Thursday, February 24, 2011

on (English) white liberals

Near the beginning of last year, a Mail and Guardian journalist named Verashni Pillay wrote a column called "The Indian Cringe List". Many people wrote in to say how much they enjoyed the column and its comedy with a pointed purpose, many of them white people. Then, just a few weeks later, she wrote a column called "Stuff White Liberals Say and Do". The same people who congratulated her on writing about Indian people turned around and wrote what borders on hate speech because she had dared to criticise the great white. I didn't have a blog back then, so maybe I would have written this in support a lot earlier. As with my moon cup blog, I suppose it is better late than never.

Even the words "white liberal" make me twitch a little with distaste, even as I admit that I am one. I wear African print skirts and I went on a march or two about human rights and Zimbabwe. I continue to try (unsuccessfully) to learn Zulu and I am writing my thesis on South African literature. So far so liberal, but these harmless pursuits are not what makes my skin crawl about being associated with (English) white liberals.

Firstly, the white liberals I'm talking about are (English) precisely because we are liberal towards everyone except Afrikaners. And Christians. And everyone who can't speak English "properly". And orthodox Muslims ('cause all Muslims treat women really badly). And "Twilight" readers. And black people who call us racist (we're not racist! We have lots of black friends) or black people who take "our" jobs. And people who associate us with fake white liberals who are just hiding under a veneer of liberality. And "stupid" people, which is pretty much everyone except me and my coterie of friends. But apart from that we are, like, totally accepting.

Let's start with first things first: Afrikaners (also known as "Dutchmen" or "Rock Spiders"). We all had to learn Afrikaans at school (most of us learnt it badly) but we don't really care because it's just Afrikaans. There are much more important languages to know, like English and Zulu and...all those other African languages (but English is still the most important because it is an "international" language). Afrikaans people legislated Apartheid so they are automatically more responsible for all racism. All English people just watched helplessly as atrocities were carried out and were not complicit at all. Even worse, Afrikaans music is kitsch, and Afrikaans people are probably not so smart because they say things like "jean pant" and "I'm going to frow you wif a stone".

Ditto black people with black accents. Trevor Noah has already covered this topic really well in his show, Daywalker. Nevertheless, it must be said that if our black learners or our black leaders mispronounce words (in their second, third, fourth or fifth languages) they also must be stupid and incapable of learning what they are taught or leading our country (in which the number of native English speakers tie joint fifth out of eleven official languages). Obviously English is the language of business and politics in South Africa, so politicians and businessmen must learn to speak English properly (because there is definitely a proper English that all proper English people speak all over the world and it all sounds exactly the same). I mean, when French businessmen or politicians conduct business in English with French accents it isn't because they're stupid, they just have a different international language. So, French people with accents are smart, it's just that Zulu people or people who speak...all those other African languages who have one of their accents when they speak English aren't smart (? oh dear! Moving on...)

It's like Christians, you know? They all believe that evolution is a myth and that dinosaurs are a conspiracy to test faith (they didn't really exist). I mean, how stupid can they be? It's almost as bad as that Mormon woman churning out Vampire romances that aren't even about proper vampires, they glitter in the sunlight. I mean that's so gay (not that we're homophobic! It's just a word...)

And Muslims are almost as bad as Christians. I mean, at least they don't hound us to try and convert us, but we know they treat their women really badly and they have a tendency towards fanaticism and bombing buildings.

Don't even get us started on black people taking our jobs. It's so hard to get a job now, and they will probably just give it to some unqualified buffoon for window dressing. I mean, life is hard, hey (takes another sip of beer and takes out blackberry to check new messages. Pulls Diesel jacket a little closer).

But seriously: I know putting unqualified people in jobs is a problem: the millions of unspent money in the Government Health Department is proof of this. I would still nevertheless argue that it was easier for me to get a job in retail last year than it would have been for a black woman with a black accent. I may not have diesel jackets or a shmart cellphone, but my rounded English tones and non-threatening short, white body ensure that my life (certainly) is really not that hard. At the same time, I don't wish to trivialise people's problems. Many families - white and black and all the shades and cultures in between - are struggling in the recession.

