What my car break-down taught me about racism

The traitor. It's a Chico. We call it Chico. We're great at coming up with car names
The traitor. It’s a Chico. We call it Chico. We’re great at coming up with car names

First I need to explain my experiences with cars so far in South Africa. I started out with Skedlemba, a sweet little Ford, possessed by a spirit that cut the petrol (gas) at random moments. And no matter how many times we took him in (and I mean, it was quite a few), they couldn’t really figure it out. I was towed in probably four or five times by my patient co-workers (once, the tow cable broke three times on the way to the mechanic and so we coasted then pushed the final few meters!). Then, David and I were blessed enough to buy our own car and this one is possessed by a spirit that controls the starter. Sometimes, it perkily starts right up first thing in the morning and we’re zooming on our way, and other times it needs a push start. (We lent it to our brother-in-law for a few months, only to find out he had been “coasting-starting” for a month! Luckily we live in a hilly area). We finally got the starter replaced, and everything had been hunky-dory until Monday. We had no milk. We had no, well, anything, in the pantry. But I was going shopping after dropping David off at school (so I let him use the last dribbles of milk for his cereal), and off we went. Until halfway up the hill to town the car started losing power. And then it died.

I’m telling you, I was convinced we were cursed with an evil car fairy. I honestly wanted to cry at that point, because when you’ve been through so much with a dang car, and put in so much money so that it will work right and it still fails you when need it to come through for you– it’s like a personal betrayal. Not to mention I had not eaten breakfast. So, I’m coasting backwards down this winding hill (luckily there were no cars behind me) so I can pull off on a side dirt road. As I reverse into this dirt road, David starts yelling something unintelligible, and then I realize it’s the word “STOP!” so I stop, but not before our two back wheels are in a HUGE ditch. So now we can’t start the engine and we’re stuck in a hole. We were debating calling the tow-truck (because we would have to take the car in anyway to be looked at) but David, my mr-fix-it-myself husband said no. Instead we called a friend to give David a ride to work.

Thankfully some Zimbabwean petrol attendants were driving by in a bakkie (pick-up), and stopped to help pull us out of the hole with their tow-rope. Hallelujah. Then we coasted back down the hill to our house, David went to school, and my darling friends brought me some milk so I could eat breakfast, drink tea, and finish my master’s thesis analysis chapter.

David returns from school and spends the afternoon poking under the bonnet (hood) and googling things. He can’t figure it out. That night as we’re eating supper, he suddenly says, “Hey, wait, did we drive anywhere this weekend?” “Uh, yeah.” I say. “Like to Durban and back which is an hour away, and then four times to Edendale, and–” Oh. Cha-ching. It hits us: no power= no petrol. David borrowed our lovely landlord’s car, got some petrol and our little car started in a jiffy.

Now, thankfully I like to laugh at myself, and I have enjoyed telling other people this story, but I am always surprised when they interrupt me before the punchline (when I’m describing what happened to us) and say, “Oh, were you out of petrol?” Firstly, I’m annoyed they are stealing my thunder. But I’m also astonished (and frustrated) that SO MANY people thought of that. To them, it was obvious– when you loose power in your car, the first thing you check to see is if you still have petrol. But this thing that is seemingly obvious and simple to everyone else is not obvious or simple to us because of our long and twisted history of car trouble.

Okay, so what does this have to do with racism?? Well… as a white person, when my friends of other races relate an experience where they were the victim of a racist remark, or racist treatment, sometimes I’m like, “Hmm. I don’t think that person was being racist, I think they were just being their normal mean self, because they treat me exactly the same way.” And then I’m tempted to think my friend is overreacting, or seeing race where it isn’t, because it’s obvious to me that it’s not a racial thing.

BUT. There are several things I have learned about this:

1. It very well may be a racist thing, and because I don’t experience racism, or have a history of experiencing racism, I automatically assume the “racist” person is just having a bad day. My context (of never really experiencing racism) means my framework for interpreting other people’s actions does not account for the idea that someone would be acting in a racist way. If my car only ever stops when it’s out of petrol, then when someone is telling me the story of their car break-down, my first thought is going to be: just put in more petrol. 

