February 15, 2012
I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.
Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.
But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.
However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.
I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.
If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.
But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of ”lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.
I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.
However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.
The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.
Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.
Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).
While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.
March 1, 2011
A few nights ago my wife had “the talk” with me. Now, I put this in parenthesis, since I assume that I’m not the only one who gets “the talk”, but since I’m new to the whole conversation on kids I might be wrong. It was the talk about our bad habits, and how we need to think about them, since we don’t want them to rub off onto our children. Well, I guess I already changes the meaning of “the talk” by using the plural “our” – yes, this was not the wife-nagging-the-husband kind of thing, but a truly heart to heart about our own lives.
She’s quite tactful, this wife of mine. She started out with the things she believe we will be quite able to transmit to our children (I will not list these, since I believe that every experienced parent will laugh at our naive idea that we might achieve some form of success at this thing called parenting). After the list of nice things, kind of stroking the ego of this future father, the hit me with the bomb: “I fear about the ideas concerning race our kid(s) might grow up with”…
Now, my more conservative friends following my thoughts over the past year or two might hope that my wife has finally made me see into my foolish ways of always talking about racism, and that becoming a father will now knock me to my senses, so that I will become a good liberal (yes, I do think conservatives sometimes want us to become liberals, if ever these definitions is still helpful), stop talking about this pestering problem, and quite down. But if this is what you hoped for, then I have sad news: it was exactly the opposite which she had in mind.
Now, we’ve put some thought into issues concerning race in the past. We “have black friends” (I have a coloured friend who always laughingly refer to the people who say that they aren’t racists since they have a black friend). We spent some time thinking through this intellectually. We’ve made some choices in our life to specifically change the spaces in which we live in order to embrace our position as a white minority in a place where we don’t hold power (knowing that we stand the chance of actually confirming the power we have as wealthy white people, since we are in a position to choose to change these things). Yet still she knew, and I knew she was right, 500 years of racialization is so deeply embedded within us, that raising kids not bound to this ideology is almost impossible.
Now, we both come from families whom have been considered “liberal” concerning issues of race at various times. We both are the second or third generation in our family attempting to work anti-racism. And although our parents might disagree with us on this point, we both believe that we’ve been able to build on what we found in our parents attempts at working for a post-racial South Africa, and that we have taken this quest to a deeper level. We both think (although this might just be the delusion of delayed adolescence striving to be rebellious) that we have sometimes frustrated our parents because we weren’t willing to settle for their attempts, but insisted on our own attempts.
So, we continued our conversation, emphasizing how important it will be that our children live in spaces where they know that not only white people, but also black people (when I refer to black I imply all those who was subjected being dehumanized in the way we constructed the ideas surrounding who was valued and important – thus everyone not finding themselves in the position of being white), are teachers. Not only white people, but also black people are managers, decision makers, and family friends. On an even more complex level is the question of whether we also want our children to live in a world where (should the social hierarchy of class continue) they know that not only black people, but also white people at times occupy the position of the worker (and then we still need to think how we want to help them to learn that the ideas concerning class need to be deconstructed). But when all was said and done we had to face one thing:
Our children will come to us one day asking how we could have taken part in the continued racism which we are trying to fight. And that is what we hope for. Maybe that is the best white parents can do. We won’t be raising colour-blind children, we should get rid of that myth. But hopefully we will raise colour-conscious children. This do not imply children hating their own skin, but children knowing the history of being white, in all it’s harsh realities. Remembering so that they can be a voice to say that this might never happen again. We hope that our children will be able to move even further along the road which we are traversing, coming back to their parents and calling us to take the next step towards a place which we cannot yet imagine. Or maybe they will just frustrate us, frustrate us because they won’t be willing to settle for the choices we have made. Might this not be part of what parenting is about in this racialized world?
November 25, 2010
A few months ago I was involved with a project installing solar panels in a squatter camp near our church. It involved standing on ladders, hammering stuff to wooded squatter wall pillars, screwing in light-holders, and sometimes walking on roofs to fasten solar panels (squatter roofs are stronger than you might think, and it’s quite a few seeing a squatter camp from the rooftops). It also involved a lot of time spent with the people in the community, especially the two young guys we worked with in the installation process.
I’ve had a lot of discomfort with the project all along as well, which I’ll not dwell on in detail here, except for one aspect I’ve been reflecting on: On a typical day we would get to the settlement, get out our tools, and start at a point and work. In the houses, on the houses. We tried to be real civil, always asking permission, sometimes offering to come back later, trying to respect those whose property we were stepping onto, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the reality that we kind of had this right to walk right past someones front door, right next to their houses, into their houses. Coming and going. Yes, they could tell us that we are not welcome, that we should go, but their is this kind of social consensus that we white people walking in-between the shacks has the right to do this.
