Continuing from the post on spatial power and whiteness

After noticing how race in many instances continue to mean that white people has the privilege (right) to move anywhere, while black people (and today I use black to refer to all people who are pushed out of the dominant normalized racial position) are in various ways bound to specific spaces, there is a second part which we have to notice:

Because white people in South Africa had the right to move into any space they wanted to, they decided to not move into every space, but limited themselves to white spaces. Because black people had no control over which spaces they moved into, they were forced to move into all spaces, those designated as black spaces, but also those designated as white spaces.

The apparent contradiction rests on the distribution of money and work. White people controlled (and in South Africa continue to control) the financial resources, which in many instances meant that they controlled the working environments. In it’s ultimate form it meant that they had the ability and privilege of appointing someone to work in their homes as cleaners. Black people thus had to learn the knowledge of moving into these designated white spaces in order to gain access to money and work.

This meant that black people gained knowledge of “both sides” of the Apartheid world because they didn’t have the privilege to control money and resources, while white people because of their privileged position, learned knowledge only of those spaces which they had control over. Black people had the ability to translate between these spaces, while white people did not.

Whether my assumptions about black people is correct I cannot say, but I see this with white people. There is this whole world which white people don’t know how to navigate. Think of the townships, the public transport system, and yes, today I guess the inner-cities as well. Most white people I know carry no natural knowledge which can help them navigate these spaces. But at the same time black people have been moving into and our of those designated white spaces (suburbs, malls, business) and they know the rules, both written and unwritten, by which these spaces are governed.

Thus, in spite of my argument that the decision to move into various spaces is already a reminder of the privileged position I am in, it is making exactly the decision which we have not been making thanks to the privileged position our racialisation has ensured white people. And with this, it is making the decision which causes the discomfort of not knowing: Not knowing the unwritten, and many times the written, rules of this space I am moving into. This does not take away the important critique that my move can also reinforce white privilege if it is used to “take back the city” – to broaden the “area of control of white people”, which it can become, even for those coming with good intentions (mission history should teach us at least this).

What it does help me with is understanding that experiences of discomfort because of my lack of knowledge is caused by my own privileged position and the ways in which it was unpacked and used in the past. The task is therefore not on black people to do things in such a way that I don’t experience any discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, but on myself to work through these moments in which I am confronted with the fact that my past has kept me in exclusively white spaces.

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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.

I’ve been intrigued with space in its various forms for all my life. My first memory of intentionally contemplating space was by studying the planets and the stars at the age of 8. This was followed by reading every science fiction book I could lay hands on, ultimately culminating in the Mars Trilogy, which I’m still re-reading, and consider to be one of the most important influences on my thoughts on space over the years. When one of the characters, Arkady, the token anarchist of the book, described his vision for a new world, it is to a large extend a description of how space should be structured: do we separate living and working quarters? Do we build in squares of circles? How does the space we create contribute to an egalitarian society? This was at the age of 16. In recent years my reflections and experimentation concerning space has found a number of spaces into which it grew:

  • I ran a few experiments with kind of “open space” camps with people in their early 20’s from 2008. The experiment lead us to a place where camp programs was not the issue, but the way we constructed space became more and more important.
  • Starting 2009 I experimented with liturgy and space, in a service where the way in which the space was constructed was more important than the order of the liturgy. Steve wrote some thoughts on the very early experiment (only a few weeks after we started) and I posted some photos.
  • Also, in 2009 I moved into a community with friends right after getting married. Ours was not a very religious intentional community with Bible studies and programs, but simply sharing the space, working against our own individualism and using less space in the long run (primarily for ecological reasons). This year the space in which I had my office, as part of the community in which I live, also had important symbolism.
  • Lastly I reflected on space in some of my academic work. Writing an assignment titled “Jesus’ disregard for rules of space” in 2008, and working on the role of religion in the public space since 2008 and still continuing.

So, I’m drenched in reflecting on space, and this continues.