2. Even if it’s not a racist thing, the fact that my friend is interpreting it as a racism tells me something about her lived experience and that requires sympathy and empathy, rather than me getting all defensive. The reason she interprets something (perhaps a waiter being very slow to attend to her) as racism is because she has been in situations before where waiters were purposefully slow to attend to her because of her race. If my car is always stopping because it’s falling apart and faulty, then when it does stop, my first thought is going to be: here we go again, call a tow-truck not put in more petrol.

The fact is, because of my race, I never really wonder, “Is this person begin racist here? Are they not?” I just happily assume the other person is just a jerk, or slow, and get on with my day. That “here we go again” feeling is what’s important here. Even if the incident is small, what matters to my friend is that it’s one more incident in a long line of incidents. It’s the emotional exhaustion of dealing with racism again and again. And so when she opens up and shares her frustrating experience with me, and I oh-so-helpfully say, “Well, maybe the other person wasn’t being racist there…” that’s not really helpful. I wasn’t there. Even if I was there, I might not have been attuned to what was really going on. And even if I was attuned, and knew 100% that this was in fact not an instance of racism, pointing that out is still probably not the best thing to do. (When people interrupted my wonderful car story to ask me if I had checked the petrol, I did not think warm fuzzy thoughts towards them).

So that’s my how to be a better friend about racist incidents tip of the day.

And on a lighter note… imagine if we had called a tow-truck, only for them to take it in to fix it… and they discovered it was just that we had no petrol. How. Embarrassing. would that have been??! So I’m very thankful for my mr-fix-it-myself husband.

Afrikaner Revolutionary: the lawyer who fought to end apartheid

Part two in the white men in history who stood up to racism series. For why I think these stories are important, see part one. This one is a story from South Africa. I fell in love with this story after reading the book Afrikaner Revolutionary.

Abraham Fischer
Abraham Fischer

Abraham Fischer was the prime minister of the Orange Free State. He also led the charge in raising support for the Boers in the South African war (second Anglo-Boer war), traveling all over Europe and America. When the Union of South Africa was formed, he continued to champion the Boer’s cause in parliament.

He was an Afrikaner if there ever was one.

The grandson who carried his name was a lawyer just like him. Bram, married to Molly Krige (Jan Smut’s niece, actually), was all set up to continue the proud Afrikaner tradition– and Bram would say he did, just in an unexpected way. Instead of fighting to defend the rights of the Boers in the face of English oppression, he fought to defend black South Africans from white oppression.

Bram Fischer
Bram Fischer was the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela. 

Bram never jettisoned his Afrikaner identity, rather he transformed it. He clung to the core Afrikaner traits: resistance against colonialism, independence, tenacity– but by living these traits out in the larger context of South Africa, he was able to see that Afrikaners need to resist oppression in any form– not just oppression against their own little group.

Bram was successful in getting Mandela and others acquitted in the 1956 Treason Trial. He again defended Mandela at the Rivonia Trial. This was a harrowing experience, since Bram was part of the South African Communist Party and actually was working hand-in-hand with Mandela and uMkhonto weSizwe (the military wing of the ANC) to destabilize the National Party government. There were several times in the trial when he had to keep his cool and play innocent when evidence from Lilliesleaf Farm (the secret headquarters of MK) was presented to the court, sometimes in his own handwriting!

Unknown

Fischer had the task of conducting a defense for political activists– very different than for someone accused of crime. The choices to make statements, present evidence, and give testimony all had to be weighed against the political activists agenda of sharing their political views (which were not often heard, given that many of these activists were under ban). The position the defense took was to plead not guilty and instead claim the apartheid government were the guilty ones. Hence, when asked to plead, each defendant stated, “It is not I, but the government who should sit in the dock. I plead not guilty.” Another political choice was for Mandela to make a speech from the dock (rather than being open to cross-examination). While this was not a strong move in terms of defense, it was a strong political move, since Mandela’s words could be left to stand unchallenged.

BRAM_FISHER_COVER_CS6.inddThe prosecution demanded the death sentence. Mandela and the others were given life imprisionment instead. This was considered a victory for the defense.

Bram was arrested shortly after the trial because of his involvement in South African Communist Party. He asked for bail to attend to a case in London, and this was granted. In his bail application he said:

I am an Afrikaner. My home is in South Africa. I will not leave my country because my political beliefs conflict with those of the Government.