What I am really talking about is - in part - my own personal journey of self-realisation. I have held many of the prejudices I write about and have been embarrassingly ignorant about the complexity and variety within cultures other than my own. One of my earliest memories (I must have been about five) is telling my mother how I knew black people were all dirty and all criminals. She quickly put my young mind straight, but it makes me realise that racist propaganda was being pumped into my ears somewhere: whether it was at my beloved pre-primary school or at the houses of friends. Maybe a peer or an adult had instilled this belief in me, but either way I rattled it off because it made me a part of a group to hold the same (misguided) beliefs.

Some English white people are past and beyond my level of investigation into the nature of my inherited prejudices. A (fortunate few) never held these beliefs. There are - however - still too many (English) white liberals who fall into the kind of reasoning I have detailed because their prejudice binds them together in an exclusionary group where they feel a sense of belonging and superiority over others. Perhaps I should say "our prejudice binds us together in an exclusionary group" because no doubt I will continue to find more slippery and subtle prejudices and superiority complexes residing in my own breast that I will need to root out.

What makes it so difficult to change these habits is perfectly put by Karen Armstrong: most people (and I'm not restricting this statement to English white liberals) would rather be "right" than compassionate. Admitting one is prejudiced means admitting that one is wrong, or at the very least clumsily judging others. Never mind getting a job, this is one of the really hard parts of life: to go through this painful process and come out the other side a little less superior. But then, the less superior you are, the less hard it will get. And that is something to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Krista Tippett: Reconnecting with compassion | Video on

Krista Tippett: Reconnecting with compassion Video on

A few people have asked what I am writing about in my thesis. I am writing about compassion and the haze of emotions associated with it. I can't write too much about it yet as it needs a lot of work before I can do such a complex and important ethic even the smallest bit of justice, but this TED talk inspired me and so I wanted to post it and get it out there, because it is lovely.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

what I'm reading

I've thought up the perfect description for how my eyes feel after staring at the computer screen for too long. They begin to feel like teeth feel when you wake up in the morning and (for whatever reason) you never brushed them the night before. There is that thin, unpleasant furry yet slimy sensation when your tongue runs along them. That is how my eyes feel now because I have speant the past few hours looking for intriguing blogs written by complete strangers to follow. I found surprisingly few. Maybe I am not looking well enough, but I found so many blogs that were little more than "watch this video of ...[include link to YouTube] hahaha. Or pseudo-poetry accompanied by stylistic/artistic photos of really thin models looking "pensive" (to quote the fabulously facile joke at Joey's expense in 10 Things I Hate About You. Dont you dare judge me for referring to this movie. It's wickedly cool: partly because the geek gets the girl without undergoing a geek-to-cool transformation. I mean geeks are cool already). Even the many SA politics blogs begin to annoy me. They all sound like Mail and Guardian articles. I love the Mail and Guardian the Mail and Guardian. Surely blogs should experiment with different styles?

Anyway, enough whining. The point is that I eventually did find a cool blog by Mridu Khullar Relph: an independent journalist from India. As I am a technological retard, I can't actually figure out how to follow her page, but I'm going to add it to my favourites and see how that works. I digress, the point is that she has a regular blog called "What I'm reading" that lists a whole host of things she is reading without the pressure of having to produce a formal book review on the particular book.

So, in the spirit of Mridu Khullar Relph,
What I'm Reading (or rather, what I've read this month so far):

The Devil's Chimney - Anne Landsman

I wanted to like this book. It is written by a South African woman, set in South Africa and is about South African women. It is a "magic-realist" text and is set in the Karroo, one of the most mysterious and eerie South African landscapes.

But I didn't like it. Anne Landsman lives in New York (since 1981). I only read this after I had put down the novel and had felt profoundly dissatisfied. Some of my dissatisfaction suddenly made sense because I felt like it was written like a white trauma-experienced-by-women-by-numbers text, not an intricate engagement with the subtlties of South African interactions, something which has to be experienced on the ground.

There were great moments and the effort to focus the text through a poor white, alcoholic woman with a rich imagination unschooled by academies was startlingly orginal. I started losing faith when it became more and more depressing (I don't mind difficult and depressing: I love J.M. Coetzee and Sello K. Duiker) but then ended with a unconvincingly happily: alcoholic woman embraces alcoholic abusive husband after forty (?) years of non-conversation after the (deeply movingly rendered) loss of their child. Because all the years of masculinity-issues abuse and dangerous drug abuse will suddenly cease because of a hug. Then there are some mystical black folk thrown in who have (equally mystical) relations to the San. Fail.

