27 January, 2012 | Glenwood, Durban
“Even in a strange or unfamiliar environment we might find our way, given our familiarity with social form, with how the social is arranged. This is not to say we don’t get lost, or that at times we don’t’ reach our destination. And this is not to say that in some places we are not shocked beyond the capacity for recognition. But ‘getting lost’ still takes us somewhere; and being lost is a way of inhabiting space by registering what is not familiar: being lost can in its turn become a familiar feeling.”
–Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 2006
“Do you remember the early morning Do you remember the scars I showed you?
When we went back to bed?
When we found the first position? How I always said ‘Forever!’
And every muscle rested?
I do remember that I already knew
It was the last time
The last time for first positions
The last time you’d be mine.
--Ane Brun, “Do You Remember”, 2011
It’s been awhile.
It’s a balmy Friday afternoon here in Glenwood, where I sit at my kitchen table-cum-desk. It’s one of those rare days when it’s not overwhelmingly humid, in the good tradition of a Durban summer, and I have taken a strange gratitude in the quiet joys of wearing long pants for the first time since the season started. The next door neighbor’s cat, whom I have secretly named Truganini, is eyeing me from my windowsill, yawning with that weird mix of disdain and intense interest that only cats and serial killers seem to possess. It’s been a strange month, to be honest, and I’ve continued to feel the weird jostlings and discomforts of calling Durban home while continuing to be very much a foreigner, or studying the colonial past of a place where histories leave deep shadows over the present.
I’ve been trying to write, and it’s been a difficult experience. Inspiration comes at odd and convenient moments, when it chooses to come at l. I’ve instead spent most of my days diving deep into my archival sources, drinking worrying amounts of coffee, and reading a fantastic array of novels, hoping that the fermenting mash of ideas I keep pouring into my brain will ripen into some heady brew that I can properly bottle, feel clever, and justify my excessive lollygagging about. I am loving Durban, and I’m glad to be back here from Cape Town, even more aware of the fact that I have become part of a community (or a series of communities) here in eThekwini, and I am grateful to continue to be around inspiring and awesome people.
And yet, things have been weird. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am fundamentally incapable of actually just existing in a space without questions, anxious self-reflexivity, or Camus-style existential angst, but sometimes such a worldview gets tiring. I’ve been told by more than one person here that I “think too much” about life (and then promptly overanalyze such a prognosis), but I honestly don’t know if I can or want to be any other way. At any rate, it means that I get all of these crazy thoughts in my head, and I have to work through them slowly but surely, feeling as if I’m pushing my way through dimly familiar corridors, looking for spaces that make sense, that I can understand and recognize and embrace and feel marvelously in control about. As usual, this means that I open my copy of Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and thumb through its pages on finding a place, feeling lost, and getting (re)oriented around spaces. This week has found me struggling on sort of deep-seated emotional levels to grapple with thigns around me, and Ahmed, prayer, and excessive cups of caffeine have been proving moderately helpful in ‘finding my way.’
As I’m sure many of you are now tired of hearing, my research here in South Africa focuses on race, masculinity and questions of belonging in the colonial period, roughly 1850-1897. I look at ways in which race and masculinity can be mobilized not simply as identities, but as forces that justify claims of sovereignty or belonging amid differing groups in the region. It also means that I am constantly thinking about ways in which sexuality, modernity, race, and all of those good things overlap, interplay, and confuse the hell out of each other. So it was with great interest that I read an article in the South African news on Monday where King Goodwill Zwelithini, the head of the Zulu nation, made pretty derogatory statements about homosexuality, calling gays “rotten,” saying that such activities were untraditional, and an affront to culture. This rhetoric is not new, and is fascinating in the way that different groups push with and struggle with claiming authenticity, and validity in a modern South African state. In particular, Zwelithini’s comments line up with the deeply problematic statements made across the continent by civic and religious leaders in Africa that call ‘homosexuality’ foreign, unAfrican, and deeply wrong. Of course, many base this on a reading of imported Western Christian traditions, which apparently can be indigenized with less of a problem than the Western conception of same-sex attraction as a personal identity, but that’s an article for another time. I shook my head in irritation and anger at Zwelithini, made a mental note to add it to my file on African nationalism and sexuality, and thought I had moved on.
The next day, however, I logged onto facebook and saw that one of my friends in Durban, a gay white Afrikaner in his thirties, had written specifically about the event. “So Zwelithini thinks we’re dirty, eh?” he wrote. “Well then I can say he’s a Kaffir.” I blinked in quiet shock at those words. I could understand immediately the anger at the Zulu king basically supporting outright homophobia in a country rife with anti-gay violence despite the protection of all sexual orientations under the South African constitution. Yet, it was a classic moment racial vitriol that stunned me.
For non-South Africans, the word Kaffir has decidedly negative, derogatory, and racist colonial implications. It is rather analogous to the word nigger in North American discourse; originally an Arabic word for unbeliever, it was adapted by Dutch settlers by the eighteenth century to mean any and all black Africans living in the region, and soon became a term of outright abuse and disdain. It is complex, of course, in its meanings, but for a white person to call a black person a Kaffir produces a very similar sense of de-humanizing destruction that the word nigger does in the United States. To see someone I considered a friend write this about black Africans was incredibly conflicting and difficult to read. I felt personally hurt, and unsafe on a lot of levels, and I struggled to understand why.