But picture what happens when a black man walks down the road in the suburb. Picture what would happen if he decide to take a short-cut (corner) over someones lawn! Immediately the assumption would be that he is in the wrong, that this is not allowed! And ever though I was the guy coming in the stuff, I know that more than the stuff was at play when I was allowed free reign within the community. And I’m troubled by this reality.
As a white person I have the right to be skeptical of a black person wandering around near my house.
However, as a white person I have the right to assume that wandering around in a poor black neighborhood is my right.
Shannon Sullivan helped me a lot, when she made the point that even white people who decide to move out of white neighborhoods because they want to fight their own racism, can very easily just be strengthening their privileged white self-understanding by this decision. The very fact that a white person can make the choice to live in a white suburban area, some of which has brilliant methods of keeping it rich and white, or make the choice to live in an inner-city environment, in a block of flats which is predominantly black people, or even in a squatter camp, is already an indebtedness to the privileged way in which the so-called “white race” has been constructed.
It’s a difficult journey then. Moving into a space, but also doing it and attempting to not come in as the white person who can determine how this space is ruled. More than that, allowing this space to make me uncomfortable, challenging my understanding of what the normalized space should look like. If I cannot open myself to the critique of others, then maybe I’d better stay in my white suburb, rather than trying to extend my white space to again dominate those places where white people left so that others could now determine the rules.
It’s attempting to be changed by the space which I am not quite comfortable with, rather than coming in to change that space into something I am comfortable with.
November 10, 2010
It’s been some months since last I participated in a synchroblog. But the topic was impossible to ignore! Marginalization remain one of the most important questions in our globalized, capitalist, McWorld. But I am not marginilized. I am white and male. Educated. I speak a language which in a country of 11 official languages receive a lot of special attention. I was part of the privilaged few who could have 12 years of school education and 6 years of university education while always having a teacher of lecturer in class that was able to speak my home language. I have internet access, in a country with quite a low internet penetration. I am Christian, in a country where in many ways on a popular level it is just assumed that everyone is Christian, at least when you are white and Afrikaans. Yes, I am from the South, and I live in South Africa, that does take me out of at certain dominant narratives, and I am 26, which in the world in which I work could be argued that to make me somewhat marginalized.
In many ways I am the example of normality.
But yet white people are only 11% of South Africa.
The world is majority female, the worlds labour force is majority female, and Africa specifically is being carried on the backs of the mothers and grandmothers.
This is a country of second languages. Where children are being taught in languages other then their home language.
Although I’m the example of normality, I’m not normal at all, if normal is defined as the place where “most people” are. But the normalized position it not selected democratically. The normalized position is the position never being questioned. We talk about “female perspectives” or “black perspectives”, but assume the “male perspective” or “white perspective” to be… well, normal. The perspective, all other being a deviation from this normalized position. And this is not limited to popular culture, as academics until recently also weren’t putting any emphasis on white people as a “race like any other“, assuming whiteness to be the position from which others is being studies, and interestingly, this report points out how the behavioral sciences continue to universalize Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic people (specifically young Americans at universities).
Concerning race, South African sociologist Melissa Steyn writes:
As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard bywhich everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, “even to theextent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being whitehas on their everyday lives”. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is editedout, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole.
When seeing through the eyes of the marginalized, their might be something more important than recognizing the absolute horrors of life on the fringes of society, the suffering and oppression. If we are serious about racism, sexism, and all other phenomenons which create the marginalized in society (for economic reasons?), as systemic problems, and not simply the evil actions of individuals, then I would need to recognized my own non-normal normalized position. I would need to recognize my own indebtedness to this system of privilege. Yes, simply recognizing privilege is not solving the problem, but at least the privileged position of race (as Shannon Sullivan points out in Revealing Whiteness), and I believe the same can be said about other systems of privilege, has ways to keep itself in place, habits which manifest also among those who claim to be a voice in favour of the marginalized.
Our first task might then be to see ourselves through the eyes of the normalized. Recognizing our participation in different systems of privilege and power, so that we in turn can work for the transformation of systems which is continuing to create marginalized groups on so many different levels.
* * * * *
this part of the monthly synchroblog i enjoy being a part of, bloggers writing on the same topic on the same day. november’s is a topic near & dear to my heart, seeing through the eyes of the marginalized. i encourage you to check out some of the other writers who participated, the early link list is at the bottom of this post & i’ll add to it as new ones come in over the course of today. if you’re a blogger & want to be part of future synchroblogs, you can join on facebook or go to our newsynchroblog site and subscribe.