He returned to South Africa, but mid-way through his trial, he did not show up in court. Instead, his lawyer read out a letter he had written. Although many wanted him to sneak away into exile abroad, Bram refused. His letter states:

My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can…

What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred

Nicknamed “The Scarlet Pimpernel” Bram went underground for almost a year before being caught. He took special pleasure in phoning the papers, leaving cryptic messages for the police, and teasing them with his presence. He was eventually caught and imprisoned. In 1974, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in 1975 the government gave permission for him to be placed under house arrest to die at home. The prison’s department kept his ashes. He died 20 years too early, never seeing the end for which he fought so hard.

Bram was struck from the South African bar during his lifetime, but has been re-instated posthumously. (He is in fact the only person to be posthumously reinstated as far as I know).

Mandela said

he could have continued the struggle by staying and fighting in the courts, “where people could see this Afrikaner son of a judge president fighting for the rights of the powerless. But he could not let others suffer while he remained free. […] Bram did not want to ask others to make a sacrifice that he was unwilling to make himself.

Here’s a guy who was privileged. But he used that privilege for the sake of others, and he sacrificed that privilege when he felt he had done all he could. Today, almost every major city in South Africa has at least one street named Bram Fischer.

Where were you on June 16th? (Youth Day reflections part 1)

I realized something today. 50% of South Africa’s population is under the age of 19. 70% is under the age of 35. Anyway you slice this, the majority of people in South Africa have not lived through apartheid. And most of the people who did live through apartheid are my parent’s age or older. They were teenagers during the late 70’s and 80’s.

I was thinking of this, because I attended a book launch last week for Glenn Moss’s new book “The New Radicals, a generational memoir” at my university campus. I read the book in about 3 days. Moss was a white guy who was part of the new student protests happening at (basically white) university campuses across South Africa in the 70s. This was the Steve Biko generation, when Black Consciousness challenged the liberal ideas of gradual change and paternalistic multi-cultural organizations. Moss ended up being detained without trial for months, and then finally tried along with some other NUSAS leaders. Reading his recounting of the time challenged some of my assumptions about those years.

It challenged the story that I’ve been told my whole life by teachers and the parents of friends:

“We just didn’t know.”

I believed that story. When you see the lengths the government went to repress information, the propaganda that was being spread, the insulated channels of knowledge transmission, the tight segregation that kept people from actually ever knowing someone of a different race–I can believe it. I understand.

I believe it because it still happens: there are people in my community now that genuinely don’t know how 80% of South Africans live. There are people who make sincere comments like, “I hate travelling to Capetown by car, because we have to go through those really run-down poor, black areas.” (Um, forgetting that’s like, you know, the whole of South Africa). But it’s sincere. I can’t really blame them. Their life has been lived in a bubble. Can you be held accountable for what you literally don’t know?

3551963

And then I read about the campaigns in the 70’s going on at Wits university. About the alternative student newspaper being circulated with reports about living conditions in townships and “homelands”. I read about demonstrations and anti-apartheid lectures with hundreds and even thousands of students. I read about a Wits medical student being killed in detention (while he was being interrogated before being tried with anything), and the front page news story this created, and the massive protest it sparked. I read about the sit-ins by university students at the Anglo-American mining headquarters in outcry against the shooting of over a dozen miners, and the poor wages of workers. I read about pamphlets, about first-year student welcome speeches, about campaigns to educate people on the history that had been repressed.

And I think–maybe this author is inflating the reach of their activities—but these things did not happen in a corner.

One the one hand, this information is liberating. I want to hear more stories like this. Not because I want everyone to think that it was the white student activists who were willing to be detained without trial, or who were assassinated by the security police, or who went and joined the MK freedom fighters who were the ones that liberated this country. Because they didn’t. They were a small, small minority.

But I’ve got to live in this skin, in this country. And I want to know that there were some folks who looked like me, who didn’t just go along with the system. I want to be okay living in this skin and saying, “Yes, I’m a white South African, but I’m not just part of a group that oppressed and ignored and exploited all through history. I’m part of a group that had some people who fought for justice as well.” I don’t want to have to disown my skin (I can’t, really, even as much as I may want to), so I want to redeem it.

