Monday, June 13, 2011

teaching about the blacks

I am a tutor and the other day I had a bit of a rave at my South African poetry students that I thought I should share with the world (or the part of the world that reads my blog). It was about how one talks about race in texts that reference older mindsets, and (because these things always spill over into real life from literature) how we use or refrain from using, the leftover prejudice language in everyday situations.

Me: What's with the blacks and the whites, folks? I feel like I am talking about playing cards or some alternate graphic novel universe with warring art-deco, mechanical mafia clans. Surely in this day and age (unless you are being ironic) one should talk about Black people and white people? It's like talking about the gays. How much more can one objectify a group of people? I mean, you wouldn't talk about the "Amy"s, you would talk about the tables.

I have clearly not made my point however, as some still talk about the "blacks" and "whites" in their essays, even when there is no such objectification (ironic or otherwise) in the text. They just put quotation marks around them. So I need to get it through to them a little better.

I got my other point about race across to everyone perfectly clearly. I'm sure it will remain crystalline in their minds. Some of my tutlings (they were writing about Herman Charles Bosman) wrote about the "kaffirs" (which are written just like that in the stories) but without quotation marks. If you are referencing an older, more conservative time directly, one needs to quote this word in context and acknowledge its inherent ugliness, but they just inserted quite happily in their arguments with barely a shudder. I was able to illustrate to them - using, I think, one of my more memorable illustrations of a point why (apart from the obvious) one would not use incendiary and prejudicial terms in formal arguments. It went something like this:

Me: I mean, you wouldn't talk about the motherfuckers in your test unless you were quoting directly from the text would you?
Class: scattered laughter and a one or two gasps. A few light-bulbs go on.
Me: (smiling serenely and thinking, "won't forget that one will you?")

So if anyone can think of a similarly pithy example of why one should not talk about the blacks and whites, I would be eternally grateful. Maybe I will inflict it on next year's batch...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I'm coming out of the closet...

For me, telling people I'm a Christian is like coming out of the closet. It's liberating to tell the truth about myself, but there is always that chance that people will turn away, repulsed by the thought of what I do (or what they think I do) in the privacy of my home or church. There's sometimes a sense that I can do what I like as long as I don't do anything in public, where others may be disgusted by my displays of affection for the one (or in my case the One) I love.

In other cases, even being a Christian in the privacy of my own home is too much for people. It is deemed morally reprehensible and irresponsible: I must acknowledge that I am deluded and more importantly, be prevented from spreading my delusions and my lifestyle to society at large. At least Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think so. Much of society is not Christian friendly. And yet, a friend of mine is an atheist, and she has experienced the exact same thing. Her family ostracize her, and friends look on her with patronising pity. Another fellow blogger, a Muslim, has also expressed the belief that society is Islamaphobic (I actually agree with him there. Even in England - the least racially polarised place I have been so far will come out in full force to defend their cities against some kind of "Islamic Invasion").

So it seems no one is safe. We're all being targeted by society. But if everyone is being targeted by society, who is left in the society to other us? It appears it is no particular group that started all the hatred. It is rather, people in general who find a particular channel for hatred and exclusion.

An atheist would argue that it is the fault of religion for causing such divisions. If I wasn't Christian, the Muslim fundamentalist would have no problem with me because I would not be Christian, and the fundamentalist would not be Muslim. We would be siblings on this earth with no divisions...except for our different race, class, culture, sexual orientation, language and gender.

We are all different, religious or not. Sweeping away religion will not change us into accepting human beings, living together as one. Christopher Hitchens is an atheist but that does not stop him from being misogynist, as his pompous declaration that women aren't funny proves.

Obviously religion can divide people violently against each other and commit great evils. Churches burn Korans and legislate violent anti-homosexual legislation, and Muslim states stone adulterous women and prevent anyone from worshipping any other gods.

It is not religion however, that causes the major wars, but greed and a will to power. The First World War was a mess of countries trying to out do each other and prevent smaller countries from gaining independence. The Second World War was caused by the problems of the first and race hatred. Even so-called religious wars are frequently run through with longing for riches, self-determination or power. I'm over-simplifying the causes more than a little, but anyone can see the Crusades were not just Christians going out to defeat the "infidels" and convert or kill.

In its best form, however, religion unites. When I go to church on Sunday, I am amazed by the cross section of people sitting in the pews. People of all colours, ages, and fashions, heck even people of different beliefs. I seldom - if ever - see gatherings of this diversity anywhere else. Even at universities, the most liberal pockets of our society, there is a narrow age range and of course, a group of people who are school-book smart. There are no plummers or factory workers, shop assistants or floor cleaners who associate with students on equal footing. Our still-present apartheid land act ensures that not many churches include people of all classes and races, but the church I attend in Braamfontein, next to the university and across the bridge from a taxi rank, is home to people of all sorts. We all say the same liturgy, sit in the same pews and drink from the same cup. We all have to admit publicly, that all of us are equal in the eyes of God. Anyone who has ever worshipped in a mosque, synagogue, temple, outdoor circle or church may have experienced something like this.

One of my favourite illustrations of the nature of prejudice rather than the nature of religion is a series of documentaries made in the 1950s on apartheid that you can find on Youtube (riveting stuff).

Two priests are interviewed. One is a Dutch Reform priest, and he asserts that reasoning behind apartheid is in fact written in the Bible. The second looks like an Anglican priest, and he states that if one is a true Christian, apartheid is completely opposite to Christian morals.

I am still a baby Christian, it is true, and not an orthodox one. I am wrestling with my own problems with this exhilarating, nourishing and incredibly complex thing called faith. But what I know for sure is that it is human prejudice, and not considered, questioning, meditative faith or morally grounded unbelief that causes people to hate and fear one another. It is people who are evil, and use religion or militant atheism for their own means to power. They play on many people's innate prejudice and fear. Anyone who ever looked at the bank account of Richard Dawkins or a charlatan preacher or seen a poor religious militant's heady sense of power over his followers could see why.