There are few things as freeing, as validating, as anchoring, as sitting in a room filled with young people talking about our lived realities.
Last month some friends and I joined Debate Club, an initiative by the good people at Live Mag. There have only been two “meetings” but so far so great. It happens once a month on the last Tuesday of that month at the Bannister Hotel in Braamfontein.
The first time we went, we discussed being African – what it means or what it should mean. We had a robust discussion about we can and should be doing to uphold certain traditions, how others should move on with the times and what kind of things “led us astray” if you will. Some of my favourite quotes from the floor that night:
“Townships are dormitories for cheap labour” – a comment on the ill notion of glorifying living in townships.
“We just don’t know ourselves.”
“We’re not living in a context that is made for Africanism.”
Last week at the second meeting, the proverbial heat in the kitchen got turned up a few notches as we embarked on a topic that was bound to be explosive – race. In particular race in South Africa in relation to the so called “rainbow nation”.
To try to sum up what people said would be reductive, luckily I was tweeting like a mad woman. Will embed a few favourites to give a brief peek into what went down:
It was a night for the “angry black” – a night to speak our minds with reckless abandon that brimmed with obvious frustration. It was a night to say we are here, this is what we see and we don’t like it.
It was so necessary, so enlightening and equally depressing. I’m glad that I’ve found this space – I look forward to many more nights like the ones we’ve already had.
In light of the blackface incident involving two Tuks students last week, I asked TO Molefe a few quick questions on the matter. He indulged me with the most enlightened and thorough answers anyone has ever left in my inbox. As such, I figured I should share and let his words hit you with some knowledge.
Q:The two girls have now been expelled from res but not the University. Do you think this action was appropriate? If so why and if not why?
A: I think the university needs to follow due process as such decisions on individual students’ fates can’t and shouldn’t be arbitrated based on public sentiment. Hopefully UP already has in place an objective process to assess infringements of its student code of conduct and to assign the appropriate sanction(s). I personally do not believe punitive measures like expulsion are necessarily the best way to handle things, but like I said, the university should be following whatever pre-established protocols it has in place to deal with these situations.
The unfortunate thing about UP’s response to this incident is, as I said in my column, is that it singles out the two young women’s behaviour as an exception. They should definitely be held individually accountable, but the university, too, needs to examine its role in allowing such behaviours and attitudes to go unchecked among its student body. The university needs to use this example as the motivation for a compulsory education programme that uses South African history to teach about prejudice and oppression, particularly racism, sexism and sexuality. Right now they seem to be panicking because of all the public scrutiny directed towards them.
Q: In your opinion what was problematic about the girls dress?
A: For me it is pretty clear cut: If, when you think “domestic worker”, the first thing that comes to mind is black women with big lips and behinds, you’re playing on a racist stereotype of black women’s bodies and a long-held belief in that such bodies are the ones best suited to domesticity. Your intention is to poke fun at black women. It is racist and sexist. It is what queer scholar Moya Bailey calls misogynoir (anti-black misogyny).
Q: Some have said they the girls were having harmless fun, much like Leon Schuster. What are your thoughts on that line of thinking?
A: I think anybody who thinks the girls were having harmless fun has chosen not to think at all about what their performance tells us about the cycle of servitude millions of black women are trapped in, many from birth. The two young UP students probably grew up in a house where a black woman cleaned up after them and took care of them. That woman has daughters of her own who, without some kind of intervention, will probably have few work options other than to become domestic workers, too. And chances are that woman’s mother was also a domestic worker. We’ve seen this in the mines where low-paying manual-labour jobs ensnare generations of a single family.
Yet, these two girls, when asked to imagine a domestic worker, a figure that has been a feature of their whole lives, they imagined a stereotype instead of a real human being. These two girls will probably go on to hire domestic workers for their own homes when they grow up. And I imagine it will be difficult for them to find it within themselves to pay their domestic workers a living wage if they can’t imagine them as human beings in all their complexity.
What I’m saying is that the dehumanising way in which the girls imagined domestic workers is how many people imagine domestic workers. And that dehumanising imagining is directly linked to why many domestic workers in this country have never been and are not paid a living wage.
Q: Black comedians make it a point to talk about race in their sets – do you think the way they do it is helpful or harmful?
A: I think it’s great when black comedians talk about race. I think it’s great when anybody talks about it. However, for something that is so divisive, race is generally poorly understood. And even those of us who read, write and think about it every day have to keep our wits about us when dealing with it out of a fear that we might be reinforcing misconceptions about race and promoting racial prejudice. I’m not sure how many South African comedians and satirists exercise this kind of thoughtfulness or care.
This might be a bit utilitarian of me, but the objective of talking about race should be to expose its contradictions, and to subvert people’s deeply held misconception that race has no social significance. (I think most of us by now are comfortable with the idea that race isn’t a biological reality in the sense that it was once believed to determine traits such as intelligence, athletic ability and creativity.) Comedy is a great way to challenge people’s ideas about themselves and the world, but only if the comedian has stopped to think about whether they are repeating and reinforcing stereotypes, or subverting it. There are too many comedians doing the former because it’s easy and because the latter is hard and takes tremendous skill to pull off while being funny.
