BLACK AND WHITE: TELL ME SOMETHING NEW

My last attempt at a relationship was a complete disaster.

He was perfect. For me it was love at first sound.

He was not a typical Hollywood stud. But he had me at Hello, Hello.

I was skeptical. He was sure.

We drank the truth serum.

The first night was sweet.

The second night he wanted out.

I told him I understood.

He changed his mind.

The third night we heard silence.

He made coffee in the morning.

We sang a duet.

Stay.

His arms wrapped around my waist

I wore black pants and a grey top

He wore black pants and  a grey top.

I ran.

None had shown me such tenderness.

Are you for real?

He called and said we should just be friends.

I agreed and promptly stopped breathing.

A few months later he came crushing into my basement.

With his electronic baggage.

I said I could take it.

We spoke hardly.

We told each other lies.

We were happy.

In our separate rooms.

He saw me crying.

I saw him naked.

I said I love you

He said he  didn’t know what to say.

He was skeptical. I was sure.

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BREAKING NEWS: YOUR RACE MATTERS

The human race and their costumes
The human race and their costumes

Recently my Facebook homepage has been populated with a litany of race commentary from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what the topic was about. I found that the issue of race keeps coming up over and over again in politics, sports, fashion, education, you name it. First it was a white girl who painted her face black with a permanent marker to poke fun at black people. The commentary there was: the joke is on her  because she will remain black like that forever, which of course in not true. Then yesterday an admission by a Kenyan Socialite that she has deliberately lightened her skin to make money because her body is a business drew much attention from local and international networks. Comments on that story were highly judgmental against “black “women’s general lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So what is it about race that matters so much? What is it about the colour of one skin that makes it so important above everything else we share as human beings on this earth that we have to kill each other for it?
Why is race important today in the 21st century when we have more than enough scientific proof that there really is absolutely no biological difference between races except of course the colour of their skin. Maybe the shape of your nose and mouth or eyes… but isn’t that different anyway regardless? Why are people judged often solely on how they look?
I met a man the other day who said he often borrows from nature to answer life’s big questions. So I will learn from him and use “nature” to try to explain why I think race matters today more than ever but of course not for the same reasons we have been conditioned to think it does.

RACE: A KIND OF LANGUAGE

To use nature to explain the challenge of race I will not go on a wild African safari. Instead I’ll start at home. Using  an example of an animal said to be the  human’s best friend. The Dog.

Yes I am comparing humans to dogs.

In the world of dogs: there are different types of dogs, different colours, personalities, characters  and  strengths. But they are all dogs though, and the only thing that helps us tell them apart – is their shape/size and colour/character. If dogs were only short and black and didn’t come in any other variety, I’m sure humans would run  experiment testing what would happen if  mixed a dog’s genes with those of cats for example. But ultimately, if that were the case we would not be able to tell the difference between one short black dog to another. To tell the difference we’d have to spend time with each dog  in order to discover its unique peculiarities which sets its apart from the packs in order to  know the difference.

So there you go. Humans are like dogs. We’re the same. And since we are so much alike in every way imaginable, race becomes important. If we were all black and looked exactly like me – exact copies of who I am, Jedi Ramalapa with my history and everything that I am now there would be no US, but only ME or as the Rastafarians like to say, there would only be I and I.  I will be the only person I know because there would be no one else who is different from me. There would be no “other”one who would be me, I would be you. So I need there to be white people, Chinese, Indian people, black people, short people, tall people, all colours because that’s the only way that I will ever know that I exist as a human being . I know I am human because you are human, but I know I’m me because you are not me even though you are, like me, human.
This is where I think where the notion of I am because you are –” umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu “– I am human because you are human comes from. I know I am me because you are not me. If you were I wouldn’t be who I am. I will not be able to tell myself apart from any other human person because we would all be exactly  the same. Imagine if we all had the same thought, at the same time, felt the same, had the exact same families, backgrounds, histories, and training, skin colouring, feelings at the same time what would make you different from me? Nothing. If you were me, the whole world would be sitting at Lucky Bean in Melville, Johannesburg writing this blog post. But there would be no one singing, cooking or making food because the whole world would think like me, feel like me want the exact same thing as I want right now. Nothing else would be happening.
You wouldn’t exist as an individual, because I am exactly the same as you so we are  ultimately,  one.

