CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?

So many people who consider themselves progressive  have their own weird notions about the native, but they all have one thing in common. They want to decide who the native is and they want to do good things for him. You know what I mean. They want to lead him. To tell him what to do. They want to think for him and he must be accepting of their thoughts. And they like him to depend on them. Your Zuma makes an excellent “good native” for progressive folk. That’s why you like him”  – Frederick Cooper, Conflict and Connection -re thinking Colonial African history  ( Abrahams 1963,68)

I wrote the following piece “Un-begging to be white” in  2011. I continue to think deeply about  many of the issues raised in my piece since and more so now that I find myself re-listening to archive testimonies from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1999). Testimonies from which South African writer, poet and journalist Antjie Krog (whom I deeply admire) wrote her most famous non-fiction book Country of My Skull.  The bubbling racial (sic) tensions in South Africa today and around the world make this piece more relevant.  I would like you to keep these words by  Nobel Laureate, Political activist, professor novelist and former Auschwitz prisoner and survivor – Elie Wiesel,  in mind as you read. Prof Wiesel believed strongly that indifference is the  epitome of evil. And offered memory as an antidote to it. Below is his answer to the question on how to fight indifference, he said:

Through memory.  Memory may not be the only answer but there is no answer without memory. As a writer I have always been tempted by silence. I have tried to introduce silence into every word of mine. I have tried to surround my words with silence. And yet I know that  though the memory of silence is important, the silence of memory would be scandal. ( Wiesel 1988,19).

UN-BEGGING TO BE WHITE. (sic) Recently I  had a matter of fact conversation with a dear friend. It was matter of fact because it was what I assumed to be a matter of fact tale of (my) life. The on-line conversation revolved around my progress in securing accommodation. I was looking for a one bedroom flat. My dear friend was assisting me by finding links to places she found thousands of miles away from Johannesburg the city I inhabit.  And here’s the matter of fact part, I found myself typing this: In this situation I wish I were a white, rich woman, because I think it would make the process of finding a place easier. She responded by saying, being a  “white South African is not easy. It’s hard, because you’re always looked at, judged at face-value, assumed to be a bad person (racist)”. I brushed over her comment by saying yeah but there are pros and cons (to being black or white) and in this case I think it would be a pro for me as I would be able to eliminate all other possibilities.  She said she didn’t think it was a racial thing. I agreed with her in part. But instead of telling her this I continued by saying that two of my friends ( white expats) were also looking for accommodation  and while viewing a cottage in Brixton they were told that they were only considered because they were white . The landlord  didn’t want black people living in their backyard.  At that point she said she didn’t want to have a black/ white conversation and promptly logged off.

The conversation left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It left me pained,and I had to really take a long, hard look at myself. I wished  I  could take what I said back because just like my flat hunting experience, I wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended because she really had to go or because I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t willing to  engage with me anymore. I had said to her that I wish it were simple; either the place I was looking for had already been taken or that I couldn’t afford it.

But I found myself thinking that perhaps there is more. After the conversation I had to question whether as a black South African, race is my default answer to all my problems? If I don’t get what I want – do I always assume that there must be a racial rationale? Why had I thought to even say that, why was that the uppermost thing on my mind?

Even as I write this I am finding it hard to pin down my thoughts, my reasons, my position. Why was  her response to what I thought was part of my normal so disturbing for me?  Did it disturb me because I had never  thought of what being a white South African must be like, feel, like taste like? Is it because I did not have a white South African view to life,  my vision is skewed by my skin colour,  my skin  colours how I look at life, defines how and when I move. I tried to think about her statement: How hard it must be to be a white South African; a descendant/beneficiary of a white racists regime, carrying the guilt of privilege, the burden of wealth on your skin; – despite what your actual personal circumstances may be. The assumption that you are racists, just because you are white.

It does sound hard and harsh. Just as hard and harsh as being black. So where do we find common ground. How can my statement not hurt my friend whom I love dearly who is also a white  South African woman? How can I be sure that race has nothing to do with my difficulty in securing a place to stay, in one of the richest, leafiest suburbs of Johannesburg?

The conversation reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town a few years ago. I had been in the city  on a work assignment when it was finished I decided to stay on for a few days to experience  more of the city.  I decided that booking into a backpackers would be the most affordable option for me since it was after all a last minute plan. Cape Town’s long street was central, and offered a host of social venues where I could meet new people as I knew no one in the city.  That night accompanied by a friend and colleague I walked down Long street  and  knocked on  every backpacker  – there were many of them.  Most of them were full, others  didn’t answer the door. Eventually we arrived at one where the door did open. They had  room(s) available and I could  afford it.  There was just one problem. I was South African.  They had a policy that explicitly  favored, preferred  foreigners over locals.  I asked why in exasperation and fatigue and the man replied saying something I didn’t quite hear because the I was thinking of where the hell I was going to sleep that night.  Yes, my race was the last thing on my mind.

But on re-telling the story to friends and colleagues they found it a veiled racist’s rejection. They found that whatever reason he had given was hard to justify in a country where racial segregation shaped every part of our lives. Then in 2004, I could not  sleep at a backpackers  which  had  a room I could afford because I was South African. But Cape Town is another country – or is it? Do other countries reserve accommodation only for foreigners too? Where locals are not allowed? Maybe. But I have come to define that incident as being a racist one  even thought I didn’t think of it those terms initially. And wonder to this day,  if the story would be different had I been a  white female. Of course I have no way of knowing this for sure.