Q: Lastly, have you seen the trailer for Dear White People set for release later this year. Do you think the South African audience has the capacity to engage with the movie meaningfully?
A: I have seen the trailer. I am ambivalent about the movie’s relevance in South Africa. I mean, we will definitely see parallels to situations here. But, although related, the contexts and histories are a little different. Because of that, I am hesitant to adopt American (or other) anti-racist narratives wholesale. We have a rich history of anti-racist thought and activism here that I think we’re making too little use of. So, I don’t think there is a need here for black people to address white people as this movie does. Instead, I think what this country needs right now is a “Dear Black People” written, directed and produced through an immersion in black consciousness thought.
I attended an amazing seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand on Thursday 18th of August 2011. The speaker at the seminar was Eva Hoffman, who is both a writer and an academic. The topic of the seminar was “Lost and Found in Transition: Contested memories and moving on from difficult pasts” , and more specifically second generation trauma. A phenomenon I have recently come to learn about and find very intriguing.
Second generation trauma has to do with the aftershocks that the children of survivors of gratuitous violence experience. The expression was first used to describe the children of Holocaust survivors. I first came across this term when reading Maus, a great graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He not only tells his father’s story of living through the genocide but also tells his personal story of trying to deal with that ‘passed on’ trauma. Eva Hoffman’s autobiography Lost in Translation does the same. She too is a “second hand” trauma victim.
Eva Hoffman described second generation trauma as encapsulating contested memories and transitions after great wrongs have been committed. This can prove problematic when trying to achieve reconciliation, especially because the afterlife of atrocity is long. She went on to say that democracy and freedom are difficult to negotiate after such a traumatic experience and that this initiation is necessary. Not from the victims’ side but from the perpetrators’.
In Jewish consciousness, the Polish were and are seen as being conspirators with the Nazi’s in contributing to Jewish suffering. In the same breath, she said that Polish descendants cannot be blamed or punished for their forefathers, but they need to acknowledge what happened. “After such wrongs have been done, they can’t be undone… Recognition, not forgiveness needs to be the starting point of reconciliation.”
As the seminar went on Hoffman delved deeper into the nature of second generation trauma. She said that it has to do with the transmission of memories but not exclusively; memory coupled with the after-effects of parental experience. This transmission often leads to the second generation being frozen in time, in so doing perpetuating the cycle of revenge within their generation. The children of survivors speak of despondency, depression and anger which all arise from trying to locate their parents’ context in history. None of the above can be resolved unless a second generation dialogue is initiated.
Second generation dialogue refers to the conversations that need to take place between the children of the victims and those of the perpetrators. We need to recognise that children of the perpetrators are also going through some form of trauma. They are traumatised by the silence of their parents, their inability to admit they were wrong. As a result they try to reject their parents but cannot do that because it is easier said than done. The fact that both sides are trying to deal with inherited trauma should be the condition that allows for a dialogue to take place. Trust and understanding are imperative for this dialogue to work. This dialogue is the only means of getting on a reconciliatory path and leading to an expansion of minds.
I brought all of the above into a proximal context, a personal context. I consider myself as a victim of second generation trauma. I often wrestle with the issues that Hoffman raised. I am angry and despondent about apartheid and racial oppression, and so are a lot of my peers. It is particularly difficult for us to ‘move on’ because the lived reality of inequality is still very real to us. What I mean by this is that South Africa inherited structural violence and inequality. Today we refer to it as the legacy of apartheid.
How can we even begin to let go when the effects of that totalitarian system are still rife in our society? The racial disparities in our society are very obvious and this is something that needs to be addressed.
However, when one starts to speak about such issues we are met with contestations of being too racialised. I find that a lot of liberal whites and blacks want us to repress the past. This would be folly – the past needs to be acknowledged, remembered and addressed. “Wrong doers cannot get forgiveness until they admit to crimes and are willing to repent for them”, said Hoffman.
This brought up questions from the audience about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). One gentleman said it was highly idyllic and aimed to quickly cover up the past. He went on to say it failed because forgiveness is a Christian doctrine and forced people to adhere along those lines. To counter this, a young lady said we cannot look at the TRC as a defining moment but a mere example of things that can be done to help the nation move on. Hoffman answered this by saying: “The side most responsible for atrocities needs to make the first step”. This is where the TRC failed. To add on to this point, another young lady said it is astonishing to her that “those who weren’t allowed to vote before 1994 are now responsible for reconciling a nation that was destroyed by those who were allowed to vote”. Surely it should be the inverse.
I must say this seminar did help me in negotiating my position as a young black person. Along with this I had a defining “aha moment”. I never thought about the equally complex psychological disposition of my white peers. Both ‘sides’ cannot reject or abandon their parental history but we need to remember it is not our own. The second generation dialogue resonated with me; it is the first step we can all take on this journey of reconciliation. It will not happen overnight; it will be a process. We need to create our own history that will reflect our willingness to try and amend the past.
**NOTE: Post first appeared on exPress imPress on August 28 2011.