- George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt
- Arthur Stewart – The Bank
- Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate
- Ellen Haroutunian – Reading the Bible from the Margins
- Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized
- Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight
- Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole
- John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways
- Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees–Synchroblog on Marginalised People
- Kathy Escobar - sitting at the rickety-card-table-in-the-family room at thanksgiving dinner
- Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem
- Drew Tatusko - Invisible Margins of a White Male Body
- K.W. Leslie – Who’s the Man? We Christians Are
- Jacob Boelman – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Peter Walker – Through the Eyes of the Marginalized
June 29, 2010
I remember one comment from a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago distinctly. I cannot remember what we talked about, but one phrase has stuck with me ever since: “We are more middle-class than Christian”. It was a critique that I could work with. Even though it was a critique that I realized has drastic implications for my own personal life. And I agree with what he said. Sometimes we are more middle-class than Christian. Our actions are shaped more strongly by our economic position than our religious identity.
But thinking back on my experiences of church as a kid, being middle-class (or rich) was not an all-encompassing identity in our congregation. Although the critique that the Dutch Reformed church is mostly a middle-class church would probably have held for the congregation I grew up in, we had some poor people in the congregation.
I remember one lady who always attended church with her kids. Her husband didn’t make life easy for her, and even as a young teen I knew that she really struggled. She was really poor. I know that I could sense the discomfort in her involvement in the congregation, people didn’t really know what to do with her, but she was there. Year in, year out. And she was involved with the congregation.
Maybe an even stronger memory was from the kids that was in my youth group whom I sometimes got to know, and sometimes even had the opportunity of visiting there homes. The one was the neighbor of the above mentioned woman. I remember walking into the small pre-fab home she shared with a father and sister, and there was nothing in the living room. Not a single piece of furniture.
Those who were truly poor were a minority. The poor mostly attended other congregations. But at least I can remember sharing faith with some poor people.
My friends comment isn’t that difficult to find in our churches really. I guess we don’t really change anything after recognizing this, but I’ve heard similar thoughts in other places. Sometimes our denomination would be described as a middle-class church, and it would be generally accepted, sometimes as something inevitable, sometimes as something that should change.
But I’ve never (or at least outside of a small group of people focusing on this specific issue) hear anyone saying: “We are more white than Christian”. Yet,whiteness was the most-shared characteristic among those attending the congregation in which I grew up in. Not middle-class, not Reformed, not even Christian (and I’m talking about people understanding themselves as Christian, not making judgments on what “real Christians” would look like) was as common a mark as being white. We were primarily a white congregation, above all else. We had diverse sexual orientations (although not admitted at that stage), diverse spiritualities, diverse theological presuppositions, diverse income-groups, we even had people who weren’t 1st language Afrikaans speakers (very few, but they were there), but all of us were white. That characteristic was primary. (Let me just make a note that I grew up in a very small town, which probably caused the congregation to be even more diverse, since you didn’t have the wide variety of specializing congregations, and closed suburbs, that my current city context offers)
It’s 2010, and in most places this has not changed much. So I want to suggest that if I want to understand my own church. The one I grew up in, even the one I’m currently attending and pastoring, and the denomination I’m part of, I should start by understanding it as a white church. I am part of a white church. And if for us anything is more dominant that being Christian, then it must be being white.
June 14, 2010
A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.
The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).
Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.
What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.
June 8, 2010
In Steyn’s work, Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, which I’ve been writing about in the previous two posts, all the narratives she identified accepts that Apartheid oppressed black people, and that what happened to black people under Apartheid was in some way wrong. Even the hardliner colonial approach (probably the most vocally and blatantly racist in her spread of white narratives) she describes as acknowledging this:
Whereas a nod is made to the deleterious effects of Apartheid on black South Africans (“they were definitely MORE affected”), the major effect of Apartheid was to provice nurturing ground for the innate spitefulness and vengeful nature of the “others” (p60)
However, as I’ve mentioned last week, I believe things have changed since Steyn did her research, and one of these is that I experience a growing group of people who seem to deny the atrocities of Apartheid, and a group that are describing the current government as much worse for black people than Apartheid. Maybe these can be called a hard and soft form of a similar trend, both denying that Apartheid was really as bad.
As time seem to pass, it would seem that white people, at least a certain group among them, seem to reconstruct their whiteness by making the current government and the international press the culprit in depicting the Afrikaners and Apartheid as much worse than they were, and furthermore by implying, or stating out front, that continued Apartheid would have been a much better deal for black people in South Africa.
Maybe this is a trend only among younger people who talks from total ignorance. But it would seem that a group that is even more hardline than what Steyn described seem to be growing parallel with the hybridization that is also becoming more and more common among white people. It’s worrying trend, and a reminder that simply letting time pass is not necessarily going to guarantee reconciliation.
The hope that a next generation would automatically become “color blind” is totally shattered when we find young people that become even more racist than their parents were, and also when we find people over time growing more and more blatantly racist, and appreciative of Apartheid, instead of slowly working through the evil, and bit by bit acknowledging it and actively deciding to move even further away from it.