On the other hand, this information is crushing. Because I can’t just believe the story, “We didn’t know” anymore.

Where were you?

A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests
A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests

You might have been ignorant. You might not have known. But you didn’t know because you didn’t want to know. You didn’t know because you purposefully avoided lectures by “radical” weirdos, you didn’t pick up any pamphlet handed out, you blocked your ears to protest songs, you turned your eyes away when you drove past townships, you dismissed anything that was different as evil. You didn’t know because you chose not to know.

But I want to hear that story, too. I want to hear it, because that’s also part of redeeming this white skin I’ve got to live with. I don’t’ want just hear about pranks in university, or the crazy Sargent you had when you were called up for armed forces training, with anything political conveniently screened out. I always thought apartheid never came up because you didn’t really “feel” it, because you were so isolated. But maybe you weren’t so isolated. Or maybe you created your own isolation.

I want to hear my friends parents say, “Yes, I was a student and I heard about these protests, but I was self-centered. I was more interested in flirting with the cute guy in my Maths lectures and saving up money for my Capetown holiday, and trying to pass my exams than taking the time to figure out what everyone was making a fuss about.

And I was afraid. I didn’t know what the end of apartheid would bring. I thought maybe the country would end in chaos, so I didn’t take the radical student’s arguments seriously. On June 16th, 1976, when Soweto highschool students were shot down in the streets, when Wits students went to protest and join them, I sat in my room and worked on homework. I didn’t understand what was going on around me.

And I didn’t stand up against the injustice.

But I should have.

And you should.

Even though I didn’t stand up to injustice then, our family is going to be known for doing that now. We’re going to keep our minds and ears open. We’re going to make space in our lives to be uncomfortable, to learn things we might not want to know, to listen to what life is like for people that society doesn’t privilege, because of the way they look, or their income level, or their sexual orientation, or their living conditions, or their language.”

Please, please, tell me that story. I need that story, too.

I don’t want to sound judgmental (but I also think judgment is not an all-bad thing). One day we’ll all be judged, if not by our children then by God himself. I know one day my kids will ask me where I was on a certain day in history. Maybe they’ll ask why I wasn’t out protesting the Marikana shootings, or handing out food at the platinum mine strike, or petitioning government to pressurize Uganda to change their anti-gay laws, or something that looking back will seem so obviously unjust to them.

And I hope, I hope, I’ll have the courage to say, “Yes, I didn’t do anything and I was wrong, and we’re going to be different.”

I don’t want to fall into the trap of structuring my life so that I don’t have to know.

And I want the courage of a previous generation.

Not just the courage of the students that took to the streets of Soweto to protest apartheid.

Not just the courage of the white university students who left the status-quo.

But also the courage of those who sat quietly and didn’t do anything at the time, but acknowledge their blindness and are living different lives because of it today.

So, where were you June 16th, 1976? Do you have a story to share?

 

Subverting the empire with prayer and other whispers of hope

http://www.dirtyandthirty.com/hot-mama/hope-floats/

These past few months, I’ve been spending less time in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza and more time in the comfy suburb of Hilton… and it’s been making me quite bitter. For some reason, it’s easier for me to hang on to hope in Sweetwaters. There’s poverty, there’s suffering, there are things that make me want to cry, but you can see the Kingdom pushing through. The fieldworkers are there every day loving those kids, there are stories of changes, and even when it’s two steps forward one step back, there’s this feeling that you’re going somewhere. A feeling that God is here and things will change.

But I’ve been hanging out more in the world of Hilton (due to scaling back my hours at iThemba to work on my masters), which is just as sick and just as in need of redemption, but here it’s been hard to hang on to hope. It wasn’t bad at first. I was all fired up, ready to be a part of building bridges, ready to intercede, ready to see God change… well… everything.

And then it was the lead up to the elections, and whitefear was choking people’s conversations, and everyone was still thinking about how to protect their own interests, moaning about the government and longing for the good-old-days, and tightening the bubble closer around themselves.

