA as we keep listening to those who don’t look, think or sound like us and let’s #unfenceSA by engaging in our own spaces more and challenging the areas where we can do better.

Thank you Johan De Meyer for kicking this off.

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What a (almost) burst ear drum is teaching me about listening .

I am currently struggling with an ear drum that has threatened to burst.  Seemingly out of the blue.  It was a painful ache, much like when scuba diving, or flying with your ears that don’t want to equalise, that sent me off to the doctor.

The doctor, on examining my ear kept saying OH MY WORD, OH MY GOSH repeatedly. Never a good sign really. She then went on to tell me that the inside of my ear looked more like a haemorrhoid, a shiny (this was apparently a good thing) one than like the inner anatomy of an ear.

I am grateful for modern medicine – hopefully the deaf, blocked, dizzy, unbalanced, ringing, buzzing, motion induced nausea sensation will be passing soon.

It’s ironic when someone whose career is all about listening to people suddenly can’t.

Then I thought about the haemorrhoid thing, and other than thinking EEUWWW…thought about some hard conversations around race that I have been engaged in.

Around how when we have to consider things like privilege, shame, fragility, guilt, we often listen with ears that don’t hear. About how hard it is to listen to the anger or stories of others whose stories don’t make sense to us because we don’t experience life that way. About how uncomfortable or inconvenient, or how much we don’t want to have to keep listening.

We listen ready to explain the buzz, the nausea or maybe don’t even acknowledge the blockage that is the problem.

A friend recently challenged me on not being afraid to listen and speak up less apologetically.

I have realised that part of my buzzing has been not wanting to deal with some of the fall out of speaking up and out, of not feeling like there is enough energy to do so.

I am committed to not apologising for learning and wanting to keep walking with, learning from, and speaking up when I feel I must. I am committed to quote another wise friend to ‘failing forward’ in this as we learn to listen together.

I can’t learn when I am focused on the buzz.  I can’t listen or concentrate on what you are telling me when I am distracted by own blocks. Whatever they are.

I am grateful for friends, like my doctor, who have pointed the ‘haemorrhoids’. I am grateful that we can create spaces where we can learn to listen despite the buzz.

I am dreaming of a South Africa where listening means clarity and being heard, and being quiet when needed. Without the buzz.

Wrestling with ‘skin’ colour crayons

I run social skills groups for children from Grade R to Grade 3. Without fail in every single group, my coffee/ brown/ chocolate or as one of them has identified himself ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ children ask to borrow the ‘skin’ colour crayon when colouring in pictures of themselves. Not the peach crayon – which is what I apparently am- the ‘skin’ colour. It irks me every single time. It makes me want to hold the crayon next to my arm and say it doesn’t match me – it’s not the colour of my skin (I still look like summer according to some of the college students I teach which means I am tan).

Yet every single child knows that this is ‘skin’.

It frustrates me that this is the case and yet we question why race still matters in terms of how we as ‘old/ big/ adult/ leaders’ engage the world?

I love that one of these kids asked me to guess which baby photo was his – he was the lone person of his race in this group. They divide their friends into the annoying vs nice people. When I listen and watch these children engage with each other based on their individuality, be kind to each other based on their quirks, I celebrate their growing social skills, but I also inwardly celebrate that they see each other as people.

Then I look at my social media feed which is populated with US vs THEM or labels like animals, and narratives saying ‘get over it already’, posted by thcee same people who are asking why can’t we be nice to each other and simply see each other.

Maybe these kids who are still going to be confronted with the meaning of ‘skin’ colour beyond a mismatch of crayons could teach us a thing or two. They are learning to listen to each other. They are learning that sometimes when someone says ‘I am angry’, it’s because I am hurting. They are learning that when we repeatedly ignore someone it can make them ‘mad’ and want to shout and scream so that they are seen – and while this isn’t the most effective way of problem solving, sometimes it’s the only way to feel heard.

My 9 year olds can verbalise this, in safe spaces. In safe spaces, they can own when they get this wrong – when maybe we didn’t listen well enough to the other and so didn’t help find a solution.

Recently in my social media feed the recurring theme in the commentary on current race issues – like being a black working class student at Rhodes or about the Rhodes statue and what do we do with him became about US and THEM and sadly, for me, often a refusal from my ‘skin (peach)’ colour peers to hear the other – I am not saying that the actions, attitudes or behaviours are all to be encouraged, but when we engage on social media platforms and aren’t willing to listen, then all we do is make it seem like ‘skin colour’ is the only way to go.

I can’t only be willing to show compassion to someone because they are ‘nice’ to me, or because they have been willing to see me, if I am not willing to see them first. Sometimes they need to shout loudly at me before they realise I am still standing and willing to listen. Sometimes I need to be comfortable being uncomfortable with someone else’s pain so that we can find another way – especially if their discomfort affords me comfort or vice versa?

I have struggled the past few days with understanding how we ‘skin’ people hold Mandela and Tutu up in regard, and yet disregard the voices of people whose freedom to express their voices Mandela is seen to represent? I struggle with the fact that we repost and honour them and yet dismiss the ‘ordinary’ person of colour when they express their story or pain in a way that we can’t connect to and so don’t validate.

If we truly want to honour the ‘let’s move on’ South Africa maybe we need to stand next to, walk alongside and listen to people whose stories and experiences are different to ours. Not because listening on its own can fix them. But because being seen and being heard and being acknowledged does something inside all of us.

It helps us find each other. Maybe then ‘skin’ colour can become peach and the ‘coffee’ ‘brown’ and ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ will truly all be equal to the peach in terms of value and legitimacy and experience. Despite the different pictures they paint and stories that they colour.