Do Black Lives Matter?

“That justice is blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise:

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes.”

– Langston Hughes

Do you know what it feels like? It feels like it’s all been too much and I am tired. Daily we talk of death, of illness, of people without means to earn a living. The numbers climb, the effects of the pandemic gets closer and closer to home. Then to witness a death; images and videos that would play on an infinite loop. It was all too much.  Too much, so I hid. Too much, so I lied, but only to myself, the worst sort of lies. I would watch George Floyd die once, yet he would die a million times over in my mind. Everyone was speaking about it, everyone was outraged. Me? For me it was all too much. It’s still all too much, so I divert my thoughts. I can’t write or talk about it without the anger spilling over. It’s too much, so I hide, I believe in my invisibility and impotence.

We have seen the knee on the neck of a black man, we have seen his life brutally stolen from him, we have cried, we have rallied, and we have used social media to launch our protests. So shocking, so jarring was the senseless brutality, that no one could be unmoved. And so, we reacted. And so, we allowed our divisions and our privilege to emerge- as deep and as enduring as the laws that were once put in place to keep us focused on race as identity. In the blink of an eye, South Africans were transported to our own violent history, in the blink of an eye we were reminded of two things; the worthlessness of a black life and of our ability to deny blame. I wondered if those who responded to the situation with “All lives matter” and talk of the farm murders in South Africa, were the same people who believed that it was “God’s Army” that targeted, and systematically tortured and killed activists during the apartheid. I wondered if, in amongst everyone that took to social media, we genuinely believed in our collective humanity, or if after a post we would still look to black people and ask, day after day, for proof of their humanity. I wondered all of this because we did more than just revisit our history and open old festering wounds; we also created villains who would allow us to absolve ourselves of blame. And as Hans Rosling wrote, once we create villains, we stop thinking.

Would you villainise the police and condemn brutality? Would you villainise Trump and the hate that spews from his mouth? I would. I would do it because I was angry, I would do it because having a face to direct my outrage helps. It helps to name this feeling as anger, and it helps to shift that anger towards someone. Or would you rather villainise the protestors, the looters? Perhaps you knew all along that power at the hands of a black man meant destruction, perhaps the creation of villains had happened long ago in your mind. Whoever you chose, whichever side you were on, there were victims and villains. But where did that leave you? Because here’s what creating a villain does- it helps your anger, it turns your cheek so you can’t see your face in the mirror. Because if you did, you’d see your knee on the neck of a dying man, you’d see that you, just like me, are a villain.

I think of a South African villain, a man known as “Prime Evil”, and how he once said that all his acts of violence, the atrocities he committed, the deaths, were all for nothing at the end, “We all could have been alive having a beer”. Lives, families and to many, hope, crumbled at the hands of this man, “all for nothing” at the end. I have read numerous accounts of horrific acts that Eugene De Kock committed or orchestrated, and nothing jarred me as much as that one statement. To think of the destruction of lives, of the lost potential and to hear from someone whose hands could never be washed clean that it should have never happened, struck a cord so deep with me. No lives should ever be lost in this way and while we know it as a fundamental truth, we are slow to action. Perhaps what scares me is that when we look back years from now will we say that George Floyd died for nothing? That his death, while so public, so viscerally demanding, would one day mean nothing? It scares me that even though we’re shocked and appalled to watch a man die like an animal in the streets, we will still be the ones that keep our knee on his neck. It scares me because we don’t see our own culpability in this mess. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when all you do is put up a post on Facebook. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you believe in the lie that is white competence, when you say you didn’t hire black talent because you couldn’t find it. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you ask “Was the apartheid that bad?”. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you don’t pay your domestic or your gardener a living wage. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you propagate racist jokes or condone racist slurs. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when we rob people of opportunities to live a life they chose to value. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the visibility, I applaud those who have shown up in some way or form, but it is not enough. It is not enough to be act only when you’re outraged. Black lives will never matter until we internalise our role, until we see that the knee on the neck does not belong to one person but to all of us. If we do not acknowledge our privilege, if we do not truly condemn the systems that serve us, will black lives ever matter?

