How Can We Possibly Move On?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire, undertook a quest to destroy the ring of power, forged by the dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom. Along the way, the Fellowship of Frodo and his eight companions, is forced into the Mines of Moria. Lost in the labyrinth, with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel, Frodo lets out his frustration, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened.”

Many of us today feel that same sense of hopelessness: here we were, the United States of America, in the position to elect our first female president, who would carry on President Obama’s legacy and policies to continue to shape America into a more inclusive place that strived for its ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, regardless of race, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, or beliefs.

Yet, the power from the east, wielding fear, hate, anger, and distrust, proved too great a foe. So, here we are, stuck in a vast darkness, anxiety creeping up as inevitable injustices lurk like a pack of goblins waiting to swarm. How can we possibly move on? What was the point of everything Obama accomplished if it will all be wiped out and reversed in the next two years? How could Donald and his party, who stand for sexism, racism, discriminatory policies, and the perpetuation of inequality, win the 2016 election? I wish none of this had happened.

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Although written over 60 years ago, Tolkien’s wisdom, spoken by Gandalf to Frodo, sticks out the day after America let itself down. It speaks to the reason why each of us is here today. God has put us here to make a difference in this world: through the gift of life and the talents given to us, we have the opportunity to use every day to build a better country. We have been given the time to come together, listen, and act on our problems. Problems such as neglect for the urban poor who are trapped ghettos by continuous cycles of poverty; neglect for immigrants who seek the same chance at a new life the United States has given every family already here; neglect for those who are not valued as human beings created in God’s image.

Action doesn’t come from the national level; it starts with each of us getting involved in our respective communities. If you want the change started by President Obama to last, volunteer to serve those in need. If you want to see an America that is an all-inclusive place which does not “other” or isolate itself behind a wall, pursue it: write your Congressman/woman, attend city council meetings, voice your opinions, listen to your neighbors, welcome newcomers or those left out to social gatherings, be open to constructive criticism, and don’t exclude people based on lasting biases and prejudices.

If each of us makes a strong effort towards inclusivity and realize what it means to “love thy neighbor,” we can stand up against the bigoted force bred by our unwillingness to engage. This unwillingness hid our own “Ring of Power,” one that embodies racism, xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, dishonesty, distrust, and disrespect, until this election cycle. It’s time to look in the mirror and realize that we are self-righteous, broken, and cannot act on our own: we each other. Only then can we take up this ring and finish the journey to be rid of it, once and for all.

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White feminism is a narrative we would very much not like to be a part of

Written by Sabriyya and Jennifer

Feminism, in its most rudimentary form, is an ideal of equality for all genders. This ideal is highly contentiouswhat does equality look like in terms of language, biology, and politics? Informed by their myriad backgrounds and perspectives, individuals use different mechanisms to pursue equality in various ways. Simply put, there are certain types of feminism that miss baseline standards of others, a disparity most often exacerbated by a privileged ignorance of intersectional identities.

Specifically, we are referring to white feminism. Before we begin, we must clarify that white feminism, and its advocates who we will refer to as ‘white feminists,’ is not a term applicable to all white-classified individuals who believe in any feminist ideal. Rather, it refers to a recently popularized movement that is centralized on the struggles of white-classified women, which neglects the uplift of women of color. The irony of such feminism is that while some women protest and lavishly advocate for the right to bear skin and make greater capital gains, other womenprimarily women of colordeal with gender equality as it relates to more fundamental concerns of safety, health, housing, and stability.

These criticisms of white feminism do not seek to disqualify its concerns. However, ignorance is not bliss nor should it be treated as such; many white feminists are simply unaware of their privilege. At the end of the day, white feminists who speak out on issues of censorship and ‘white’ glass ceilings can often still afford to return to their homes and enjoy a relatively prosperous quality of life.

In South Africa, equality for a vast majority of female-identifying individuals (re: black-classified women) is about elementary principles of ‘fundamental human rights’ that international organizationsand Western nations in particularespouse on a regular basis. A community-based researcher at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union explained to us that workers in the textile industry—who are overwhelmingly black womenmust travel for hours to and from work by means of overcrowded vans (used as taxi-buses), trains, and manual walking. On these long journeys to work to support themselves and their families, sexual assault is extremely common especially now during the winter when daylight is brief. Peers on this trip were shocked to hear that the domestic worker of an attorney here in Cape Town was late to work one day because she had been raped. Sabriyya has personally heard a first-hand experience of a black woman who detailed her experience with daily harassment on the train to work.

We despise tokenizing the experiences of these women, but this is a point on choice and opportunity. Choice is a privilege that some women cannot afford: the privilege to choose a lucrative career path, to choose to live in a ‘favorable’ neighborhood (re: gentrification), and to choose to be vocal about an issue and expect their voices to be heard. White feminists laud women who make the right choices, but what is the ‘right’ choice when some women simply do not have those options? Whatever ‘success’ may mean in society, some women cannot access the choices necessary to attain it, while the choices of the more privileged define what ‘success’ means.

The exclusive privilege of choice breeds frustration that manifests in historical inaccuracies such as false statements implying all American women won the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, although only white-classified women were able to actualize this ‘right,’ and pretending that women make 79 cents to a man’s dollarthe classic statistic straight from the white feminist’s arsenal. That conglomerate 79 ignores the black women who make 64 cents to a white man’s dollar and Latinx women who make 54 cents. One only needs to look around in either Cape Town or in Durham to notice there is an underlying difference based on those who work service jobs and those who sit in offices.