And the stuff I was reading for my masters showed story after story of how verbally white South Africa has said yes to democracy and unity and reconciliation, but actually is still trapped by fear and prejudice and is even passing that along to their children. I went on holiday to the coast and the very kind Christian people who were letting us stay in their self-catering accommodation made racist comments. Then I read a report that proved that over 1/3rd of the time, black South Africans will be refused holiday accommodation on the KZN  coast, simply because they are black. And then all my readings were full of people throwing around big words like ‘transformation’ and ‘hegemony’ but after a while, they started to sound like they were just that—words—being used to publish papers, not to actually change anything.

And even the Christian community was stifling me with how dedicated it was to same-ness. How dedicated it was to being stuck in a rut, and being okay with that. How blind it is to how someone from another income bracket, another culture, another race, another family type, another sexual orientation might feel in their group. And I realized how entrenched all these things are, how stubborn, how deeply, deeply rooted. In Sweetwaters, I don’t have to have awkward conversations where someone assumes I agree with their view about how badly the blacks are running the country (usually veiled in nicer language than that, of course). What do you do in that moment? Sometimes I say nothing because I’m scared to rock the boat and I don’t want to offend them. But sometimes I say nothing because I literally do not know what to say—how can you let comments like that slide, but how can you address it when this poor person clearly just wanted to make small talk, and deconstructing the racism actually embedded in their comment will probably get nowhere. (And then sometimes I do say something, but come off holier-than-thou and alienate people even more, which is just completely the wrong way to engage people and I just make everything worse).

And so slowly paralysis set in. And prayers trickled off.

It wasn’t prayers for revival anymore. It wasn’t prayers that this insulated, inward-looking community would become a radical out-ward focusing light to their neighbours. It was just the occasional, “Oh Lord, help!” (And often in the form of  a sarcastic muttering under the breath after something I heard or experienced). I was Elijah saying, “Enough of this, God. Just take my life and get it over with. That would be much easier than this. I’ve been working my heart out for you, and your people don’t give a rip and now they’re even trying to kill me.” (Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. But it feels like it sometimes).

But God quietly whispers to Elijah in the midst of his anger and bitterness, he whispers gently that he’s not alone (in fact, there are 7000 others who love God, too), and there is still work to do.

And I’ve heard God’s whispers lately (when I’ve stopped ranting enough to hear them).

http://www.raisinggenerationstoday.com/reach-out-for-hope-by-stacey-thacker/

I heard him whisper in the all-Hilton church prayer meeting before the elections, where the body of Christ came together and prayed not for ourselves, and for our lives to be comfortable, but for justice, and widows and orphans, and hungry people, and servant-leadership.

I heard him whisper in our church small group, as we’ve been discussing Generous Justice, by Tim Keller, and how our small group and church and our individual lives can express the generous grace and justice of God.

I heard him in a woman who came up to me after church one day and said, “When you sing, I can see that you really are worshipping. Thank you. It moves me to worship him, too.”

I heard him when our small group pitched in to sponsor a child for iThemba kids camp.

I heard him in the burn ward of the hospital.

I heard him most loudly in this statement, made by the leader at the all church prayer meeting:

Prayer is a subversive activity. By gathering to pray, we’re making a statement. We’re saying we believe we have a God who can change things. We’re not okay with the way things are, and we’re subverting the empire by coming before the true King and saying, “Your will be done.”

And the Holy Spirit slapped me upside the head and said,

You don’t believe this anymore. You whiney Elijah, thinking you’re the only one left. You think this all depends on you. You think I’m sitting back and doing nothing. You think I don’t have power to change anything. You’re wrong. Join me, Steph. Get praying real prayers again, prayers that believe you’re talking to the one with ultimate power. Stop whining and subvert the empire with me.

This is MY people,

this is MY church,

and the gates of Hell

(and materialism, and self-centeredness, and prejudice and fear)

will NOT prevail against it. 

_____________________________________

So, what do you all do to rekindle your hope? What encourages you when hope runs dry?

 

 

The Kingdom of God is Like…

So, I read about this activity on Kathy Escobar’s blog, in her post “The Kingdom of God is Like…” You should go check it out. 

Jesus often talks about what the Kingdom of God is like. He’s trying to explain things using everyday, ordinary examples (yeast working through dough, finding a coin, gardening, buried treasure). And in all of these “ordinary” life events, we see pictures of the surprising,

grace-filled,

upside-down,

unexpected,

mysterious yet ordinary Kingdom of God.