Conversations with a misogynist: “My mother was a slut”

I was proud of myself for waking up (early-ish) to write the other day- it was the day I finally stopped making excuses and I started writing again. My travel journal lay next to me, invitingly plump, filled with stories of adventure that begged release to a wider audience. I touched the soft surface of it’s cover and wanted to draw it to myself in an embrace. I flicked through the pages restlessly, eventually pushing it away. It would remain ajar, peppering my periphery, beguiling and admonishing me simultaneously. What I thought I would write about, what I wanted to write about was our most recent adventure. I longed for the freedom of those words, I longed to revel in the pastels of nostalgia, but I found no release. I felt like I was shaking a magic eight ball, in the foolish way one does when it’s given you an “answer” you don’t want, and you think, If I just try again, I’ll get a different outcome. The thing was, my magic eight ball was sort of warped – the tile that kept popping up read “misogyny” and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake another answer out of it.

I don’t often have cause to thank Trump, but I do suppose he’s helped me learn to spell the word “misogyny”. I suppose he’s gotten that word a lot of airplay since becoming the US president, but I wonder if, even though we’re better at spelling it, we’re any closer to understanding what it means. Misogyny or misogynist aren’t words I’ve used often, but I found myself in a situation where the word escaped my lips so effortlessly that it surprised even me. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where someone says or does something that immediately triggers a word in your mind, forging an unbreakable and immediate connection. The word for me was “misogyny”, and the scenario was hearing the words “My mother was a slut, because she had me young” from an older man in a position of power, speaking to a group of around 30 people in a work setting. He was telling the story of his life, and who raised him, and had decided on a killer opening, it would seem. Later, in a joke, he would speak of my reaction, saying I reacted physically to his comment. I would be the only one in that group, on that day, to tell him that his comment was inappropriate, not so much because of his warped relationship with his mother, but because I thought he was shaming women by deeming them “sluts” if they were sexually active at what he considered a young age. The word “misogynist” would fall heavily in the room, sucking up the air and pausing the moment, but he would manage to laugh awkwardly and deftly change the topic. Even after the day, the conversation replayed itself in my mind, each time exposing another question. Was he a misogynist or was I being the girl who couldn’t handle a joke?  Why didn’t he apologise? Why didn’t anyone else find it inappropriate? Why did he think that his words were appropriate in such a forum, or at all? Was he “punishing” me later when he cut me off mid-sentence and dismissed what I was saying, or was that simply “just his style” or manner? It’s almost as though I had prepared myself for the subtle slurs, for the “well meaning” propagators of patriarchy even, but when faced with this explicitly demeaning comment, I was confused and caught off guard. I also wondered if I truly understood misogyny and what it meant.

I thought about the classic definition of misogyny, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster definition, “a hatred of women”, and it felt too narrow for me.  Apply that definition and all of sudden, misogyny doesn’t really exist or apply to many. All of a sudden, the issue of misogyny becomes non-existent because finding people who fit that definition to the letter is probably akin to finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But here’s the problem, misogyny and misogynists do exist, they live and breathe among us. That classic definition was off base and incomplete for me. I began a search in earnest for a better understanding of misogyny. A couple of very odd articles later, some of which I’m convinced were written by misogynists themselves, I came across an interview with Kate Mann regarding her book Down Girl: The Logic Of Misogyny and something clicked for me.  Kate Mann draws the distinction between sexism and misogyny, referring to misogyny as the “policing” of certain behaviours and the punishment of women who do not confirm to the “norms” or do as they’re “supposed to”. Misogynists seek to punish or control women who don’t fit their narrow definition of what it means to be a woman (i.e.“bad” women). Contradict this norm or withhold certain things that women are meant to provide (be it care, attention, sex) and a misogynist will seek to put you in your place or punish you. Kate Mann refers to the classic definition of misogyny I mentioned earlier the “naïve conception” because it allows us to think of misogyny as a rare thing. I thought back to the incident that prompted this entire investigation and not only was I angrier, but I also felt defeated. Sure, now I felt vindicated for having called someone a misogynist but I’m not sure that I had made the situation any better.