It is frustrating as well that on issues of female health and safety, there are only some bodies the white feminist movement, mainstream media, and the law are willing to protect. The American media loved granting headlines to a Stanford University swimmer who had fallen from grace. While the focus was grossly disproportionate on Brock Turner’s accolades instead of on the victim and rape culture at large, any amount of attention at all is not afforded to most women. Why is there neither legal protection nor access to the media for the lower-socioeconomic single mothers of color, who are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual assault? It is a complex issue by nature: there are various reasons these cases are not reported, the lack of reporting nuances the data and research on sexual assault, the assaulter usually has some relation to the victim, and there are consequences the women may face in their communities. However, superficial proponents of women’s rights can no longer ignore the reality. The exclusion of some women from the conversation not only indicates that some lives do not matter, but also hinders progress to mitigate the ubiquity of sexual assault.

White feminism comes at the expense of women of color, but it also fails to recognize that some people who are not female-bodied face constant threats to their lives. In the wake of recent tragedies in the U.S., white feminism has been particularly painful to reflect on from our outsider positions in South Africa. So easily does white feminism ignore black lives that in 2011 a white-classified woman held a sign at Slutwalk NYC that quoted “Woman is the N* of the world.” Here in Cape Town as well are urgent issues beyond boy against girl. A lawyer with Lawyers for Human Rights explained to us that while Oscar Pistorius was given an abnormally quick ruling, (that would give him six years in prison for murdering his girlfriend and allow him to compete in the 2020 Olympics) the same case was going on across the street, but the victim and the shooter were both classified as black. That case had started before Oscar Pistorius was put on trial and yet is still going on. One can expect the ruling to be much less lenient for the black-classified man. From this, two facts are painfully clear: 1) fame and wealth allow for special access to legal protection 2) race determines one’s identity under the law.

Furthermore, recent moments in popular culture have been demoralizing to people of color as well as the non-white feminist:

  • White feminism is Taylor Swift creating a song and music video (re: Wildest Dreams) that depicts a romanticized vision of ‘Africa’ as a monolithic barren desert land without a single black person; it is portraying a colonialist fantasy that was founded on a disregard of blacks from the perspective of the colonizer, and still being lauded as an advocate for empowerment.
  • White feminism is the reason why Lena Dunham can criticize Kanye West for showing a bare breast in a mode of artistic expression (to make a subversive point about the woes of fame), while she continues to strip nude for photo-shoots and for her TV show (which despite being set in NYC, neglects to include a single black female cast member).
  • Again with Swift, white feminism is her accusing a black-classified female artist for pitting women against each other when she is told about the perils of the entertainment industry’s obsession with thin and white-passing women. Her concept of feminism gets away with ignoring race issues while advocating for a sort of feminism that is based on ‘sticking together.’ It is her “girl squad” of wealthy, tall, thin blondes (along with an average of two women of color) whom she ‘sticks together’ with through thick and thin.
  • It is her delivering a speech about “feminism” after receiving the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2016 while standing on a stage surrounded by male collaborators for the album. Her award represents two sources from which she has profited: the millions of album sales those men helped her achieve as well as her twisted platform of “feminism.”

To quote Dianca London, “When whiteness, affluence, and mainstream standards of desirability coexist in a systemically loaded space like the Grammy Awards, it is paramount that we examine the allotment of agency that is given to women like Swift. Although West’s comments about Swift are inherently sexist, his misogynistic behavior does not give her a pass for failing to check her own privilege as a white woman. Her recent win and the words with which she chose to commemorate it are only empowering for a certain demographic. Her accomplishments, regardless of how deserving they may be, are a glaring reminder of the societal and economic benefit of whiteness and white femininity. Her triumphs are celebrated while her contradictory behavior remains overlooked. If Swift continues to ignore the intersectional implications of the allotment of agency awarded to her identity in contrast to the identities of those around her, she is surely doomed to keep second-wave feminists’ failures alive and thriving.”

It is time for popular culture icons to consider at times giving up their white feminist platforms, which benefit few others than those who profit from the appropriated issues at stake. This is no longer a petty celebrity feud between Taylor Swift and Kimye. Celebrities who hop on the trendy white feminist train make capital gains at the expense of women who face threats to their ‘fundamental human rights’ every day. Feminism can no longer be a capitalist venture so long as there are minority communities who cannot access the same feminist dialogues and the same basic rights as the few white feminists for whom capitalism has been favorable. There needs to be a collaborative intersectional feminist dialogue, which cannot happen in the prevalence of white feminists who ignore intersectional issues and whose privileged voices are unfortunately heard the loudest.

The tragedy of social movements is the misunderstanding of intersectional identities that exacerbates division by pushing some people up at the expense of others. While we must criticize popular culture and force it to rethink its stance, we must also brainstorm individual action in our own lives to remove white feminism from the forefront of feminist and womanist movements. Our DukeEngage group in particular has recently been discussing what this means, though it is not enough to recognize one’s privilege: one must actually ‘give up’ some of it. While some may have struggled to look beyond reaching realizations and concluding that understanding privilege is ‘good enough,’ we have been thinking about actionable tasks to actualize intersectionality:

  1. Do not save conversations about social difference for the classroom. If a facet of your identity is a source of privilege, make it your issue too. All the time.
  2. Avoid rhetoric of “not seeing race” and endorse racial solidarity that may be rooted in racialist language. However, refuse to endorse racialist divisions when it does not create solidarity.
  3. Avoid rhetoric of “oppression olympics.” Be active and eager to enter conversations despite your privilege. You do not need to be the ‘most oppressed’ person in order to be involved. Just know that it is not always your turn to speak.
  4. Do not expect anyone to educate others on ‘the story of their people.’ Do not generalize or tokenize the experiences and lives of others.
  5. Acknowledge your flaws and seek better understanding. Do not allow hubris to get in the way of conversation and progress.
  6. Stop cultural appropriation.
  7. Don’t expect that revolutionary change is a one-day affair. Keep learning, engaging, and listening. Continue to hold the hands of your sisters.
  8. Recognize the scope of intersectionality; it is more than a matter of skin colors. We ourselves write from a mainly Western feminist perspective, and while that limits our understandings, that does not mean we can disrespect that which we do not know. Feminism should be about being inclusive and not speaking for others, but not dismissing their legitimate but unique plights either. Working from an understanding of the different cultural contexts of womanhood legitimizes a true affirmation to the underlying feminist ideal of equality.