So the challenge that Kathy put out to people was to share a story, or a moment, from their own lives, that was a picture of the Kingdom of God. I was on staff devotions at iThemba today…so that’s what we did! And, in contrast to my rather gloomy previous post, this one is FULL of joy!

Here’s some of the examples that the iThemba team gave. These are real stories of things that have happened in the past, which we feel illustrate to us something about what the Kingdom of God is like.

So, we present:

kingdom of god

The kingdom of God is like 32 boxes of Easter eggs. Boxes donated by Sunday School kids at Christ Church for the kids in Sweetwaters. Easter eggs that they earned themselves by doing chores, but instead of keeping them for themselves, they generously gave them away.

DSCF3187The Kingdom of God is like eating a delicious meal without any disturbance. A feast. A place of perfect peace.

The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child’s face. I see the Kingdom of God every time I walk into one of the creches (preschools) in Sweetwaters.

The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child's face...
The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child’s face…

The Kingdom of God is like someone who decides to give away everything they get for their birthday so that others can have a better life.

 

 

The Kingdom of God is like a home visit in Sweetwaters. The unexpected joy that lights up the kids faces when they see that you’ve really come to visit them. The sitting and listening to a Gogo’s long story, or just being with a child who has been through abuse. It’s hope showing up in tangible form.

-The Kingdom of God is like the joyful expectation of children waiting in long lines outside the gate for Jabulani Kids Club on a Saturday– they’ve been waiting long before we arrive.

 

iThemba-6264

The Kingdom of God is like the big tree in-between Mashaka Highschool and Nobanda Primary. When I have to climb that steep, steep hill to get between Life Skills classes and Devotions at Assembly, I’m able to stop and take a rest under it’s shade. It’s big enough for everyone that’s with me to sit underneath and rest and refresh ourselves.

*(No picture, but imagine a hill that’s a 90 degree cliff, and you’re probably close to what that hill of terror is like!). 

The Kingdom of God is like Sizwe’s Life Group last week, where there were  Zulu teenage boys and their parents, Californian college students and English South Africans, all playing and laughing and learning together.

 

Sizwe's Life Group

 

The Kingdom of God is like a room full of South African businessmen who found the iThemba Kids Camp video online, bawled their eyes out while watching it, then were moved to donate some much needed equipment to iThemba.

 

 

The Kingdom of God is like the light in the children’s faces when I go to teach Life Skills, and I know that these kids who didn’t have anyone to talk to about what’s bothering them at home now have someone.

 

iThemba-6936

 

The Kingdom of God is like a child who doesn’t have a Father, finding a father-figure in Sizwe, Thulani, Nathi and Syv. 

iThemba-8331

 

What about you? Can you think of a moment or a story that “is like” the Kingdom of God from your own life?

A Poem: Maestro

This is a poem. Because it’s broken up into funny lines, I can call it a poem. I didn’t try hard enough for it to be an actual poem. Maybe one day when I have time I will make it a real poem. But it is based on a common occurrence at the main intersection of the town where I live. 

 

Maestro

 

Ah, the robot is out again, you say

And you grumble, and tap your fingers on the wheel

and check your watch

and mutter about the government, and service delivery, and Eskom

to your empty car. 

 

But look up, my friend, look up, you’re missing it!

There he stands, the arc of his arms ready to pounce

on the down beat,

 then up on the up–

his flapping newspapers abandoned at his feet,

his fingers splayed out wide

stopping traffic with one hand, 

with the other setting free a cascade of cars—

now the Honda can right turn,

BMW, wait quietly a moment longer,

And…NOW! 

Enter the string of minivans,

Hear the rumble of the engines, 

Smell the exhaust, and the sun, and the bright morning air– 

 

Ah, it’s a good day to be alive!

and to watch him twirl and turn,

to orchestrate order with such flourishes

and a flash of smile, like it’s easy. 

 

You, with your boring nine-to-five job

in an air-conditioned office with twenty-seven urgent emails,

haven’t you ever thought what joy is there 

for the newspaper man when the robot is out?