I admit that I liked the anger in the word misogyny and the heady trip of righteous indignation. It was good to be angry; it was good to call someone out, but to what end? Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither apologetic or ashamed of my anger, such comments should inspire anger and action in all of us, but I still don’t know how we move forward. I still don’t know what the best course of action is or if my voice, on that day made the slightest bit of difference. I still don’t know why so many remained silent and why, even when I spoke to others who were present, I was told to understand that it was “just the way he was”. When I think about the fact that Stats SA routinely publishes data that tells us that the labour market favours men, when I think about the lack of women representation in leadership roles, when I think of all the young mothers who would have heard that comment and felt ashamed, I feel lost. I feel lost and angry. And somewhere in that, I know that, despite not having a solution, I will not be silenced. I know that I will speak until someone listens, even when mine is the only voice in the room. All I can hope for, is that one day you will join me.

Confessions of a loud girl

Even writing this title makes me uncomfortable. I hate being called “loud” and every time someone refers to me as such, I cringe. Whether it’s the sudden turn of your head and narrowing of your eyes when you hear me laugh, or whether you actually call me “loud”, I hate it. It sounds like an insult, like you’ve invited an elephant to your tea party just so you can make fun of her for breaking your china. Shame. That’s an accurate description of what I feel when I’m called “loud”. I feel ashamed. Maybe in ancient times, my people required the power of sneakiness as a means of survival, and that’s why I’m ashamed to be loud. Maybe my brain triggers shame to protect me from an evolutionary perspective. Maybe, a more likely option, my shame is linked to the idea that women are not meant to be loud. To be a woman is to be quiet, delicate and gentle, you don’t speak out of turn and you’re not bossy or opinionated.  To be a woman, is to be a creature of grace- serene femininity oozing from every measured word with the indulgence of a coquettish giggle when the occasion calls for it. How easily a loud girl fails that criteria. Truth be told, I don’t even consider myself loud. I am assertive, opinionated and unapologetic about using my voice, but I’d never describe myself as loud. But perhaps I should, perhaps I should reclaim it. Perhaps in this world, where all too often we silence the voice of women in so many inventive and subtle ways, I should be proud of being loud. If I am loud and just one woman hears my voice, isn’t that enough to be proud of?

In thinking about being loud, I’ve thought of my voice. I’ve also thought of women around the world who feel like they have none.  I used to think that my greatest fear was not being understood, but I’m beginning to feel like it’s something that precedes understanding. At its most basic form, if no one hears you, if your voice is lost, how will you ever be understood? I can’t say with absolute conviction that I feel like I’m heard. I can’t say with even a little conviction that men have not spoken over me, that I haven’t been ignored in male dominated environments. Yes, even though I’m “loud”. I can say that often during a discussion when I offer a suggestion to an otherwise male audience, it lands heavy but with no purpose. It serves to draw silence before an awkward man who has not really heard the concept, or my idea, presses forward as if I had not said anything at all. My words were just a speed bump along the road that starts and ends with solutions that I have no power to shape. It’s more than a slap in the face to be ignored in that way, it more than an insult, it’s an indication of my worthlessness. It’s often at some later point, once I’ve tried to make my point for the third time, that some man comes to my “rescue” saying, “What I think she’s trying to say is…,”. It fascinates me to see others bob their head when my ideas take on a male voice. Of course, it’s not uncommon that whichever man explained my suggestion also gets the credit for “his idea”. I reread what I’ve just written and part of me wants to delete the entire thing because I want to believe I’m making it up. I want to believe this isn’t what I’m experiencing with a shocking and sickening regularity. But it is true, and it does happen and not only to me. I’ve also seen this happen to men, from all walks of life, but I’ve never seen it happen as frequently as I see it happening to women. All around me I see women being silenced, I see their ideas being trampled on, I see men taking the credit where they don’t deserve it. We silence women by telling them they need to show up in certain way to fit in. We silence women when they grow tired of fighting to be heard and simply give up. We silence women when we show them that their voices do not matter. We silence women daily, routinely and without thought. Women do have voices and they aren’t afraid to use them, but have we been listening?