Frankly, we, feminists, do not need this division between white and black feminism. The advancement of all women should be a multifaceted approach, concerned about the prevalence of sexual assault in less economically developed environments and the double standard against women versus men when it comes to censorship in the media. However, dear white feminists, to pretend as though your concerns are what feminism stands for, is disingenuous. To exploit the theories of women of color and project them onto your own experiences, is disingenuous. You can neither forget intersectional frameworks nor disregard the plights of your sisters fighting against a culture that appropriates their bodies in a society you subscribe to or ignorantly live in when it comes to standards of beauty and their larger wage gap.

After all, how can we fight for equality from unequal grounds?  None of us can ever truly be equal until we all are.  Regardless of identity, all proponents of social equity must join in the struggle towards the uplift of all peoples.  All women of color—queer, religious, financially disadvantaged, able-bodied or not—deserve the right to agency over their own bodies and experiences.

Posted in Jennifer, Sabriyya | Leave a comment

Are You Homesick?

Along with “why are you here?”, I’ve gotten this question a lot while I’ve been in Cape Town. Each time, without hesitation, I’ve responded with an emphatic “no.” How could I be homesick? The culture, the food, the people, the nightlife…my small town in Minnesota pales in comparison to the magnificence of Cape Town. My parents sadly ask me on the phone why I want to stay, perhaps thinking I don’t want to see them (I promise Mom and Dad, that’s not it).

However, nature has a way of settling things sometimes. After a bout of illness and a lull at work, I am feeling more ready to leave. At the same time, I am starting to feel the loss of things that have created home for me the past couple of months. When I go to a local restaurant, I realize that I may never return. When I see Chrisslyn at the coffee shop, I understand that it could be the last time. Goodbyes, even when unspoken, have been difficult.

There are some things I will not miss about Cape Town. I will not miss the ogling glares and forward advances from men. At least five times this weekend I was asked if I had a boyfriend or if I was married by men who wanted to dance. Even an Uber driver questioned me about my supposed husband. Following my morning workout, a man followed me and asked where I went to yoga class so that he could come too. These approaches are mentally and emotionally taxing. I don’t feel like I have the energy to rebuff them anymore, leading me to sit in silent resignation. While not unique to Cape Town, these advances have felt much more pronounced here than any other location I’ve visited.

There are also plenty of things I will miss. Stunning views, an open and dynamic political environment, my work, the friends I have made. Living in Cape Town has opened my eyes to an entirely new culture, but at the same time it has reintroduced me to my own. I will return much more aware of my surroundings, including things I am grateful for. Cape Town has helped me remember how appreciative I am of home-cooked meals and high-speed internet. I look forward to the summer weather and indoor heating in the winter. The seeming minutia of daily life’s comforts suddenly seems much more exciting to me.

I will also return with an increased awareness of prevalent issues in South Africa. Both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, cases of racial and sexual discrimination were overt. I felt constantly confronted by these issues, especially because of discussions with other DukeEngage students. However, these issues are prevalent in the United States as well; I need to be more cognizant of these issues in my own home and take initiative to have conversations about them with my peers. While men in the US do not seem quite as forward in their advances or blatant in their sexism, this misogynistic behavior is still unbearably common in the US. Police brutality in the US continues, and black men are being gunned down by cops thirty minutes from my hometown.

The sharp awareness I have gained toward these issues in Cape Town is perhaps heightened by the seemingly open culture of South Africans I have met—they are not afraid to speak candidly about contentious issues. Through discussions with my DukeEngage group and others here, I’m starting to learn how to talk about race and gender relations more openly. These open discussions have revealed to me my own ignorance about many of these issues. As I am sure many Duke students can relate with, I do not like not knowing the answer or, even worse, admitting that to my peers. DukeEngage has allowed me to accept that I don’t know all the answers; it has taught me to be a listener. It is okay that I don’t know everything right now, as long as I am willing to look for other perspectives, for deeper understanding, for solutions I can be part of.

I don’t leave Cape Town homesick; I am sure I could spend weeks here and feel like I am never getting enough. But I am ready. I am ready to take back what I’ve learned, to see my home through a new perspective, to more openly listen to the perspectives of others, and to enjoy some Netflix.

Posted in Anna | 1 Comment

Platitudes

As with so many other politicized issues, conversations around race relations in many places, specifically in the so-called intellectual enclave that is supposed to be Duke, seem to often subside into mere platitudes, words meant to sound good and smart and interesting, but nothing more than that.  Yes, this is a sweeping generalization, but I think this applies to more people than we would think.  I know that I am certainly guilty of this.  And if you’re reading this and thinking it doesn’t apply to you . . . please think again, and think about the differences between what you say you believe and what your actions actually say.

Below are some jumbled thoughts stemming from my thinking around this issue.

The word, “diversity” is an interesting example of a word that has a multiplicity of meanings depending on where, when, and about what it is used.  At best, it seems to be used as an empty rallying cry, wringed of significance and utilized as an effective buzzword.  At worst, it tokenizes experiences and people, reducing them to flat caricatures, to numbers and into boxes.  In a conversation a few weeks ago with Kelsey, our site coordinator, I talked about learning more about what is meant by “white-conforming,” a term I have seen in several blog posts.  She pushed me to not simply adopt this rhetoric, but to pinpoint exactly what is implied by it.  It was an exercise I had never thought of before, but after our conversation, I recognized the significance of being forced to confront and identify the meanings behind this sort of broad language.  Convenient terms like “white-conforming,” “economic apartheid,” and “diversity” can minimize the implications of the issues they seek to communicate and encapsulate.

So, in regards to diversity – what does it actually mean?  Why is it needed?