Confused and upset, I went for a walk the next morning, trying to think exactly why I was so bothered. I kept Ane Brun’s song “Do You Remember” on repeat as I walked around the neighborhood. It’s a song about loss, about memories that no longer match up to realities, and about broken relationships, severed connections. It felt right.
I am not South African, I reminded myself as I walked. I am not even seen as a black person in this country. That word does not describe me. Yet it still bothered me, immensely. I thought more about it, and I thought about how in the United States, despite my mixed status, I am often immediately interpreted as black. My white mother becomes part of a larger swallowing of ‘blackness,’ and the discourses around that make me strangely aware of the way terms are used and developed. Thinking about this, I rounded the corner of a leafy, tree-lined street in my neighborhood, the guard dogs and my hair both wilting slightly in the heavy summer humidity. I paced further, thinking harder, ignoring laughing school children, blaring minibus taxis, and the world around me.
Two things came to me immediately. First, I could see the intersections of sexuality and race that were occurring here in this incident. Hurt by the king’s hateful words, and rightfully unsettled, my friend had responded with a word in his deck—a deeply dehumanizing word steeped in an oppressive, colonial past (and I’d argue a constant present). That someone I knew could find a racist term as a ‘backup’ in case of offense was alarming enough, but it still didn’t immediately impact my sense of deep involvement, a feeling of being unsafe. And then I realized that this was acting somewhat as an emotional trigger for me, reminding me of one of the worst parts of graduate school back in Urbana, Illinois.
In October of 2008, about five weeks into my education at the University of Illinois, I attended a party with a group of graduate students, mainly first years in the history department, but a few older students as well. After a while, we decided to play Trivial Pursuit, as nerdy graduate students are wont to do—especially after a few glasses of wine. One of my male friends in the department continued to roll the dice in a way that put him on the “roll again” square in the game—three times in a row. Upon the third roll, I looked at my friend and said, “Roll again, bitch!” Which he did, landing for the fourth time on “roll again.” I laughed and said, “roll again, bitch!” At which point, a white female student in our department, annoyed that I had said the word ‘bitch,’ looked at me point blank and said very loudly, “Nigger.”
I remember everything froze. I was suddenly aware of being one of only two people of color in a room filled with white students. The other student of color took one look, and left the party. I had no idea what to do or say. And I remember that not one of those damn grad students did a thing. They looked at me to explain it, to make sense of it, and to help them out. The older ones in particular were egregious in their cowardice, and left me to sort through a tangled set of feeligns involving humiliation, alienation, and questioning whether I even belonged in such a space.
I almost quit graduate school over that. It may sound silly to have been so ‘sensitive’ over such an issue, but when you are visibly a minority in a space that you don’t know, that you have yet to understand, and one that you struggle to know your place in, such an instance can be severely demoralizing. I had come to an ostensibly activist department in what I believed was a progressive minded university and felt safe among this circle of academics. Yet here was a progressive white woman who felt at the end of the day, that she could call me a nigger. Dehumanize me. Name me. Make me less than.
I understood why she was upset; yet, the scope of her response to me—not a simple “why are you using the word bitch?” Or “could you not say that, even to that male student?”—was so disproportionate, so blindigly personal, so unexpectedly hateful, that I was caught off guard. I thought I’d processed it, dealt with it, put it all away after three years. I was wrong.
I cried thinking about it yesterday, and realized that I was feeling echoes of that dehumanization again, and that I was trying to figure out why my South African friend’s words had stung so personally, besides their obvious racism. The memories of that incident, the realizing that this world is broken so fundamentally through its histories and legacies of racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry overwhelmed me again.
I emailed him and said that I was hurt by what he’d said, even though it wasn’t directed at me. He’d thought better of it since I’d first read the posting, and had already deleted it, but the memory was still there. I told him that I couldn’t reconcile my friendship with him with the action that he had taken—the idea that he could name people by a dehumanizing, foul term, one that denied the humanity of other people. I said that I needed to not be friends any more.
Why am I writing all this? Because I’m so painfully aware that Kaffir is not Nigger, that their histories are intertwined, linked, but not identical. Yet, I am a multiracial American living in South Africa, and this is one of those points of friction that hit hard. The traumas of pasts personal and historical, are lived in our presents. I had the theoretical wind knocked out of me by someone’s racist posting online in response to someone else’s homophobia. Does this mean that I need to figure out what triggers are and how to respond emotionally? Yes. Does this mean I’m being over-sensitive? I don’t’ think so. What I am taking most out of this incident, however, is that my own histories are constantly at play as I try to understand the history of this place, and that I am never a neutral observer. I’m once again trying to feel my way through a social corridor that is unfamiliar, as Sarah Ahmed might say. And even in moments where I am lost, or shocked into new sensibilities, I have to figure out what I’m doing, where I’m going, and why I’m doing the work that I do.
And so I’m pausing to catch my breath, and figure out what it means to be here, doing the work that I am, and why.
Thanks for reading.