Ons space which was important in my own life over the past 5 years was the inner city of Pretoria. Actually, I guess when we whities talk about “inner-city” we mean everything west of the “sunnyside” sign in Jorrison street which students are taught to interpret as “now you’re in the danger zone”. It’s the space which white people decided to leave of the past 15/20 years. Sunnyside, the Pretoria central, Salvokop. Over the years these places changed from being the spaces which must be feared, to some of my favourite places in the city. And for years me and Maryke have been dreaming of moving closer to the city.

In the last few weeks we started to look each other in the eye, and decided that the dreamlike talk should become reality. And a few minutes ago I sent the email confirming that we will be taking a flat in Arcadia.

Now, Arcadia is not the most dodgy place in the city you will find, actually quite middle-class. But it’s a conscience decision to move out of the suburbs, and out of predominantly white spaces, into the space where ambulances and police disturb you, where people are living in flats and close to each other, and where being white mean that you are a minority. We are not on a mission to the city. We don’t have a plan by which to save the city. We are moving to the city hoping that it will save us. Change us.

Together with us one of our house-mates from the past 2 years, Andre, will be joining. This is the space into which we will be moving. What will we do while there? We will be living there. Hopefully I’ll be blogging more on this in the year to come.

“It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.”

This was the words used by producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman and Kevin Bright, when first pitching it to NBC. I’ve played around with the understanding of “family” a lot over the past few years as well. Living in the liminal space of post-school pre-marriage life, when you’re “family” is hundreds of kilometers away, and you are creating a new life, pushes the definitions we use. I often asked myself the question: “who would you instinctively call when you are in serious trouble right now?” To make it practical I’d ask: “who would you call if it’s 3 AM in the morning, you’re 200 km from anyone you know, and you’re car broke down somewhere?”

There is people who are friends. You visit them from time to time, you share experiences, you spend time together because you enjoy it, you share stuff because you trust each other. And then there are friends who doesn’t fit the description of “best friends”, but rather become “family”. YOu share life together, you irritate each other, you accept each others faults, you know that even if you don’t see each other for months, there is some kind of bond which keep you together. In this world where extended families in many cases really doesn’t work, and especially for those of us who only have family on a distance, friends are our family.

And then you get living together. I’m finishing up another year of communal living, and starting a next. Moved into community with 6 other people on December 31 2008, and got married on January 4 2009. And spent our first year of marriage in community. And even though we are married, friends became our family.

You can spend years deciphering the critique of postmodern philosophers and theologians on individualism, and on listening to the “other”, and it would have worth. But try living with the other, try giving up your individuality by sharing the space you have with another, outside of the nice pre-set rules modern society lay out for the nuclear family, or whatever form of family you might find yourself in. This become part of the critique of modern society, of consumerism and individualism, in practice.

living in community

April 14, 2009

I haven’t blogged much on my experience of living in community this year. After getting married me and my wife moved in with 5 other people. I remember reading a blogpost, which I can’t find now, by the end of last year where someonw just wrote that “living in community is hard”… I knew I was going to write it at some point, and because of much conversations and much reading before making this move, was expecting this experience. But still, when it comes… well, it’s hard.

Tonight I know, living in community is hard. People get hurt in community. Those with whom you live see you at your weakest times, they see you when you are really really tired. Living in community mean that sometimes hard words get said. That is community. Living in community mean that putting my best foot out all the time is impossible. Living in community takes commitment. A commitment to work on relationships, especially those that are hard to work at.

But, community is also sometimes the place where healing happen. When people love even when they know who you are when you’re at your weakest, the healing happen. When people care, knowing that they won’t quickly “fix you”, then true relationship happen. 

Is it worth it? Absolutely. This is my home, these people are sometimes really hard to live with, but mostly, they make my life full. Living in community is hard, but that’s what we are called to do.

Monasticism, Systems theory, Sustainable Development… how could these help us to form a vision of intentional communal living for a post-modern, globalized, hyper-technological age? What’s been on my mind the past year or so, and more and more pressing the past few months, is how would intentional communities with young working professionals look like. Not full-time monastic experiences, but simply living for those in full-time jobs, or maybe studying.

