Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blowing This Pop Stand

I COSed ("Close of Service"d) last Sunday, and civilian life has been treating me well. In response to news from the medical office that I am anaemic, I have been living on a strict diet of chickpeas and spinach. Max joined me several days ago, and we have been running around Gauteng making preparations for our road trip. Tomorrow we'll return to Venda to pick up some things we intend on bringing with us and Monday afternoon, after having the car serviced, we'll hit the road for Botswana.

Our route is through Botswana, spending some time on the pans and the Okavango Delta, then up through the panhandle to the Caprivi. We'll spend some time in Namibia, then head east to Livingstone to see Vic Falls. Onward to Tanzania, where we'll visit Zanzibar's Stone Town and Kendwa Beach. Then to Arusha for crater-climbing and possibly a jump into a nearby park. Back down through Malawi, with jaunts across and around the lake. Finally to the coast of Mozambique for some scuba diving and down-time by the beach.

We'll be sleeping in a tent at whatever Catholic missions open their doors to us. Inspired by the Grapes of Wrath and general wagon-training imagery, Max has procured a harmonica for the trip and intends on favoring audiences of fellow travelers around bonfires. I imagine intense eyebrow-furrowing will be involved. I thought about getting a tambourine, but that would probably mean investing in a new wardrobe, maybe castanets as well. I think probably the harmonica and the tambourine are symbols of contrasting travel moods anyway.

In any case, watch this space! I hope to update more regularly.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Stop Bugging Me for Deep Thoughts

I have one week left at site. One week to pack away two and half years of stuff, to finalize projects at work and to say goodbye to friends. And I mean that in a matter-of-fact way, even if it seems to drip with sentimentality. It’s a short amount of time to get a lot done.

I feel suddenly pressured to reflect on everything, to talk about my feelings, to generate some concise and meaningful observations about life that might fit in a fortune cookie or on a bumper sticker. Admittedly, some of the pressure is internal. In any case, summing up any two and half years is a difficult exercise.

Yesterday, I met a Peace Corps Volunteer from SA17 placed in Venda and doing her site orientation this week (you are pardoned for forgetting that my group was SA14). She seemed nervous. It made me reflect on how I got here, what my own site orientation had been like and how I had felt in her shoes. My sense is that it wouldn’t have been half so easy without Thula. Day 1 she invited me to a soccer game, we made it on prime time television and that was pretty much it. Easy sailing. She showed me the ropes, the ins and outs of Thohoyandou, installed me in a jumping social scene and schooled me in the gray arts of negotiation.

A couple months ago, she got in a car accident. The story is not mine to tell, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she commented on it in this forum herself, but it was a serious accident, she was hospitalized and she is recovering in typical Thula fashion: upbeat and funny. I guess this last blog transmission, as my brother likes to call them, is dedicated to her. I wish I could be half so brave.

Okay, here’s my deep thought, less a pearl of wisdom and more a turd you might get stuck on your sandal in the back alley behind the School of Athens:

Everyone has bad days everywhere.

I think this to myself whenever I am in danger of thinking something ignorant because things don’t turn out my way.

In conclusion, an anticlimax: this probably is not the last blog transmission at all! And! Buffy wasn’t a vampire slayer at all – she was actually insane and institutionalized! Season 6 was weird. Ahem. Max and I will be going on a road trip in a couple of weeks and I hope to update the blog whenever I have access to the internet, hopefully more often than I have been. A sketch of the itinerary: a 2 month rough figure eight, up through Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, back down through Malawi, Mozambique and finally to Jo’burg for a 11 June departure to London.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Is it Racism (Sexism)?

RoboTom is rereading Inga Muscio’s Cunt: a Declaration of Independence and he’s disappointed. RoboTom is disappointed by what he feels are Inga Muscio’s offensive and off-putting tirades which he characterizes as “sexist”. Is Inga (“the Gringa”) Muscio being sexist?

I find more salient parallels for me personally in my day-to-day existence here. My lunch break is around the same time as when two secondary schools next to my office get out. Daily I walk through this gauntlet of adolescents who shout racial jeers at me; “accidentally” bump into me or knock their friends into me; or just point and laugh. Or at a concert I once attended, one of the headliners featured a clown in white-face. Actually, I don’t think I would have realized what it was if it weren’t for everyone sitting near me turning around to look at me and laugh. When I asked my friend if the dude was supposed to be a white guy, he says: “yeah, but it’s a joke.” This sorta stuff is the landscape of my days. It makes things uncomfortable and sometimes hurts my feelings, but can it be called “racism”?

Can racially-based negative attention white people receive here be characterized as “racism”? (Or, to address RoboTom’s disappointment, can a woman be characterized as sexist if she evokes The Man in a book about how to liberate oneself from the pervasive reach of patriarchy?)

Racism is not just about discrimination. I can discriminate between two brands of chocolate because one has a shinier label. Racism is about creating a hierarchy of humanity where the objects of racism are denigrated to lower levels of humanity. Now I am borrowing heavily from Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity, but it seems to me, disgust plays a role in racist maligning. Nussbaum talks at length about the relationship between disgust and an emotional need for innate superiority: “Because disgust embodies a shrinking from contamination that is associated with the human desire to be nonanimal, it is frequently hooked up with various forms of shady social practice, in which the discomfort people feel over the fact of having an animal body is projected outwards onto vulnerable people and groups. These reactions are irrational, in the normative sense, both because they embody an aspiration to be a kind of being that one is not, and because, in the process of pursuing that aspiration, they target others for gross harms” (74-5). Think back on theoretical justifications of racism by its perpetrators – how often do you hear language about disgust and a racially-banded hierarchy?

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about racism (as of 1997): “a belief that some races are by nature superior to others; also: discrimination based on such belief” – and discriminate: “distinguish, differentiate; to make a difference in treatment on a basis other than individual merit.” I think in the above scenarios we can agree there’s discrimination taking place, but is it based on the belief that white people (or men) are by nature inferior?

No. My skin conjures some pretty awful memories and associations. After years of living under a white regime which relegated everyone else to cordoned off (often uninhabitable) areas; policed their movements; and brutally tortured and killed innocent people – quite a few people (at least as many who make racial comments to me) harbor reasonable anger against white people – and anger, even if it is now misplaced, is not the same as racism. And maybe not every white person participated (although I would argue that it is hard not to be complicit in that sort of system when you are reaping the benefits of the privilege it bestows on you – I often feel I’m the unintentional beneficiary of residual privilege), but like any kind of conditioning: you get treated like crap by any one type of person enough times, you start to associate that type of person with crap. In this case, white people can evoke feelings of anger. Similarly, the racial jeers directed at me are expressions of anger and/or resentment. This treatment isn’t based on a perception of me as sub-human; it may be discrimination, but however misplaced, however myopic, however hurtful and unfair, it isn’t racist.

Besides, RoboTom, it’s funny discrimination.

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