When I entered high school, I switched from my public school system to a small private school nearby.  I distinctly remember being struck by how much less diverse the school was, and thinking how strange it was that the admissions director and teachers proudly talked about the school’s incredible “diversity.”  But because I had never thought critically about my identity or the validity of this new status quo, I simply shrugged and moved on.  Maybe this is what diversity is, I thought.  In popular institutional use, diversity seems to be publicized as some vague social state to strive for, as if somehow just throwing people who look different into one place will spontaneously spread tolerance, acceptance, and allyship.  How is diversity achieved?  Unofficial quotas?  Carefully planned photo ops featuring smiling students of different backgrounds?

During our past reflection session, our two student facilitators posed a question about whether we feel a part of Cape Town or like we are still strangers.  This led to a conversation about how integrated we truly are, and Jennifer asked, “What does integration actually mean?”  Even if Cape Town weren’t as segregated as it is, even if we weren’t living in a majority white, wealthy neighborhood of a popular tourist destination, would we be “integrated” with the surrounding community, with people who are different from us, both in terms of (socially constructed) race and socioeconomic class?  Would Cape Town-ians be?

My high school advertised itself as diverse.  And in terms of numbers, fine, let’s say that maybe it was.  But it’s not enough to simply create environments that from afar can look multicultural without actually actively encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones, which are often with those who look similarly, act similarly, or participate in similar activities, all of which are elements that are largely driven by culture and background.  I don’t know how this can be done.  I wasn’t thinking about things like this in high school.

Hanging out with people who are similar to you is not necessarily a harmful habit itself.  I’ve seen some interestingly nuanced uses of the concept of self-segregation.  People will gripe about minorities who self-segregate themselves, who largely only hang out with people with similar backgrounds, but will say nothing or not even notice the ways in which white people tend to act similarly, such as through the privileged and predominately white enclave that is Greek life.  I think being comfortable around those who have parallel backgrounds to you is natural and fine, but this can quickly transform into building up barriers that prevent open discussion between people who are different.  Even more harmful is failing to recognize ways that these groupings or how you have conducted yourself have allowed this to happen.

This brings me back to my first thought about what I see as platitudes.  People on this program, and people at Duke in general, like to see themselves as open-minded, flexible, and eager to learn.  From some conversations I have had here as well as just thinking back to discussions I’ve had this past year with peers about social justice issues on campus and beyond, I am really not sure how true this is.  You must know that you don’t know everything, and you can’t possibly know everything.  You must know that just because your perspective differs that others’ are not invalid or less relevant.  Of course, no one would ever say outright that they think in such a narrow-minded way, but it is clear from actions and blatant unwillingness to see issues or situations through frameworks that seems alien.

This is incredibly dangerous behavior, and one I have seen all too often recently.  I have learned about issues on this trip through my own personal framework of thought, informed by my academic and personal experiences.  But this framework has been challenged, and I have tried to put myself in situations, at least more than usual, in which this happens more often.  This requires a stifling of ego (please, just for a second!) and just getting over being self-defensive.  This is not to say I haven’t made mistakes, and that there haven’t been times where I have felt offended and wanted to defend my views completely for a while.  But I am here to learn, and how will I ever learn if I am not challenged?

You have to be willing to be wrong.  You have to be willing to admit that you may have been wrong in ways that are harmful and structural. What I think is particularly relevant and important:  You have to be willing to see and understand how your social interactions are shaped by broader issues of socioeconomic status and race; you have to at least try to look through other people’s frameworks of perspective and thought.  And know that in different ways, we are all perpetrators in perpetuating these cyclical issues, but we can still find ways to lessen this impact.

An elementary statement, nonetheless a vital one to repeat, especially as we approach the end: Before you try to understand broad global social justice and human rights issues, look within yourself for the problems – and beginnings to solutions – first.

Posted in Archana | Leave a comment

The things you don’t notice

I’d like to say that I’ve been perceptive during my time in South Africa. I’d like to say that I’ve been aware of my surroundings; that I’ve picked up on how I’m treated differently because I’m a American; that I’ve noticed how I interact with and affect others in our Duke Engage group. However, as my time here comes to a close I am forced to confront the fact that I have not been perceptive enough.

This realization came this past Tuesday. SACTWU has been incredible about getting us out of the office and into factories, arbitrations and meetings. (See my past blog post “34” for my thoughts on visiting a factory.) On Tuesday COSATU, a major trade union federation in South Africa, was holding a protest against MetroRail and PRASA, the main forms of public transit for the many Cape Town residents who live in townships. The trains are notoriously, almost incomprehensibly, bad. They are frequently late, sometimes stop running completely, and often halt halfway to their destination, forcing people to find another mode of transportation. Overcrowding is the norm, with people hanging out of and standing in between the cars. Additionally, rates of crime on the trains and train platforms is incredibly high, since PRASA refuses to provide security guards.

The failure of the Cape Town trains is more than just an inconvenience. It leads to a tangible loss of income when people miss hours at work because of late trains. Workers are forced to pay for secondary transportation when the trains stop running, in addition to the cost of a train ticket they are never refunded. It means that workers wake up at 5:30 am to get to work on time and don’t get home until 7:30 in the evening, losing sleep and time with their families. The high levels of crime on the train not only cause daily anxiety for workers, but also sometimes lead to the death of a loved one and the emotional devastation and financial difficulties that will likely follow.

Let’s consider this in comparison to the MyCiti buses. Bright, red and blue buses with fairly consistent schedules, formal bus stops and security cameras, MyCiti buses are how I get home from work and are transport I take for granted. I have griped about the fact it takes me, on average, between 45 minutes and an hour to get home. However, I have never felt unsafe, and, in general, use my time on the bus to debrief the day with the other two students at my placement.

During the protest, various representatives from COSATU and unions spoke about the problems with the MetroRail trains. The crowd was receptive to the passionate speeches, cheering and clapping when they agreed with what someone said. I can’t remember who said it, but at some point in the protest one of the speakers shouted: “We want to tell the Cape Town government that the MyCiti buses must not go to only the white areas!” The crowd erupted.