After reading Blue Like Jazz, and especially after listening to Roger speaking on neo-monasticism a while ago, I started asking myself where my ideas on communal living was formed. I think I can again trace it back to one of my second bibles, the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The ideas of especially Arkady and the Hiroko group (seldom do you find direct access to Hiroko herself, rather you see what she has formed by looking to those around her) was my first introduction to communal living. Without knowing what this will do to me, I then had a five year communal living experience in a University residence called Taaibos. And somewhere through taking part in the Emerging Church conversation ideas started forming…

Neo-monasticism, Systems theory and Sustainable Development, three concepts which I know very little about, but which I think together might help provide a vision for intentional communal living. Sustainability prod us into the question, into considering communal living, it also might help us find the intentionality in what we are doing. Systems theory help provide us with a way of approaching the question that might result in sustainability, and linking into the monastic tradition open an age old tradition of intentional living up to us.

Sustainable development, or sustainable living, concerns the question how we should live, how we should develop, so that this could continue, also in generations coming. The concept usually concerns ecology, but I think also looking at it psychologically and physiologically might help. It was, however, the ecological and economic perspectives of sustainability which first made me think about communal living. The question is simple: Is it sustainable to have everyone living as a nuclear family in a 200 square meter home with a dog and a cat? I think not. Not only Robinson, but also other Sci-fi writers probably helped me ask this question, because in sci-fi living in some form of communal setting is quite common: think about space ships or living underground after some nuclear war for example. But sustainability had more to say for intentional living. In intentional communities we need to rethink how we live, do we live in harmony with the ecology around us? Can we do something to lessen the human footprint on ecology? Can we create a culture that is ecologically friendly? Touching on ecology, psychology and physiology: How does our diet look? In intentional communities we need to intentionally look into this aspect of life. Are the networks we are in sustainable psychologically, would be another important question. This goes both ways, some communal settings can turn sour, which means that we did not have a sustainable way of living in relation to others, but the extreme individualism where we do not link up with those living around us I believe is not sustainable either. In community we need to find this sustainable way of living. Also physiologically, is the way we treat our bodies sustainable. Yes, our bodies will die, but are we killing ourselves unnecessarily?

Within Systems theory you find the well-known concept that the whole is more than the sum of its parts; this needs to be true in communal settings. Especially when working with professionals working while living in community. We need communities which do not drain more energy from people than they give to people. I envision a system of a minimal commitment therefore. This would mean that we have a commitment when living intentionally, and this commitment we need to take seriously, whatever exactly it might be. But it need to be a minimal time commitment, the community shouldn’t attempt at taking as much as possible in terms of time from this within the community. Rather, the community should give time, intentionally help those within it to manage their time in a healthy manner. Some of this time would intentionally go into the communal part of the community, but this I think should be mostly around the practice of eating together, a practice which can be considered important from a psychological view, but, for Christians, also follow in the way of Jesus.

Neo-monasticism I understand the least of all, so I’m sure others participating in the synchroblog will give better definitions. I add this because I think intentional living for professionals, centering on a sustainable lifestyle, could learn from the monastic tradition, and might do so more easily by learning from the neo-monastic movements. The community needs to help each other to form positive life patterns, disciplines which will result in a healthy lifestyle. For many these would include spiritual disciplines, and has a lot to learn from the mystic tradition, but could include more, also a strong intellectual emphasis, for example, when working with professionals.

These three things I believe can form part of the foundation for a healthy intentional community for young professionals.

And for interest sake, if you know of any communities like this in the Pretoria-Joburg area, do leave a comment.

Also check out these great bloggers on monasticism:

Phil Wyman at Phil Wyman’s Square No More
Beth at Until Translucent
Adam Gonnerman at Igneous Quill
Steve Hayes at Notes from the Underground
Jonathan Brink at JonathanBrink.com
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Bryan Riley at at Charis Shalom
Cobus van Wyngaard at My Contemplations
Mike Bursell at Mike’s Musings
David Fisher at Cosmic Collisions
Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
Sonja Andrews at Calacirian