Thirteen Cents - K. Sello Duiker

This book - by contrast - was unremittingly disturbingly brilliant. It is the tale of a street kid in Cape Town who discovers just how soulless the city can be. The so-called liberal "gay capital" of South Africa is shown to be a misnomer: how gay-friendly is it when this kid makes a lot of his money having sex with in-the-closet, married businessmen who have no problem having sex with a thirteen-year-old? All his efforts at improving himself are betrayed by adults he should be able to trust and friends who constantly betray themselves because of crippling addictions.

One of the gang bosses enforced on him tells him his mother never loved him and that he (the gang leader) is the only one who ever did. Azure - the name of the protagonist - loves Cape Town: the "mother city" of South Africa. The novel shows that Mother Cape Town sure doesn't love Azure and other black people like him.

The Power Book - Jeanette Winterson

I love love this author. Really, words escape me and I am reduced to the gibbering idotish "I love love". I will just quote her and you can see for yourself how revolutionary (I mean that word in its best possible sense) she is. Hopefully, reading these quotes will direct you to her website full of insightful articles and prose.

"The heart. Carbon based primitive in a silicone world" (40).
"That's the size of [love], the immensity of it. It's not proper, it's not clean, it's not containable" (51).
"Did I write this story, or was it you, writing through me the way the sun sparks the fire through a piece of glass?" (209).

And finally, the favourite that I have placed at the top of this blog:
"The world is a mirror of the mind's abundance" (223).

Reading is a large part of what makes my mind abundant enough to see riches in the world. I can only hope that with time and reflection, it will only increase.

Monday, February 21, 2011

what's *really* going on...

In Johannesburg, you spend a lot of time driving, often along freeways bordered by massive corporation headquarters. Most of them are dull-ish, sprawling office blocks, but occasionally I see buildings that are like gifts because they provide me with material for an elaborate game of matching the sinister science-fiction plot with the appearance of the outside. What you are about to read are therefore revelations of what is really going on behind the evocative exteriors of three gargantuan features of the Gauteng landscape.

The first building that gave me these exclusive glimpses of truth was the Johnson and Johnson building. It is large, square and cream-white bordered with what looks like crochet detail: pretty patterns along the top of the building wall. It has been made to look the perfect homemaker's prize tablecloth. I am not talking about the modern homemaker, but the homemaker with perfect hair and a vacant expression who only wears cutely-patterned puffy dresses. I am talking about the dreaded army of Stepford Wives. I saw the Nicole Kidman version a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed its over-the-top satire (Goose and Maria will remember). I saw the original last year and was chilled to the bone. The men in the original town of Stepford kill their wives and remove their eyes in order to install them in robots who will become sex-bunny maids. My theory is that the shimmering corporate building is the perfectly designed enclosure for the Barbie-doll look-alike fifties throw back robots. Think about that the next time you drive past...

The place where the really-mean-robots are made is without doubt the Gauteng Gambling Association building. It is Big and Black and Shiny. It glistens, like the black reflective eyes of a crocodile. They make the killer robots there, the ones who are built like Ronald Niedermann (from Stieg Larsson's revolutionary thriller series). Niedermann is built like a viking, has superhuman strength, no conscience and a genetic abnormality that means he cannot feel pain. When I look at the Gambling building, I don't associate the glittering exterior with glamour and Charlize Theron advertising Sun International. I think of Carnival City and all the children I saw sleeping in the corridors at 10pm and the domestic workers; lonely, shrivelled old women; and overweight people with neglected appearances with their eyes glazed over staring at the slot machines until all hours of the morning. I know many of these people fall through the cracks and lose all their livelihood. When they lose big time, Ronald Niedermann robots manufactured in the Gambling Association building is coming to make them - and their families - pay.
The final building is a bit of pseudo-alien fun. As you drive off the Malibongwe offramp at night, colossal splendidly lit Greco-Roman columns greet you. They are the front of the FNB building, and its shape and sturdily grandiose proportions make me think maybe there is some truth in alien-Atlantis-Egyptian pyramid type theories after all. The theories go that aliens landed on Earth and gave us all the best ancient technologies, including the pyramids and possibly other ancient civilisations as well. When I saw the FNB buildings, I realised that the aliens are back: this time in South Africa. They didn't arrive and end up living in a refugee squatter camp (like District 9), they landed in a space craft that was styled after their earliest and grandest earth achievements. The aliens are once again among us. But don't worry, they've only come to improve the South African banking system. Maybe they will lower our bank charges...