Did that experience raise my antennas? To  label anything I could not understand as being racist?  Am I a walking talking racist person?  How can I have a colour-blind outlook to life? What does being colour blind mean, where do I draw the line… when is it acceptable to take issue? When is it not? Is my assumption that life must be easier for South African (rich) white women or white people in general true? Is  it fair?

When thinking about this, Antjie Krog’s book, Begging to be  Black – comes to mind. Perhaps I may be subconsciously begging to be white also, as she is begging to be black. To be under a white woman’s skin, to  think as  a white person does, to feel & smell as a  white person.  Maybe I have white person envy.  My black friends often remind me, tell me, state it as a matter of fact  whenever they can, that I LOVE white people. They say it as if it were a crime, something bad, that I should be ashamed of. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to count how many black friends I have to justify the number of white people I hang out with. It is an interesting subject. I think it  really would be  more interesting for me to  say that I am begging to be white.  I would be the embodiment of the the oppressed, who Frantzs Fanon described thus : “Having judged, condemned and ignored their cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual habits, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing , of enjoying himself the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man”  Frantz Fanon.

That would be a logical  and easy assumption to make. An automatic logical expression of my oppression would be to hate  myself, my heritage, my identity, my background.  denying the past.  I would be and probably am  no different to  those  people who bleach their skin in order to have a fairer complexion, who loved their masters more than themselves,  who devised ways to straighten their hair, so that it’s lighter, softer and gentler to the touch. Those among us who dated and married white men so they could have nice brown and light-skinned children who would by extension have a better or easier hand at life. In this world which favours lightness – the closer one is to the Aryan race the better.   But I have never until that point given much thought to what being white must be like, except for the fact that I think the experience whatever it may be, must be generally easier than being a black woman.  I guess I never had time to think about how hard it must be to be white  – because I was busy trying to survive. Live.

Or perhaps my begging to be white could be an equally condescending and patronizing exercise as found in Krog’s  analysis of black culture  or ethos …” how they think”, her musings in orderly, efficient  Europe about the missed  benefits of Ubuntu. I could wonder how Europeans rationalize and justify their ideas  of “civilization” and if they are proud of the civilization (s) they have achieved so far in Africa and in Europe. The African continent should be by now a bright shining example of white innovation, intelligence, supremacy. After years of practice in Europe their systems, machinery,isms, education,  industrialization etc should have been easier and faster to implement here. How then has their efficiency, precision, logic, analytical mind (s) , all the “good” and genius that has  always been their birth right benefited anyone?

I am not begging to be white or black for that matter.  What I am doing is begging to understand why it is that I should (must) understand, how hard it must be to white – when the very  white people have not tried to understand what it must be like to be black – and their only reflection on the matter is only in response to their own guilty feelings about what black people must think and  feel about them? Why is it that I must be asked to constantly  measure, balance my experience, be polite, nice, not hurt any one’s feelings, to hear all sides before I can say something which is  my experience – not a feeling, but a fact. When it might reflect badly, upset, offend a white person?  Why must I understand that all black people are lazy, that we have never invented anything, that we are thieves, corrupt, diseased, as a matter of fact and  that the only way I can succeed is with some assistance or sponsorship, the AID of white people, why is it that I should be asked to understand that I am who I am, know what I know, live the way I do, speak the way I do, am because of my colonial saviours, because if they hadn’t  saved me  – I probably would be living in a rural mud-hut dressed in nothing but cow skin and breeding millions of children for  an old abusive patriarch if not dead?

Why must I understand that most things about my life have nothing to do with race actually, when they don’t understand that everything about their life is about race, because of race? On a more personal level, why is it that I cannot speak about my experience without being a racists ungrateful and disrespectful person. Why can’t we have a conversation?

I would love to live in a world, where I didn’t have to sell my DNA/My soul/My dignity in order to have a roof over my head. I would love to live in a world where my house is your house; my land is your land, where community is community. But I don’t and that is largely because Europeans, thought it  backward, uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and un-educated  to share. So they took that away centuries ago, made sure that any semblance of equity  was thoroughly destroyed. So yes, for me right now, in this country it is a matter of fact that it would be easier for me to find a place had I been white and rich. I look forward to the day when this would not be a matter of fact. 

” Historians of economic thought should be heedful therefore, not only of what gets said, but what is left unsaid.  And what in a sense cannot be said in arguments and articles meant to be heard and paid attention to. By considering the relationship between power, interests, and rhetoric among the elite producers of economic knowledge. Historians of economic thought may be able to further illuminate the nature and history of story-telling in economics. But in connecting these accounts historians of economic thought (must) should recognize that they themselves are storytellers, building partial accounts of the partial accounts written by economists. To the extent that the storytellers of economics however have been selected and socialized  to believe in and to have a stake in stories of individual objectivity and the free market place of ideas, these storytellers will continue  to present themselves as authoritative agents of truth. And as long as the rhetoric of the discipline in enforced thought and intellectual hierarchy resistant to transformative challenges, the telling of dissonant stories remains  fraught with professional peril.Diana Strassmann; The stories of Economics and the power of the storyteller (1993)

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