Friday, September 04, 2009

SA’s collective discrimination: Being ‘Western’ is being ‘white’

Everything in this post makes sense up to the point just before the end. That's when Rod MacKenzie lost me with a few la-la- land ideas. I'd be interested to know if he went to teach English in China out of HIS choice because he should know that there can be no la-la-land unless everyone has equal oppurtunity.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I was at Rhodes University and included Afrikaans 1 among my subject choices. I will always remember the Afrikaans lecturers who insisted on referring to any Xhosa or Zulu-speaking female student as “that beautiful black woman with her impeccable Afrikaans” or that “wonderful black lady who got a distinction for her last exam”. “Beautiful” or “wonderful” or “very sweet black woman”. Every time adjectives like these would be strung together I would grin inwardly, feeling I had understood the roundabout, almost beseeching attempt to convey a non-racist, liberal attitude to me and other young “white” students. Of course, being a cynic, I found the descriptions ironic and twee.

Sure, the Afrikaans lecturers were sincerely trying to show they were truly non-racists or, if you will, liberal humanitarians. Bully for them.

However — and of course here is my however — in the first place the doughty Afrikaans lecturers were drawing attention to the student’s race, which then becomes a form of discrimination, as pointing out people’s race colour in talks about other students is unnecessary and invidious. Then, prettifying that person’s racial identity with adjectives like beautiful, wonderful and so forth was an awkward attempt to subvert a discrimination that — alas — had already been made. Ironically, “beautiful black” then becomes an unfortunate oxymoron, bringing back into semantic play the very racism our determined lecturer sought to oppose. Inevitably, what makes the gushy praise more unconvincing is that — let’s face it — not everyone is beautiful or wonderful or sweet. And, oh yes, they also had comments for the men (notice I say the men, not the Sotho or Zulu speakers) which would be something cringeworthy like “a very bright young black man”. Could the lecturer describing the young man not see his own mawkish patronisation? And yes, dear reader, “white” students never — again alas — received such praiseworthy adjectives. In fact, blessedly, we were never even regarded as “white”. This is because we were not “the Other” which, I aver, those gentlemen in the Afrikaans department were still coming to terms with. (The use of such descriptions for Zulu, Xhosa and other African-language speaking people was strikingly absent from the English department. I know some Afrikaners will find me bloody condescending and patronising here. I apologise, it is not intended: the above incidents are simply what I observed.)

Today I interpret those descriptions by Afrikaans lecturers as charmingly awkward attempts to try and figure out how to relate to the Other; the Other, in this case, being people whose mother tongues were Xhosa, Zulu and so forth. If among these eager Afrikaner intellectuals there really was no perceived sense of an Other, then the comically conjoined and immediately deconstructed adjectives such as “beautiful” and “black” would not have occurred in the first pace. The student referred to then becomes who she or he is in this particular role: a student. She is allowed her identity as a learner without discrimination. The effort by those lecturers to sound all lekker liberal (maybe even broad-minded, hey boet?) is … sigh … well the image of their effort that comes to my mind is of a 110kg rugby player trying to mince about in pink high heel shoes designed by Prada. He’s going to see his arse.

I am writing this blog because I was intrigued to see a remark on my previous blog by Solly about me referring to myself as a Westerner in China: “Why do you refer to yourself as ‘Western’? Aren’t you South African? Or does ‘Western’ also mean ‘White’?” I wish the dear fellow had answered these questions instead of leaving them hanging like accusing fingers. But, I thought to myself, to expand on his questions, if I refer to myself as a South African all the time, is commentator Solly’s belief then that I am not a Westerner? Why did the commentator have to take my reference to myself as a Westerner (in a story about my Chinese godchildren) out of context to try and make out — or so I sense — that Westernism is entirely a product of white people’s discourse? Was Martin Luther King not a Westerner? Michael Jackson? Is Obama? Now perhaps I am only asking rhetorical questions, leaving them dangling in the air like judgmental forefingers, or middle fingers.

But let me attempt to answer my questions and engage with Solly’s. I most certainly perceive myself as a Westerner in China. I aver that it is almost immediately obvious on coming here that you are Western, not Oriental or Eastern. Nor South African. You are defined by your context. I think and behave differently in many ways to the Other here (if I can use that philosophical term again, burdened with the hierarchical oppositions of the old, colonising Europe: Europe/the Other, master race/barbarians, Christian/heathen). After some careful contemplation, I conclude that I do not perceive myself as an African first, or even as a South African. I am a product of Western thought, not African. This understanding of myself is entirely necessary for my survival and wellbeing in China, and to allow me to make an honest examination of my own sensibility.

Why make honest examinations? Personal growth is important to me. My writing is important and I have learned long, long ago that I cannot write if I do no write authentically. Therefore, I need to allow my values to be transparent and seeing how they differ to Han Chinese values is crucial. Meditate on the following very carefully. A Han Chinese puts his identity as a Chinese first, long before his identity as a member or citizen of a nation. As the Chinese political scientist Lucian Pye puts it: “What binds the Chinese together is their sense of culture, race and civilisation, not an identification with the nation as a state” (emphasis mine). This has far-reaching conclusions that Westerners, especially South Africans in the context of this blog, simply cannot understand. So be very mindful about what your own sensibility is, your mental paradigms as you continue to read this. In China I am differentiated from other people here in a way that is not racism. I am of the Other, and sometimes, if not often, I am treated in a special manner that the Han Chinese do not offer one another. At a hospital I have been ushered to the front of a queue ahead of all the other Chinese patients to be treated. I get paid a lot more than my Chinese teacher counterparts. A lot more. The police crack down more heavily on Chinese crime against foreigners (yep, us Westerners) than against Chinese: crimes such as pickpocketing or grabbing your bag and running off. Those criminals can be looking at jail sentences of two to four years.

And now to compare. South Africa, from my perspective here in China, is trying (I stress the present continuous) to put its nationhood first but people constantly keep tripping themselves up over the race issue, endless, completely unhelpful accusations of racism and an inability to identify with other race groups (see Christi van der Westhuizen’s latest blog and especially the commentary that follows). In China, your identity as a (Han) Chinese*, culturally and racially, comes first and thus there is a strong identity throughout the nation (a collection of provinces and semi-autonomous regions) as a collective organism. This is one of the reasons why China is emerging as the most influential economic forces and it is predicted to be the major global economic force by about 2050. I chose Solly’s remark as it is so endemic to South Africa’s plight. It is accusatory, out of context and does not allow me “in” as a fellow member of the same civilisation, race and culture. His comment is an emblem of our internecine divisions and the myths we make of one another. We South Africans — and I am still a South African, though it is not my primary identity — seem unable to collectively see ourselves as one race, culture and civilisation. The possibility of that harmony is incredulous to some, indeed unthinkable. Yet in my heart of hearts I still believe it can be achieved.

The key ideas in that last statement were heart and belief.

*I am aware of clashes, such as the recent and ongoing riots in Urumqi and the minority Uighur. The Han Chinese are a majority at well over ninety percent of China’s population. I am not saying the Han Chinese’s collective identity does not have a dark side.

1 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

This set me thinking.

We are in fact the sons of the men of the North.

But, we are based in the South - in fact our country's name accentuates this.

But we are seen as Westerners.

We YT's in SA are truly unique.