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.

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.