Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Creating spaces

Today warrants a special post about positionality, spurred by 2 contrasting events which just couldn't help but strike home.

Positionality is that schmancy academic word to refer to who you are relative to who others are... and how you negotiate your identities within the given context of the interaction, laden with history, power, appearance, income, language, race, accent, gender and anything else that might affect how you interact with people or they you.

SA is just a complete dogs breakfast when it comes to positionality. How you walk, how you talk, your accent, your dialect, your dress code, your gender, your car... and of course your language and your skin colour!!... are all used to pigeonhole you into a VERY specific, well defined and excessively laden identity within 5 seconds of meeting and greeting, an identity burdened with history and violence. Due to our geographical separation, for many people of many different identities, some physical spaces are so unfrequented by people of certain 'races' that you stick out like a sore thumb, branded by your melanin as an outsider.

For a 'white' person, a township is such a place. More importantly, South Africans walk around excessively conscientious of skin colour: their own and other peoples'. One of the first things that struck my students is the difference in our skin colours (I'll write another post soon about how my students see themselves due to their skin colour--that's a completely different can of worms).

So event 1 today.  I completely lost any cogniscence of my skin colour. In the moment of doing maths with my boys at the whiteboard after school, we were chatting away in isiXhosa and it just didn't feature. Not a blip on the radar. My hand pointed to the number next to theirs, the colours were so obviously not the same and yet our difference just melted away. It was the first time I haven't felt 'white'. It was awesome. I was told by a student over the weekend: "Ma'am, sometimes I forget that you are white. I speak isiXhosa to you and I forget." Forget please, sana, forget away. The more you forget my 'whiteness' the better. The more I forget my whiteness, the better.

Which brings me to Event 2. We went to the local township library today (myself and my colleague, who is learning isiXhosa). We got to chatting while we were in the library with a group of junior school age boys... ok, I admit: I got to chatting with them. In isiXhosa of course! My poor colleague following along as I showed off. One boy, quite a bright young fellow, was adamant!!! He kept repeating in isiXhosa "no, but you're an umlungu! (white person) you don't speak isiXhosa". Over and over. Incredulity maybe?

Then he asked me "so where did you learn isiXhosa? where? where?"... getting quite angry and adamant that this thing he was hearing/seeing didn't make sense and he was going to get to the bottom of this trick I was pulling on him.

Him: "where did you learn isiXhosa? where?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "but WHERE did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "at school! I learnt English at school!! Where did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "at school. Like you".

It was the cutest teasing ever. This poor thing was besides himself. Such things cannot be, umlungus who speak isiXhosa. For his 7 year old mind, this was a trick. A trick he was determined to discover.

Then I became another boy's party trick. His friend came into the library and he bounded up to his friend and said "I've found an umlungu who can speak isiXhosa! Like PEH-FEKT-LEE. Like perfect!" (very flattering-my Xhosa is NOT perfect).
Friend: "no way, you are lying".
Boy: "it's true, it's true! That one there! (point at me)".
Friend: "uh-uh... no way"
Boy: "yers, like perfectly!".

Eventually, when I continued my conversation with the first boy, the second one turned to his friend and said in the most precocious voice "Seeeeeee, I told you so!". I was his party trick, his frog-in-a-lunchbox :) it was awesome.

What do we do when we defy others' expectations of us? How many spaces and opportunities do we create for real connection when we buck the very rigid stereotypes created by a system of racial and economic engineering which are still so ubiquitous in our South African society? I'm hoping that this is a really valuable lesson for my students: to not judge someone by the colour of their skin. In SA, it's a lesson we all need to learn again and again.

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