I had not even realized that there was tension and dispute over the routes of the MyCiti buses. I thought it was convenient that they ran to Camps Bay, as it is a nice place to go watch the sunset. I took it as a given that there was a bus stop a couple blocks from our bed and breakfast. I had not considered how odd it is they run 30 minutes down the coast to Hout Bay, a relatively small town, and yet don’t run into the Cape Flats, a densely populated area where public transport is desperately needed. The buses run to neighborhoods where almost every household already has a car, while the trains are one of the only options of transport for households in townships.

Faced with this statement about the MyCiti buses I immediately realized the accuracy of what the woman was saying, forcing me to consider how I could have been oblivious to it previously. I could have seen this bias towards wealthy, and therefore mostly white, neighborhoods in the route maps posted at the MyCiti bus stand. I could have noticed the types of people taking the buses and questioned this observation further. To be completely honest, it was a small personal crisis of sorts; I consider myself a perceptive person and yet was faced with glaring evidence of my ignorance.

This experience has led me to reflect on what other things I haven’t noticed during my time here. What have I taken for granted? What has my identity allowed me to ignore? I wish that I had been aware of this ignorance earlier, however during my last week (and once I return home) I intend to keep my eyes open and choose to notice things that make me uncomfortable and attempt to recognize hallmarks of my privilege.

Posted in Kaia | Leave a comment

Be aggressive

In recent conversations the term ‘aggressive’ has made several appearances that extend beyond the typical observation about the fleet of drivers that speeds down Kloof Nek Road each morning. Those usages have been inaccurate—it is, for example, not aggressive if someone posts a curt GroupMe message (a few options that are more accurate and descriptive: stern, urgent, direct)—and they are dangerous.

1. The word is a disqualifier. Any action deemed aggressive is instantly dismissed. Rather than contemplating the content of ones ideas or behaviors, it is much easier to disqualify them for their lack of sensibility and to deem their actions unnecessary. The result is hindered conversation.

2. It is a one-word scapegoat to deny criticism toward oneself. If someone is upfront and says something brutally honest, what better way to avoid feeling belittled than to not take them seriously? If a superior tells you off, what better way to save face than to proclaim that they are unfit for their position? Pulling ‘aggressive’ out of your pocket whenever necessary confrontation arises is as audacious as plugging your ears and humming to yourself.

3. Calling a woman ‘aggressive’ has become a habitual verbalization of misogyny. I can only recall hearing the word used once in recent memory to describe a male whereas I’ve heard it used against women nearly every day. If the default response to a forthright woman is to dismiss the content of whatever she says, is it a better alternative for women to remain silent unless their words hold nothing of substance?

The habit of ‘aggressive’ translates into dangerous inaction. At the V&A Waterfront mall this weekend, a group of men were obscenely commenting on various women. Sabriyya audibly chastised them; she wanted to make a point and she wanted them to hear—she wanted to be aggressive. So she matched their obscenity and used it against them. She should have received praise from her female peers for taking action to challenge insults that demean women everywhere, but instead was met with condescension and rolled eyes.

Dismissing an aggressive person only happens when they are challenging social conventions. If the aggressor stays within the lines of the social script (the men hyper-objectifying those women publicly), even if everyone should call them out for their damaging irreverence, very few people do. Much more aggressive than Sabriyya’s comment were the men, but Sabriyya’s aggression was perceived as a sign of weakness and lost control. To roll your eyes, pat her on the back, and tell her to calm down—to be passive—is to be complicit in the social norms that are actually aggressive and violent toward some people. We cannot accept the belief that “guys like to fight” or that “boys will be boys”. It is not natural for men to dominate and abuse women either verbally or physically—we let them become that way.

We need confrontation. And for people who are constantly silenced by society, aggression is necessary to disrupt oppressive regimes. Instead of characterizing people as belligerent for expressing a contrary opinion, it is much more important to listen—otherwise, we cannot hope to address social inequities. If it is aggressive to stand up for myself and for the right to speak, then I really wouldn’t mind being that way.

Posted in Jennifer | 1 Comment

Working at Sonke

For the past several weeks I have been working at Sonke Gender Justice Network in the Policy Development and Advocacy unit. Sonke’s PDA unit works to influence South African and global policy decisions on gender equality, gender based violence, and sexual and reproductive health rights. During my time here, I have been tasked with helping the Stop Gender Violence Campaign, and it has been an incredibly formative experience for me both professionally and personally as a woman.

As a public policy major, working at Sonke has been both exciting and challenging for me. It’s exciting because I have been able to apply concepts I’ve learned in my classes to work on gender based violence, an issue that has become very salient in my personal life. Sexual violence in particular is an epidemic that is plaguing campuses from South Africa to the United States. It isn’t anything new, but finally people are starting to pay more attention to it as a result of a number of recent high profile cases. From these cases, it’s clear that both universities and legal systems have failed victims of gender based violence.

I say that work at Sonke is also challenging because while I do believe this is vital work, it is easy to become somewhat pessimistic about the end goal of the work. Part of the mission of the Stop Gender Violence Campaign is getting the South African government to adopt a National Strategic Plan (NSP) to end gender based violence. Sometimes I can be skeptical that this will actually change anything for women. It seems really far fetched to me and almost out of reach. This isn’t just about simply ending gender based violence – it’s about fundamentally changing the perception of the identity of women.

At the end of the day, I wonder if a policy will stop every catcall and whistle down the street, every unwarranted touch and grab on a girl’s body at a bar that she didn’t ask for, or every male that a girl has ever tried to just be friends with but didn’t end up as such. I’ve walked Long Street day and night and felt the eyes of strangers staring hard enough to burn holes through my clothes. I wonder if a policy can actually make me feel like I no longer exist only as a visual commodity.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a visionary, so perhaps I may be thinking too much in the short term and maybe that is clouding my judgment. But sexism, like any other form of discrimination, will always (if not in obvious ways) exist in subtle ways. Women have come a long way from 100 years ago, but we have also adopted and adapted certain practices and rituals into our lives that make us feel safer. We walk around with pepper spray, we hesitate to raise our hands in class, and we are trained to build a thick skin to inappropriate comments, cat calls, and everything in between. I want to know how policy will change this and how policy will translate to social change – I think Sonke has been a good place to start.