BUT THAT’s NOT THE REASON WHY RACE MATTERS

So race matters only in so far as like the clothes we wear helps us to tell each other apart even though we are all part of the same thing or source. That’s the only thing. There are of course many other things which make people different. Where you grew up,  your  environment and what you were taught. Depending on where you come from and how you were educated about yourself, that  differentiates you from the next person. The differences between humans though are beyond skin. Take for example my siblings and I. We were all raised by the same parents, lived for the most part under one roof.  But we are all distinctly different from each other and we all want to do different things with our lives. My brother has chosen a different life for himself where he feels needed and wanted as an entrepreneur, my younger sister is married with children, my oldest sister has not lived anywhere else but at home with my parents since I’ve known her, I have traveled the world and still have itchy feet to this day. We all love music, we appreciate dance, education and the value of hard work but we appreciate those things in our own unique way. So even though we share the “same” DNA we are all different, even if we may share similar features, even though our skin colour is the same and from the same person. We are as diverse as the vegetation in nature.

IT’S OUR DIFFERENCES THAT MAKES US WHO WE ARE.

So I am Jedi Ramalapa, only because there is a Peace, Victoria, Didi and Immie in my life. I am who I am because no one else is like me, even though we share the same genes. I “wear” my genes differently and how I “wear” my genes changes also with time and the environment. But Victoria the “quiet” one in my family has strengths and skills I don’t possess, she knows things I don’t know, understands and interprets the same facts we both know differently. Her perspective is different from mine. Same with Didi, Immie and Peace. We have the same reference point but not the same perspectives, understanding or way of doing things. And that’s what makes us individuals. The me I am, only make sense in the difference that makes you who you are. I need an Immie,  a victoria, a Didi, a Peace in my life, because they in their difference complete me. They compensate for my shortfalls or should I say make my strengths more visible or are strong where I am weak and vise versa. We all have a role to play in life and our roles are as unique and different as life itself. I need another to be me, you need me to be myself not a copy of anyone else to be you. That is why we’re all, regardless of our colouring, irreplaceable.

Perhaps this is only a notion parents with more than one child can understand, but I’m definitely sure that if I can understand this so can you, child or no child.

So in all the debates about race, the issue is not race necessarily, but the desire to control and have power over another human being or a particular group of people that we decide at some point or other is inferior. They are not intrinsically inferior they just have different strengths and weaknesses to us. In order to control anyone or anything, you must insist on their weaknesses, highlight the points at which they are wrong, more than the points where they are strong and ‘right’.

Needless to say there is no wrong or right necessarily, what exists are the norms which we decide as a community should be deemed right or wrong in order to further perpetuate the notions of superiority, power and ultimately control.

In the cycle of life we are all equal, yet different. What makes nature so magnificent is the one thing we refuse to acknowledge in our human relationships. Difference makes  harmony possible.  There is no harmony without difference.

So yes you matter,  your race or whatever colouring you are matters. But not anymore or less than the next person who appears different from you. They make you who you are. Without them. You can’t be. You.

So instead of focusing on the superficial race arguments, lets talk about how to change the systems that make discrimination based on skin or anything else possible. Why should we fight about the very thing that makes us stronger as a human race. Why should someones skin be the basis on which you decide how to  treat them, when you yourself need and want the very same things as the other person? Food shelter, love, community, understanding, freedom. Why should someone else die for your comfort? Why can’t we use our strengths as individuals, races  and or communities to build a better world. We all need each other. No one is wholly and entirely self-sufficient. Not even the people we label crazy. I cannot exists without you, is the bottom line, and neither can you. Even if we all looked exactly the same,  we’d still be different or find  reasons to discriminate against each other based on other differences such as country or continent, age , gender, sexuality. Race would not matter then.

So why should it now?

What you choose to do with your body or skin, is ultimately up to you and no one else.

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?

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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)