 

#IfIWasWhite: Things I learned

The area that my masters in sociology falls under is “whiteness studies”. Basically, it means studying white people, and the construct of whiteness, and understanding white privilege, and looking at ways to “de-center” the story of whiteness. In most places, “white” is the norm by which everything else is measured (which I kind of understand in America, since white people are still the majority, but why that would be the case in places like Africa or Asia makes no sense except because of the history of colonization and globalization and Western media and all that stuff).

Anyway, one of the things that some whiteness scholars try to do is make whiteness “visible” to people to whom it’s invisible. If you ask white people to tell you about themselves, not very many of them mention their race as part of their identity, because it’s just the “norm”. Race is something other people have. And “white culture”? What’s that??! Some white Americans have a vauge sense that their ancestors were Irish or something, but really, they just see themselves as “normal Americans.” When you’re the majority, you set the norms, and you can’t see how you fit into these larger cultural norms you’ve created. (Okay, caveat– I know that everyone in the whole world is an individual, and people don’t actually fall into neat stereotypical cultural categories, and we cannot let our assumptions about people’s culture define how we interact with them. But on the other hand– sociologists study people in groups, and groups do have certain traits. Not everyone in the group fits every trait, but I think it’s okay to make generalizations as long as you realize that they are generalizations).

The problem, I think, has more to do with the fact that white people can make generalizations about other cultures, but can’t see that generalizations could be applied to their culture as well. Which is why, when I was on Twitter the other night, I freaked out because the number one trend was #IfIWasWhite. ( I tried to wake my husband up and be like– look at this amazing research opportunity unfolding before our very eyes!! But he was sleeping). It started as a hashtag about the Olympic guy Shaun White, but people saw the hashtag and immediately started posting things like this:

“#IfIWasWhite I’d yell at my mom and slam the door and nothing would happen bc she’d say I was going thru a phase.”

“#IfIWasWhite I’d drink $10 Starbucks drinks.”

Or some interesting ones about education:

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(guilty of the former, I must be white :D) 

Some of these were really funny and clever. (Go here to read some). But also… these tweets reveal something to us white folks who don’t know what our “culture” is– here’s how other races and cultures see us. We make stereotypes about other races “All Black people are so loud” — why not sit back, shut up, and see what other groups say about our group? Maybe it will actually reveal to us what things are “unique” about our group–what things we all do and think are normal that actually aren’t that normal?

There were also some really heartbreaking ones that revealed how a white-dominated system side-lines other races. Many systems in America (and South Africa) are  biased against other races (especially black people). There were lots of references to the unfair treatment that black people experience at the hands of the police.

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There were maybe 10 tweets similar to:

#IfIWasWhite, I wouldn’t have store clerks follow me around every time I went shopping, assuming I was going to steal something. 

Okay white people, ouch. Maybe you don’t think this applies to you, since you’re not a store-owner or a policeman, but what about this one:

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How many times have you told a “kind of racist” joke and said, “But my black friends know I’m just joking, they laugh and think it’s funny, too.” Um. No.

And then of course, some white people got on the bandwagon, and felt they needed to defend themselves, so took some shots back:

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Which made me SUPER irritated. I think the people who made the two comments above missed out on a chance to listen and learn. They resented that the other group was making stereotyped comments about them but assumed they knew the other group well enough to make comments back. Despite all the tweets that gave glimpses to the real hurt that other races experience because of systemic injustice, these white tweeters just assumed everyone was whining, that everything in the world is fair, that white people got to where they are today solely by their own hard work–and the list goes on.

The sociologist part of me wanted to do a content analysis of all these tweets, and figure out which ones fall into the “funny cultural stereotypes about whites” category (and then see what the different cultural traits are), how many fall into the “revealing prejudice in the system” category, how many fall into the “rankled white people retaliating” category, and how many fall into the “why is this a trend on twitter now??!” category. But. I didn’t. I wrote a blog post because I’m lazy and this is easier. But maybe someone else out there will do it.

But I hope at the very least, this twitter trend can help us white people think a little bit more  about what we define as normal, about how we stereotype others, and about how desperately we need to shut up and listen to people who are not white, and value their experiences and insights into the injustice around us, rather than getting defensive and shutting them out.