 

 

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Looking Back and Moving Forward

As we enter our final week in Cape Town, I want to to look back on my time here in South Africa, in addition to contemplating my experiences from the past week. So rewind back to seven weeks ago.

My trip had a rocky start. My flight out of Atlanta was delayed to the point that I missed my connecting flight to Johannesburg, so Akahne and I ended up with an 8 hour layover London and arrived in Joburg the morning after everyone else. At that point we hadn’t changed or showered in almost 3 days (tmi?), and we went straight from the airport to the Voertrekker monument, where within the first few minutes of the tour, the guide spoke about natives as if they’re people who just get in the way of white expansion. I remember thinking “If the other tours are like this, you might as well put me on the next flight home.” The rest of her 2 hour tour built off her initial remarks about native populations. Oh, and the airline lost my luggage, which showed up 4 days after I did. It was immensely frustrating at the time, but now that I’m here in the final stretch of my two months in South Africa, I’m very glad I came.

I’ve had so many memorable experiences packed into just one summer (winter?). I learned a lot (I’ll get to that eventually) but I also had a lot of amazing moments just taking in the stunning kind of nature that I’ve only ever experienced here. Early on in the trip we all hiked Table Mountain. I had never done such a challenging hike. I came expecting a mildly demanding trek uphill, but hiking Table Mountain felt less like any hike I’d ever been on and more like those intimidating stair-climber machines at the gym. Still, once we got to the top, those two hours I spent climbing seemingly endless rocky steps seemed very worth it. The view was amazing. This past weekend I tried hiking again, but this time we did Skeleton Gorge. That was also unlike any hike I’d ever done because it entailed climbing up a small waterfall, being literally dragged over a boulder by my apparently very strong friends when I couldn’t find a way to get climb over it myself, taking lots of pictures of the orange lake at the top, getting lost while looking for Nursery Ravine to get back down (we weren’t about to try to climb back down the waterfall on the Skeleton Gorge trail) and spending an hour on the wrong trail going towards Constantia Nek, accidentally falling off a large rock into some very dense shrubbery while we were lost (shout out to the dense foliage for catching me), and then eventually walking down Nursery Ravine very slowly and making everyone wait for me because my knees felt like jelly by that point.

But obviously I didn’t come to Cape Town for its natural beauty or the opportunity to mix sightseeing with cardio and a lower-body workout, I came to learn about South Africa’s previous system of apartheid, how the people freed themselves, and how human rights lawyers fit into this setting. In the process, I learned more about myself and how I fit into this setting. Even though I’ve felt like the odd one out in white spaces for as long as I can remember, being here made me more conscious of my non-whiteness. Apparently it doesn’t matter that my ancestry is majority Western European with only a quarter Arab and a quarter Indo-Guyanese. In public spaces, I felt like I was perceived and treated differently than my white peers. In reflection sessions and in personal conversations, my experiences fit much more closely with the majority of what other people of color shared. It’s interesting to me that it took a DukeEngage program for me to see just how fully my “race,” or perhaps my lack of a single racial category, influences my daily interactions. I mean, I knew my non-whiteness served as a barrier in the small town I grew up in, but it’s interesting to see how it works on a DukeEngage trip. For the past two years that I’ve been at Duke, I’ve been sheltered from having to think about my race, because my friend group has almost entirely been either people who are South Asian or Arab and I comfortably nestled myself there because I had finally found a space where I felt like I belonged, after a decade of living in a very white area. But my DukeEngage experience has caused my self-consciousness of my minority status to return.

While it was a rude re-awakening to remember that I have never been and never will be considered white, and that I will never reap some of the of benefits that come with whiteness (see my previous post), most of what I have learned here has not been disheartening. My internship at the Women’s Legal Centre, as well as the group discussion we had with Sanja from Lawyers for Human Rights, made me more sure of my life goals – I want to be a public interest lawyer. Working at an office full of women lawyers also quelled my concerns about following a legal path as a woman. I’ve often heard, primarily from men, that it would be hard to be “successful” (what are you defining as success? but that’s a topic for another day) in the legal field as a woman if for example you’d prefer to to work less when your kids are small, because “the law” is a competitive field. Maybe that’s true for corporate lawyers, but it doesn’t seem to be the case in human rights law. It seems like while people will do anything to get a corporate law job, it’s a bit difficult even getting all the human rights law positions filled, and there’s an unceasing need for people to advocate or litigate for underprivileged people.

Aside from reassuring me of my own future goals, my time here has also solidified for me the importance of grassroots action. South Africa has experienced revolutionary change within its policy sphere, but the lived realities of its people haven’t changed much. Despite the Constitution being a progressive person’s dream, the level of economic inequality here is still greater than any other wealth gap I’ve ever personally witnessed, and women face alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence. Add xenophobic attacks against migrants or refugees from other African countries, and you have a bit of a mess. The ANC government writes policy after policy, and these policies are great but they’re not implemented. Clearly, the top-down approach that has been taken so far is not the way to make real change. For many of the proposed changes to take root, there needs to be a change in the public consciousness, or else the legislation will be widely ignored by the public and impossible to enforce. For example, in the case of violence against women, writing new laws isn’t suddenly going to make men value and respect women’s basic human dignity. Real work has to be done on the community level, by members within those communities, to make that happen.

