I don't believe in miracles - I rely on them

I don't believe in miracles - I rely on them

Yogi Bhajan


You found my blog and as I am experimenting with the weird and wonderful world of cyber publishing, let me explain what
a gunna is: it's a word for all things desirable, something that makes us happy and warm and comforts us when we feel tired or sad or lonely. a gunna is the best gadget in the world! it was leah s first word for all things she wanted. Or you might also know it as: dummy, schnulli, pacifier binky, schnuller...... and so on. So this is for my beautiful


Monday, October 29, 2012

You are listening - but can you hear me?

In true listening, we reach behind the words,
 to find the person who is being revealed...
There is the semantic problem of course.
The words bear a different connotation for you
than they do for me.
Consequently I can never tell what you said
but only what I heard.
I will have to rephrase what you said
and check it out with you to make sure that
what left your mind and heart
arrived in my mind and heart
intact and without contortions. (John Powell)

Recently I found myself in the middle of  this "dialogue thing" - a group of people sharing and listening, more accurately, women sharing and listening - and most importantly women of different cultures and skin colors sharing and listening to each other.

And while I am writing this, I am wondering  how the most important part of this evening for me, the fact that I am able to connect with a woman from a different culture/race to mine, becomes difficult for me to put into words that don't seem awkward and stilted but natural and fluid.

And once again, I realise, that natural and fluid are not words connected to race/culture issues - I feel awkward, as lots of us  "white" women do when referring to skin tones different from our own. Part of me still resents the idea that this should be in any way important in my connection with another person, while the much bigger part is hugely excited about being able to have this connection with a woman of a different race/culture.  Our evening would not have been half as inspiring -in fact, I would probably have found it a little pointless - had we all been the same.

So our differences do matter. They start with the most obvious - how we look but they don't end there.  As we stumble around vocabulary, trying to find a common language that we can all accept and relate to, we have to be prepared to expose and at times even embarass ourselves. And have a good laugh with everyone else, when we get caught with our tongues in a knot as we are trying to talk about race/culture without using the "b-word". Why is it so difficult for "white" women to  say black?

I tell you why - because we have grown up believing that white is good and black is bad ( a famous german children's game is called: who is afraid of the "schwarze mann" - the black man,  angels are white, evil is associated with black, white is virginal and equals good, whilst black is dark, threatening and equals bad )  - subsequently we shy away from giving anybody the label "black" but don't mind referring to somebody  as "white".  And while nobody would readily admit that these largely subconsicous agendas apply to them, a scientific test about .hidden racial bias  , done in 2007 (check it out!!),  has revealed that  they most probably would too!

At the same time the test also shows that "black" people with a preference for "their" color show pride in this fact, while "white" people with a preference for white are embarrassed and often ashamed by their test results. This of course makes perfect sense as historically most "white" people have nothing much to be proud of when it comes to race relations, while many "black" people have fought injustice and prejudice to come to a place of pride in their "black" identity.

(I personally never felt the need to be proud of my "race" or culture as - and I only understand this now - I have never been part of an oppressed minority and enjoyed the privilege of defining myself first and foremost as a woman, for whom skin color has been largely unimportant)

So where does this leave us today as we are trying to transcend stereotypes and overcome our own ingrained and often subconscious assumptions about "the other"? The only way we can do this is by talking honestly and openly to each other, by sharing emotions rather than intellectualised political viewpoints, by telling each other how we feel rather than how we think - as one is about finding connection and the other mostly about establishing differences. 

And this is, what this "dialogue thing" is to me: a forum where we can - in time - find a safe space to explore our feelings around our different identities as women, women of different colors and cultures and mothers (some of us) to non-white children in a largely racist society ,where we can come to understand what has divided us in the past and celebrate what connects us as women, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and partners.

Watch this space - and our soon to be established face book group - for more on our eclectic (yes, we do know what the word means ;-)) group of dialoguers.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Are you proudly African?