Privilege

A little boy who lives across from where we have our Saturday Kids Club.
A little boy who lives across from where we have our Saturday Kids Club.

Living in Hilton and working in Sweetwaters means I am constantly confronted with my own privilege. It’s not just a matter of working in schools that are understaffed, under-resourced, and under-qualified, when I know I went to amazing schools just minutes away in Hilton. It’s not just a matter of sitting at Life Groups in the back yards of houses that have no running water, or flush toilets.

Sometimes I feel guilty for living in a fully furnished flat in Hilton, rent free, with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. I feel guilty that I have a car (that I didn’t pay for, but someone donated for whoever has my job). My coworkers don’t have cars. My co-workers don’t live in Hilton.

Who knows. Maybe next year David and I will move to Sweetwaters. But right now we’re in Hilton. We think that’s where God wants us to be. Especially for David’s first year of teaching, the stress of living in a 100% Zulu environment, and having to boil our own water to heat it would probably not be the best. But God is showing me I don’t have to feel guilty about the things that he has let me use. I feel guilty when I think about how much stuff I have– but when I think about it as God’s stuff, there’s no reason to feel guilty. It’s his. He can do with it as he wishes.

Last week, my coworker, who stays in Sweetwaters, called to say they didn’t have water. I invited them over for supper and a shower, and to fill up their 10 gallon water-jug. When they got to our flat, I found out they hadn’t had water for 5 days. They were just “bothering” us now, because their 10 gallon water jug had just run out that day. Because we were friends, my coworker was able to get water.

Last week, someone else phoned because his pregnant wife was having trouble, and they needed to get to the hospital. We lent him the car for the day, so he could take her to the hospital and to a follow up clinic appointment. Because he knew us, he was able to get his wife to the hospital.

Today, we were packing for our teens camp, and we needed old plastic bags and newspapers for a game. I was the one who went to dig them out of the recycling bin in our town, because my white face meant no one would bother me and ask what I was doing.

Being white.

Having a car.

Having in-door running water and a shower.

I can feel guilty about all of it. Or, I can see it as a resource that God has given me, and wants me to use to bless others. How are you using the resources God has given you?

Pray this week for teens camp! We are taking 50 teens to the beach for 3 days. Pray for good weather, great speaker, and that the teens would bond with their leaders.

A Safe Person

A study of at-risk children by the University of Michigan showed that children who said they had an older person that they could share things with were much more likely to finish school and succeed later in life than their peers.

The area of Mpumuza is lacking “safe people.” Apartheid, with its pass-laws which determined who could work in the city and who had to stay out, caused many men to leave their wives and children in order to get jobs. Even more than 15 years after Apartheid, the family structure in this area is very broken. Fathers are still absent. AIDS takes its toll in this community. Mpumuza has the second highest prevalence rate in Southern Africa (2001 stats), and this leaves many orphans and child-headed households.

iThemba wants to see this community changed by the power of Christ, and they believe the best way to do that is to educate and disciple this young generation, so the cycles of poverty and neglect can be broken. The iThemba Discipleship field workers are in the community every day, building relationships with kids and trying to be “safe people” so these children know Jesus and have the support they need to succeed. Many of these fieldworkers are young men who have graduated from UBI (the Bible College where my Dad teaches). This is great, because male role models in this community are lacking.

When I worked with iThemba four years ago, they had two Life Groups (Bible studies) and a Saturday Kids Club. Now, they have 8 Life Groups and the teenagers they have discipled lead the Saturday Kids Club. One Life Group has over 50 kids attending. Thulani, the leader, is looking for more help so he can divide it into a smaller group–what a great problem to have! Just this week iThemba started up a teens Bible club on Saturday afternoons.

My whole first week at work was filled with exciting discoveries like this one. Seeing how God has grown the ministry of iThemba over the past four years makes me feel like Paul when he speaks of the Thessalonian church:

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 1:2-3)

I am just so honored to get to work with a team like iThemba. While I am not directly involved with the mentorship process, I get to help out at various groups, and the short-term volunteers I am working with will be participating and assisting the leaders of these groups. Please keep praying that God will keep using iThemba to bring his reconciliation and hope to this area.

Have questions about iThemba or want more information about something I mentioned in this post? Leave a comment. 🙂