While I can’t say that there has been much change, there’s such a strong culture of activism here that I haven’t seen paralleled anywhere else that I’ve lived. Several weeks ago we took part in commemorating Youth Day, a day dedicated to remembering the value of youth activism and encouraging it to continue. I think the importance of a day like this can’t be understated. I think it says something about a country when it has a national holiday encouraging its youth to challenge the country’s systems of operation. Another important day for South Africa was celebrated just yesterday (July 18)- the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It’s celebrated as Mandela Day, a national day of service. On our way to work we saw an initiative to give local homeless people clothing. Volunteers had set up a “shop” by tying ropes between several trees and then hanging donated clothes on the ropes. Then the volunteers helped people find the size and type of clothing they were looking for. It looked like a good way to help the community because it treated the homeless with dignity and respect, and it required active engagement between the “haves and the have nots” of Cape Town who otherwise basically live in different worlds within the same city. WLC had their own Mandela Day plans. Once we got to the office, we only stayed for an hour before getting into the SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task force) van and taking part in an extended version of their usual outreach.

Usually a few WLC paralegals go with SWEAT each week to give condoms to sex workers, inquire about potential human rights violations against them, and help them fill out forms in the case of any harassment by the police or clients. But this time, we also brought cooked meals to them as workers in solidarity. Even though we were framing the activity as “workers in solidarity,” I spent a lot of the ride just being grateful that I was one of the workers in the van rather than one being helped. Solidarity is about mutual support, and it was hard to get into the solidarity mindset when it seemed to me that these women who were selling their services along the sides of rural roads realistically were unable to offer any support to us, a group of reasonably comfortable students and lawyers. Despite the discomfort I felt for their vulnerable situation, I hope taking part in Mandela Day with a solidarity-oriented approach made the sex workers feel respected rather than pitied.

From Day 1 up to today (Day 53!), I’ve been almost constantly challenged and changed with situations such as these where it’s hard to figure out exactly how to react to what is happening around me. But as our time here comes to an end, I think I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth from thinking through these challenges, and I hope I can channel all my other uncomfortable moments on this trip into teaching points.

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An Open Heart Can Go A Long Way

 

In my last blog post, I made a brief reference to the power of human interactions, no matter how short or long-lasting, in having an often inconceivable impact on somebody’s life. An encounter as brief as the few minutes it takes for the pedestrian lights to turn from red to green can suffice in opening your eyes or changing your perspective in one way or the other. Yet, while I am likely to remember the instances that had an emotional impact on me, I will never know if there were times where something I did had a long-lasting impact on someone else. One of the reasons we won’t ever be aware of how we change other people’s lives is because, most of the times, the person whose life we touch is unaware of it, too.

Knowing that we all possess that potent force to change people’s lives by the way we behave, talk, or react towards them gives everyone a reason to treat people with kindness and respect. Sometimes when I walk across campus at Duke, it can be as much as a smile from a stranger that can completely change my mood and make my day. Here in Cape Town, I can recall numerous instances in which someone changed my day for the better, most likely unaware of doing so.

Two examples. The Women’s Legal Center office is situated on the 7th floor of the Constitutional House in downtown Cape Town. In order to enter the building, you have to pass two security guards and sign an entry form. After one or two weeks, the security guards realized we’d be coming in and out every day, and started greeting us less as strangers and more as friends. One day, I left the building for lunch break, walked past the security guard and gave him the usual big smile, when he said “See you soon, Sisi.” Sisi, derived from both isiZulu and isiXhosa words, means ‘sister,’ as I found out through a simple google search soon after. I couldn’t help but smile when I walked back to the office that afternoon; even if he used the word in an almost routine-like manner, he nevertheless used it, and made me feel very appreciated and welcomed. And I was wondering what I could respond to show I appreciated what he said and valued our daily interaction. My professor, close mentor, and friend, Prof. Admay, who is from South Africa, would often end her emails to me with “Yebo!” which in itself merely means “yes” but carries with it a subtle expression of joy and excitement. Now, every time the security guard greats me or says “Goodbye, Sisi,” I say “Yebo! See you tomorrow” to show some form of cultural and personal appreciation.

Another person who made my experience here just a bit more special by making me feel appreciated, welcomed, less like a stranger, and more like a friend, is a guy named Tich who works at a coffee shop downtown. After I had ordered a latte with soymilk several times, he asked me “Do you like nicknames?” to which I responded with an excited nod.  He then looked at me and asked, smilingly: “Can I call you Soya?” I couldn’t help but laugh and responded with an even more excited nod. Since that day, every time I enter the coffee shop, I get greeted with a big smile and a kind South African “Howzit, Soya?”

Both the security guard and Tich exemplify the notion that it’s the small things that matter; both strengthen in me a commitment to treating people with kindness and being aware of the power bestowed in all of us to influence our immediate environment. It can be a few words you utter, a hug you give, a simple question you ask about someone’s well-being when you notice they are down, that can have a powerful impact and really make a difference in someone’s life. It can be as much as a smile to a passerby – it shows that you acknowledge that person’s existence; it is a non-verbal way of expressing: “I see you. I value you. You matter.” In fact, a simple smile directed towards someone can literally go a long way in the sense that it travels with the person you give it to. We naturally respond to a smile directed towards us by mimicking it, and by carrying that feeling of appreciation and respect on to the next person, we can create a wave of happiness that keeps rolling until someone stops it.

So, these were just two of the instances that mattered to me personally, where it is quite likely that the other person was unaware of the impact his words or actions had on me. And as already mentioned above, I think this applies to most of our interactions; we are fairly unaware of how we affect people’s lives, self-perception, and understanding of the world. Today, however, I experienced the feeling of knowing to have affected someone’s life in what was probably the most moving and profoundly emotional moment of the entire trip.