Thursday, February 17, 2011


So after endless headaches with the student loans department at Nedbank (NEVER apply for a student loan through them) and wading (telephonically) through incompetent Wits staff (and some super-competent ones it must be said), I am at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg beginning a masters degree.

Starting a masters (particularly in a university where you know almost no one) is a little like stepping onto a floating island. It's incredibly difficult to get on to a floating island in the first place (as any Irish legend will tell you) because they move away from you and are shrouded in mists or even deterrent storms. Once you are on the island, however, you find yourself in a lush and fertile landscape that may or may not be inhabited by a race of mischievous and subversive faerie.

So far, reading and researching (though in its current fragmented and disorganised form that no doubt resembles faerie witchery) has been incredibly enriching and rewarding. I read things every day that I think are wise and true, or deeply disturbing and unsettling or intriguing and inspiringly complex and uncompromisingly unresolved into a pat conclusion. It's beautiful. It's also an island. I don't have lectures with anyone else and my room is a colourful cocoon of organised self-sufficiency perfect for concentrated study. It is not conducive for meeting and interacting with other people.

So I've ventured out a little. I thought Joburg would be impossible to navigate without a car and that I would be restricted to the little oil-smelling complex of shops in the student "Matrix" on campus and a few lectures on early mankind or the discovery of new medication for malaria (or something). Actually, Braamfontein (along with the JoBurg and Market theatres and the Johannesburg Art Gallery) are right outside one of the exits. I started walking with (it must be said) some trepidation as true stories of violent crime and muggings have put the fear of walking anywhere in Joburg very deeply in my heart. There were actually lots of people from all over walking around, and I even found a good second-hand bookshop. This - it must be said - always warms my heart to any area. I even found a book of Sydney Clouts's excellent poetry. There are such carefully wrought gems I feel my heart move in my chest every time I read some of them. (A gripe of mine has always been that the idiotic ramblings about it by Stephen Watson were given so much weight).

And then I also went to a short, introductory session in the Johannesburg Planetarium. I have never been to one before, and I felt quite overwhelmed by a sense of wonder and joy at the sight of the stars shifting in a huge arc above my head. When they placed diagrams of the constellation pictures over the stars and I could finally see the connections I have been frustratingly blind to all my life it was a revelation. I learnt (and now you too, from reading my blog will learn) that all the constellations one can see in the Northern Hemisphere are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere. So don't worry if you can't put together a picture of Orion around his famous belt: he is upside down on this side of the world anyway.

Then last night I went to my first Bible study in years. I was both excited and apprehensive. Some Bible studies are exercises in hate and exclusion; you spend more time talking about how you shouldn't date people from other churches and how awful everybody else is than you do meditating on the humbling and endlessly meaningful love of the Mother and Father that is God. I have felt like a cornered mental patient that someone is trying to give a prefrontal lobotomy to at some of these meetings, and I have become wary of going to churches.

At this Bible study, however, I was not disappointed. All of us are from different countries in Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Malawi oh and me, the South African) and from different churches (I know one man is an ordained Anglican priest but I still don't know what denomination the others are from. It was something that didn't come up) and we had never met before, but because we were all meeting together to pray and have fellowship together, in this context, the differences felt negligible. There was a lack of arrogance or posturing (this was no evangelical grandstand), and though I am the equivalent of a Christian newborn baby, the atmosphere was so gentle and accepting that I felt the good influence of spending time in God's loving presence every day had had on these people and the good they were therefore able to communicate to me. It made me hope that one day I too will be able to communicate a fraction of that peace.

Reading through this blog, I think one of the most common words I have repeated is "heart". Even in all this newness, and despite the fact I am but floating past everyone on an island a lot of the time, I realise that Joburg has a lot of heart. I'm sure I will experience the lows of living in this complex mix of a city, but I think that heart will sustain me.