During a diversity lecture in my college this question was given to everyone  as a homework assignment: do you consider yourself an African?

Well, that's an easy one I thought: I am a foreigner, aren't I? So: No.

Happy to get that assignment out of the way, I closed my notebook and went on to cook supper for the family. As I am not the Buddhist kind of cooker, Zen and the art of chopping up carrots and potatoes does not quite absorb my hyperactive mind so it got me thinking instead: If I am not an African, despite having spent more time in this country than anywhere else in the world, what am I? European? German? What is it that makes me whatever I consider myself to be? My place of birth, my genetic background, certain physical features, likes or dislikes, language, beliefs, traditions like having Christmas on the 24th of December rather than on the 25th and cooking  raclette instead of turkey? But-  hang on - surely Christmas turkey or even Christmas is not an African tradition and yet grocery stores nationwide sell turkey and fruitcakes on Christmas - to whom? 3rd or 4th generation descendants of English colonisers and other more cross culturally bred or inclined Africans? Can somebody who celebrates Christmas with or without turkey, be considered an African? What about Jewish and Muslim traditions?  Are those certifiably African and at what point in history is the cut off line? Up to which year in the history books are then new influences elevated to tradition-status and become part of the elusive "African Culture"?  Lucky for you I couldn't google any of those questions there and then and risk to bore you any further, as frankly  I had vegetarian burgers to fry, so I decided not to pursue this particular train of thought - as I am sure it has been extensively covered by some book or another fathered by an academic mind of note. Instead I rather stick to what I do best, focus on the personal rather than on the historical or political  (or geographical as for a moment or two I wasn't sure whether as a European I should also identify with my Russian brothers and sisters or whether this is the Asian department... agh shame on me).

So here I ask myself : Is cultural identity something I am born and stuck with for life or can I  develop my culture as much as I develop my personality in the course of a life time? If living in this country and being part of a multi-cultural family doesn't make me feel African, what does this say about me, about the question of my cultural identity? Do I need a cultural identity, do I want one? As I attacked a large onion, my confusion approached to what should be near-anxiety-levels but surprisingly,  I was simply bored to tears instead of angst-ridden at the thought of my missing cultural identity. And I don't blame the onion entirely.

What's more - I couldn't give two carrots about whether I was or not: African or European or Afrogerman or Germanican. I also realised what a time consuming business it must be to have to identify oneself consistently with one thing or another - I cooked a whole family meal trying to wrap my head around some of the most basic questions about my cultural identity only to realise I don't have any of the answers.  So no, I don't view  myself  as African or German or European in order to define my identity.  In the same way that I am happy and grateful to be a woman, but do not feel the need to cling to feminine stereotypes in order to define myself in a male world. The only thing I can say with some certainty - and yes, it is a handwoven hippie cliche - I am mostly h u m a n (with some lion, chicken and wallflower genes evenly spread around).

I also realise that to have this uniquely individual approach to who I am is mostly a by-product of my privileges. As I have never been oppressed as part of a cultural minority and grew up mainly post feminism, it is easy for me to rebel against any form of cultural or gender stereotyping.

But there are those Africans who have been robbed of their identity for generations, who have been defined through other (white) people's eyes and could never develop freely and within their own frame of references. In order to find and redefine themselves some of us might have the need to belong to a culture, to resuscitate forgotten traditions and to stand out against the dominant world culture (yes the cliche still applies: I refer to Euro-Americanism as spread by the media).  And then of course there are those who are born today, who might be unburdened by the past and find a  new cultural idendity by picking and choosing from all the different influences to get to what works for them. Will they forever sit between chairs, not finding acceptance with any given culture or will they be grounded and confident enough to create their own unique identity and thus feel free to be an African according to their own definition?

And where will they get that grounding and self confidence if not from us?

Again, it all comes down to communicating across the divide and finding safe spaces to do so. I am in no position to question or try and talk somebody out of their need to identify with any given culture - but being an African by geographical choice does mean that I need to question and talk about cultural stereotyping and cliches that imprison people rather than allow them to develop freely.