Today is Monday, the 18th of July, more commonly known here in South Africa as Nelson Mandela Day, a day where people recognize Mandela’s contribution to a culture of peace and freedom by following his formidable footsteps, trying to restore dignity and empowerment through small contributions. As we were walking to work in the morning, we realized a good amount of people seemingly lined up in a cue to wait for something. As we approached the corner, we realized that an organization had put up plastic walls with numerous hangers each carrying one piece of clothing. On top of each hanger was a sign that read: “Hang up and help out” – the organization was distributing clothes to homeless people as their contribution to Mandela Day. The way in which they gave out the items was special, too. The people were all lined up, and once they reached the front of the cue, one of the helpers stretched out her hand as an invitation to enter the ‘closet.’ The person could then walk around and pick one piece of clothing. Seeing members of the organization and the homeless people walking around, holding hands, trying on pieces of clothing and deciding on the perfect fit was extremely touching. While some services provided during Mandela Day can be considered patronizing in one way or the other, this one appeared to be truly empowering. We were standing at the side observing this act of kindness and dignity as I let my eyes wonder through the line of people awaiting their special moment, when suddenly I recognized a familiar face. Suddenly his eyes turned towards me and we stared into each other’s eyes… and gave each other the biggest smile. It was Winston!

 

Who is Winston? Before I continue my story, let me briefly explain who Winston is and how I got to know him. This past week at the Women’s Legal Center has been a very hands-on learning experience for me. One of the many projects the WLC is the so-called Sex Worker Project. Here, the WLC seeks to document human rights abuses, educate sex workers of their legal rights, provide legal advice, and advocate for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. Sadly, with sex work being illegal in this country, sex workers often suffer from human rights abuses by government officials and police officers and are not granted the same constitutional and human rights as others simply because of the nature of their profession. Many sex workers report being harassed by police officers, but have nowhere to turn for recourse.

Report harassment by a police officer to the police? Likely unsuccessful. Report harassment by a police officer to the police as a sex worker? You can imagine what I am trying to get at.

So, currently the WLC is trying to bring a case against a specific officer who is well known in the sex worker community for repeatedly harassing and arresting their members for no apparent reason. In order to make the case, we are conducting interviews to gather enough evidence to make a substantive claim. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in and transcribe a couple of these interviews; I heard the most heart-breaking experiences of people being beaten on the street, having marijuana planted in their clothes by one police officer and being arrested shortly after by another, and being verbally abused in ways that make your heart ache. One of the people I interviewed was Winston. He is clearly undernourished, nervously moving his legs underneath the table, and keeps reiterating “We must bring him to justice.” The lack of front teeth and his ripped shirt serve as indicators of the desperate conditions he’s currently in. The tears in his eyes speak volumes about the additional hardships he’s being put through by that officer. He’s just one of so many sex workers already living on the edge of society because of the exorbitant amount of stigma surrounding their profession. Listening to his story and talking to him brought to life the numbers and statistics I had read about, and it filled me with both immense anger and profound sadness. When we finished the interview, Winston thanked us repeatedly for listening to and documenting his story and for sharing in his hardships by simply being with him. Whether or not the case will be successful is subject to many forces completely outside our realm of control, but we promised we’d do everything we could to help him and all others. On my way back home, his voice kept echoing in my head… We must bring him to justice. I want justice. Not just for me, for others also.

Fast forward a couple of days.

Winston and I both recognized each other and recalled our recent interaction as soon as our eyes found each other. As we gave each other a heartfelt smile, he stepped out of the line and walked my way while I started walking his way. We both stretched out our arms as in invitation to hug, and embraced each other in a genuine hug that lasted a few seconds. His eyes were full of excitement and so were mine. His smile was bright and so was mine. As I’m writing this, I find myself unable to articulate any of the emotions I had when this happened. Some people surrounding us couldn’t hide their confusion when Winston and I hugged and laughed with each other. The differences in our outward appearance were innumerable, as you can imagine. He thanked me again for listening to him. He was so grateful for a simple act of empathy, for the willingness to listen, and for an eagerness to help. As we slowly left the street corner and he got back in line, I looked over my shoulder one more time, and once again, we looked each other straight into the eyes, smiled, and waved. The sunshine was filtering through the leaves of the surrounding tree. It was truly magical. My heart was pounding and I felt tears of joy in my eyes.

An open heart can go a long way, I thought to myself.

 

 

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Our Photography Workshop

On Monday last week Jennifer, D.J., and I taught and set up a photography workshop for “twenty” high school students in Cape Town. I put twenty in quotations because, in reality, closer to forty-five students showed up for our workshop. I was incredibly nervous, as this was not the type of work I generally participate in, but luckily it went very well. Other than one minor technological issue, the entire workshop went off without a hitch.

The first thing that became immediately apparent as the students arrived was, as our boss Mandy predicted, there would be no white students at the program. Thus I was not surprised, but I have thought about that topic a lot throughout our week of workshops.

Mandy frequently laments their inability to bring white students into their ever-growing group of students who frequent the museum’s programs, and I understand why. From my observations, it continues the mentality of “us” and “them.” For example, I remember during the night at the museum weekend programming with the primary school children, a young girl standing up and talking about how all white people supported apartheid because it benefited them. Mandy was quick to point out that this was not true, although she correctly did not deny that they all benefited whether they liked it or not.

I believe, as Mandy does, that the best way to educate these students about how a unified, and diverse, group can make a difference is to find a way to incorporate white students into these programs as well. It would obviously help the white children’s education, but I also think it would be good for the other students to add white students that truly care about these issues to the mix. Maybe I am just being optimistic by believing that they exist, but I wish I knew how to help Mandy seek them out.

However, I do understand why some of the current students may believe that white students do not have a place in these programs, and at a few times I felt a little bit out of place myself. This mainly was due to the fact that we were often teaching these students about their own culture, which frankly was kind of embarrassing for us as we believed they knew so much more than we did. While we may have felt this way, the students were incredibly welcoming to us and they appeared to be way more appreciative of our effects than angry about the mistakes we had here and there. Despite my nerves, these workshops were an amazing opportunity to interact with the local youth and hopefully teach them a few things that they can use in their lives.

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