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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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My (white) Response to Trayvon & Family’s Experienced Indignities | An Appeal for Primal Empathy

Conflict resolution specialist, Donna Hicks, argues in Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, that it’s easier to name experiences and feelings of dignity and indignity, than it is to define the word itself. This, in part, because we are “feeling beings,” who live and experience life through our five senses.

Assuming she’s right . . . What about you?

Can you remember occasions when you felt your dignity was violated?

Can you recall occasions when you violated someone else’s dignity?

In response to the Trayvon Martin jury verdict and the nationwide emotional outcries it has and continues to provoke, President Obama shared two personal examples of his own dignity being violated. He recounted being followed on suspicion of theft (or anticipated theft) while shopping, and hearing car doors being locked in fear as he simply crossed the street in the direction of parked motorists.

If we define dignity, as Hicks does, as a birthright, accompanied by feelings of inherent value and worth. And, if we define indignity as feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, then we might agree that shaming is one of the most common, unthoughtful, and insensitive acts against our fellow humanity, and the taking of an innocent life as the most abhorrent, tragic and emotionally wrenching.

A personal experience of indignity . . .

When I was in the 4th grade I attended a government school in Kisumu, Kenya. I was one of only two white expat kids, in an otherwise all black and brown (Asian Indian) school. Of the two whites, I was the outgoing, athletic type, and my counterpart might today be pegged as a member of the Geek Squad, yet who has the last laugh because he owns a Fortune 5000 company.

Despite my father obtaining a Master’s in math, little of his genes or self-confidence in math were passed down to me. Math has always been associated with shame inducing memories, only one of which I share.

A shame-inducing experience that resulted in me leaving the Kisumu school came about because I was cheating. I don’t remember who I cheated from, but I do recall trading many dime-a-dozen, Paper Mate medium tip blue ballpoint disposable pens for homework help. One day my Kenya teacher found me out, not for cheating, but simply for having no competency in following his instructions for an in-class assignment.

Whether he was exercising his then sanctioned authority as teacher to administer corporal punishment, or more likely in my opinion, using this opportune moment to “get back at” a perceived white colonizer’s son (Kenya obtained its independence only 7 years prior), I’ll never know.

I only remember that he grabbed my left ear, violently wrenching/twisting and lifting me out of my seat by it, then slapped my face with his large, open-palm, turning my cheek a bright ruddy complexion, and then roughly escorted me – dragged is more like it – down to the front of the class, where he scolded me before my classmates, then leaned me over his desk and gave my young white derriere a number of heavy whacks with a ready-at-hand and seasoned non-willow-like stick.

Years later . . .

My freshman year at Baylor University, I participated in violating someone’s dignity simply because I didn’t have the courage to act on what I knew was the right and decent thing to do.

Although all on-campus cafeterias are co-ed, I usually ate at Penland Hall’s cafeteria, a guy’s dorm. Several of the cafeteria staff were mentally challenged, and on this particular occasion a young white woman was pushing a cart loaded down with dirty dishes. Suddenly, there was a deafening din of falling and breaking dishes just 10 feet from where I sat. My head shot up. Actually all heads shot up.

The prior loudness of student voices and laughter contrasted with the punctuated stillness of stares in the direction of this young and challenged woman, who immediately turned beet red and dropped to her knees in an attempt to gather up and salvage the many broken and scattered dishes and food remnants.  The silence lasted only for a moment before students began to snicker and laugh and whisper unkind and insensitive remarks.

I remember feeling emotionally torn. I didn’t have the self-worth and confidence to identify myself with the mess or the mentally challenged girl’s predicament, nor did I disparage her by unkind words or laughter either.

I simply disregarded her humanity through my inaction, saying and doing nothing. I sat there and watched as one Baylor student got down on his hands and knees beside this embarrassed and shamed young woman, and helped her clean the mess up, impervious to what anyone might think or say of his actions.

You see, my evolutionary and innate self-protective instincts were in full operation that noon meal. Fearing ridicule by association I fought the impulse to demonstrate kindness, and instead chose to isolate myself versus connect with this young woman.

Hicks observes that “We might have entered the world with strong self-protective instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the course of our own defense. Awareness requires self-understanding and acceptance. It requires work. . . .

Holding up the mirror and taking an honest look at what we have done requires more than instincts. We have to tap into the part of us that has the capacity to self-reflect. We already have inherent dignity. We just need to learn how to act like it.”

Desmond Tutu wrote something to the effect that “Only when we begin to care about each other’s dead and dying will we begin to act like and experience being a (global) family.”

Hicks similarly observes . . .

If we are to achieve greater worldwide peace and become in some shape or form a conciliatory community, nation, even global family, then it will require a “developmental shift in understanding”; from an egocentric to ‘other’ point of view; from a mere cognitive understanding to a “primal empathy” (aka, emotional identification), “a feeling of what happens to them.”

Charles M. Blow, in Barack and Trayvon, states, “Only when the burden of bias is shared —  only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.”

In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith observe that –

“The social categories we develop are more than convenient groupings of individuals that simplify the actual diversities among the people we observe and encounter.  They are also categories that can bias the way we process information, organize and store it in memory, and make judgments about members of those social categories. . . . The manner of, the language used, and the persistency of our customary portrayal of people results in a corresponding thought, speech and action toward the ‘Different Other.’

As a WASPM (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male), I do not write to disparage my/our own sense of “white identity,” yet appeal to millions of us – women, included – to risk a momentary vulnerability and feeling of self-loss, in order to connect emotionally with the millions, whose life histories and stories were by no choice or fault of their own unprivileged to be on history’s victor side of socio-economic and political power.

Resist allowing your innate reaction to perceived social threat to be a self-protective one of “fight,” “flee,” or isolate and alienate yourself from the kaleidoscope of racial, economic, religious and linguistic diversity in our country.

Rather, risk a moment to listen to and hear the other’s life stories. Story – such as one person’s introduction to her own story below – has the transformative capacity to disarm anger and resentment, and to engender empathy, understanding, and ultimately resolution of conflicts.

I want to tell you about me in a way that you can hear, so my story will pique your curiosity, if not your compassion, about me and what my life is like. I want you to see me as a human being with the same dignity that’s in you.

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Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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