The stereotypes I am talking about are the daily challenges I am facing when my children are for example expected to speak Xhosa, because of their physical features, meanwhile from their genetic background their should really be speaking Afrikaans and yet they speak German and English. I do encourage them to learn Xhosa and they sort of do - but should I not rather teach them their birth mothers language? Or leave it entirely up to them when they are old enough to make that choice? Are their more endangered by their genetic background and by how the world views them as people of color than empowered by what I hope to teach them? Those are questions I keep on asking myself and until they are old enough to tell me (and it is too late of course :-)) I have to listen to as many view points as possible in order to learn as much as possible and then still change my mind at the end of the day and wake up the next morning asking all over again. 

And here is where I can be an African - on my quest to learn and find out not where I belong but how I fit into this exciting mix of people and their cultures. First and foremost I have to learn how to broaden my field of vision, to shift my perspective  from my  safe "Euro-American" spectacles to a more encompassing view where the privileges I grew up with are nothing but an unrealistic dream for most African people and the assumptions I have about my rightful place in this world are challenged by the question: by whose right? 

Of course that is depressing as much as it is enlightening. And in one swift move my balloon of rightful superiority - acknowledged or not - deflates and leaves me somewhat flat and shamefaced. As I look back at my righteous opinions about so many things that now feel slightly embarrassing to outright wrong - I realise that today I might be more insecure as to where I fit in  - but  at the same time I am more alive and inspired than ever before by those insecurities, the questions I now know to ask and the people who are mindful and open and willing to answer with their own experiences and insecurities so that  together we can come up with more questions. I also realise it is not the answers that are important but the questions we ask and the fact that our children hear us asking those questions without being afraid of not having the answers.

So at the end of this: I might not be an African by birth and I might not die an African, but today I am an African by choice, happily, proudly, gladly and gratefully so and of course like most people in this country: mainly confused.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Coconuts and other hairy stuff - lets talk about race baby!

This can't be true  - has it really been 6 months or so, since my last attempt to keep at it??? If it wasn't for you (you know who) and you (yes, you too) telling me I NEEDED to write more, I would be too embarrassed to even officially declare this blog dead - leave alone keep posting at 6 months intervals. As it is though, I love writing and venting and opinionating and reflecting about life, SO (big sigh)- here I am again, despite my best efforts to self boycott.

And today's special is: coconut shake with sweet 'n sour vanilla flavour

Lately I found myself at college again, in  a proudly post apartheid environment, many cultures present, in the midst of a lively discussion about racism, prejudice, white guilt and other favourite things to pretend-discuss amongst educated South Africans. Everybody had something to say that seemed to come straight from a political banner or out of the 2012 handbook for political correctness.

Bottom line: WeareSOoverit!

 Between statements like:
"Racism is alive and well in post apartheid SA" (but hey - I am saying it, so clearly I am one of the good guys)
"We are now officially colorblind " (some of my best friends are b l a c k )
" Affirmative Action is Reverse Racism" (and I am SO going to leave this country if  some b l a c k person is getting the job I want and deserve and, and, and..... that'll teach you!)..... and so on ....

We were just getting started to tear into each other in a civilised and controlled manner, when one of the younger students, fresh from matric (with b l a c k friends on the school-grounds) brought up the issue of the older, guilt ridden generation of white post apartheid survivors, who now smell and suspect racism in every innocent remark - whereas the younger ones, born post 1990, are so NOT affected by this stuff and manage to cross-culturally connect in a way that is totally oblivious of racial issues and yet at the same time has put the funny into racism.

So,  she told us, when they celebrate their matric, they play jokes on each other with mock certificates, where they give each other funny titles, like: wannabe gangsta and coconut....

My gasping for air was somewhat gleefully anticipated and I was promptly attacked with: you see, that's what you oldies always do, get all huffed up about a simple joke, that we (the young people) all understand and ALL laugh about, because (and here I quote verbatim):

It Is Actually True

When I managed to interrupt the rant to ask what about the term coconut in connection with a well educated and affluent person with dark complexion was actually "true" - I had the answer coming: because they act white and they know it and they actually laugh about it themselves.....

So  you are telling me that young black people in this country, who are getting a (traditionally white) education, learn to speak English (fluently as a second language) and are eligible for good jobs are actually acting white, because these are all white privileges?

There was an embarrassed silence in our little group and someone interjected with a soothing voice (it is after all a counseling course): I can see you feel very passionate about this....but .....
and luckily, right at this point the fire alarm went off - and we were all saved from exposing raw emotions and unbecoming opinions....

So back to the coconuts: what this incident made painfully obvious to me is that racism is so ingrained and so unreflected that racist assumptions have become popular truths - even in the mind of the "targets", the non-white persons who are labelled in such a manner and don't object because they actually "know it is true".

Having spoken to a Kenyan friend about this, there seems to be yet another dimension to the issue. In her opinion the term coconut is an accurate description of black people who have lost touch with their culture and language. As an example she described the fact that many educated and affluent black South Africans don't move to the suburbs but stay connected to their "roots" by living in communities in Soweto or Kayelitsha. Apparently,  a black person who lives "amongst white people" in the suburbs is regarded as a sell out by his/her fellow people and thus deserving of the term coconut.

Even though one might question the fact that "townships" created by an oppressive regime in order to segregate people are elevated to cultural heritage status, and one could also look at this as a way of hanging on to the past instead of moving forward to redefine black culture in a  post apartheid context, there is a certain true ring to this argument. Fanon, an author who I only came across recently, describes best the struggle for black identity in racist environments and how the suppressed becomes the suppressor  towards "the other" - xenophobia being one of the examples for this phenomena. Turning against people, who do not necessarily define themselves according to one or other traditional black culture but have assimilated two or more cultural heritages as is the case with mixed race people or people who grow up in a different culture to that of their genetic background, is a legacy of oppression and - in our case - apartheid. The psycho political environment of oppression is one of abuse and violence - and we all know by now that even when abuse and violence finally come to an end, the victims or survivors need to come to terms with what has happened to them.

Forgiveness and remorse are vital stepping stones on the journey to healing, and neither can be achieved through silence and denial. Apartheid might be in the past, but the past lives on and will continue to live on in each new generation of South Africans until we finally start dealing with it on a personal level. Even though the TRC has been one attempt of achieving healing and there are wise and clear voices to be heard amongst South Africans (Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela being one of them), ordinary people don't seem to want to talk about "it".  And when they do talk, it is on a removed, theoretical or political level, suppressing all emotions.

"We must move on" is the general consensus and talking about race, color, culture, racism and other hairy subjects clearly means to most people the opposite of moving on. And it is true we need more than just talking. We need an open an honest dialogue, we need to start talking to each other and not at each other, we need to step out of our comfortable peer groups and cross the divide of race and culture.

My challenge to myself this year is to start listening and talking. And when I next look around my dinner table I want to find myself amongst all shades of skin tones and cultures, excited and curious and maybe even slightly uncomfortable but most of all inspired and energised, knowing that I am busy creating a reality for my children, where having people in our lives who look or think or speak different is not the exception but normality, where talking about race and color and culture is not only political but also intensely personal and emotional and  where those emotions are not only allowed and respected but vitally important so we can learn about and from each other. It is only through our emotions that we connect with our humanity and find love and respect for each other.

And it is only through my beautiful children, who look so different from me, that I am on this journey! ..

xxxxxxxand last newsflashxxxxxxx...since yesterday, 11am, thanks to the barbercutter man,  Kala is now finally a true soccer boy,  mohawk and all!!!!! (that's Leah screaming nooooooooo way in the background :-):-))