Perhaps what I should be, beyond loud, is louder. Perhaps I should speak and write till I am heard, perhaps I should also let my actions be louder. Perhaps I should own who I am, along with my voice so that I can allow other women to also do the same . For the longest time one of my frustrations with being “loud” was the assumption that I should be anything but. That I shouldn’t own the space I occupy, that I should be apologetic for even existing. That I should make myself and my voice smaller so as not to inconvenience anyone. It feels like that judgement seeks to replace me with a more acceptable version. But I’m not having that. Sorry, that’s not me. I am inconvenient, and, you know what, I love that about myself. The world is better with me being loud, brass, assertive and ambitious because that’s who I am. And folks, that’s most certainly nothing to be quiet about.

For women only: No men allowed

Here’s something I’d never thought I’d hear myself say, “I’ve had so many fights since I started a book club,”. I should clarify that it is a woman’s only book club and that it is a corporate one, not that that sheds any light on why this is such a contentious topic though. For some reason people (read men) are shocked, appalled and angry with me because I’ve created a platform that excludes them. Yes, I know, I should buy them all dictionaries so they can look up the word “patriarchy”. I suspect that I’m beginning to lose my sense of humour around the whole thing, I did want to title this blog “How not be an idiot and other useful tips” so perhaps we’re already in dangerous territory. It just frustrates me that men think that they should weigh in on certain things that, quiet frankly, are none of their business. Now, I am not saying that feminism shouldn’t include men, I’m not saying that men should be excluded from the dialogue, that’s as stupid as some of the comments I’ve gotten regarding a woman only book club. What I am saying is that I’m sick of men telling what I should do and I’m sick of them thinking they have right to do so.

I’m not about to apologise for pushing the agenda for women empowerment

I’m not about to apologise for pushing the agenda for women empowerment. Neither am I willing to apologise for the fact that I’ve created a platform for women to learn and grow from each other, and hopefully one that will encourage women to use their voices. Nope, I’m not about to do that but somehow, many men I’ve spoken to seem to think that’s exactly what I should be doing. I know the conversations would be easier if I was a bit more diplomatic (read agreeable) and if every time a man told me of how the book club should also include him I simply bowed in submission and said, “Kind sir, thank you for that golden suggestion, my fragile mind had not yet thought such grand thoughts”. Truth be told I had thought of whether the book club should include men or not, I had even discussed it with a wider audience and put it up to a vote before deciding because I am explicitly aware of the fact that to move forward, we must not do it in isolation. I also believe that this book club will evolve to include a wider audience one day. I don’t know when, but one day. I am fully aware that men exist in this world and that it is also their voices and their actions that we need to dismantle patriarchy. Nobody is saying otherwise, least of all this book club. But somehow, I need to explain it, I need to justify it, I need to make the men who I’ve excluded feel better because that is what’s expected of me. Unfortunately, I’m not willing to do any of that either. Tell you what I am willing to do though, I’m willing to pretend that I’m less annoyed and put together these few gentle, guiding points on how to be less of an idiot during these conversations with me. One day I’ll learn how not be sarcastic, I don’t know when, but one day.

Instead of saying, “I also like to read”, (because my response will remain the same “So, who’s stopping you?”) say, “That’s a great idea. I also love reading, what is the book club reading now?”. Say that and you’ll shift the conversation away from me saying, “By starting a book club that I did not invite you to, I did not magical cast a spell that stops you from reading or buying books. It is my sincere hope that you do not reproduce on the off chance that they inherent your intellectual abilities.” Instead I’d merrily leap into a conversation about our current book, what key things interest me and what actions it’s sparked. Chances are, I’d probably volunteer to lend you my copy once I’m done.

Instead of saying, “Yes, but why aren’t you involving me?” say “Yes, and I’d also like to get involved. How can I contribute to uplifting women?” That would probably earn you a high-five or a hug or both and we’d get to talking about how we can do something together to serve and even wider audience.

Instead of saying, “Women need to tell us how to fix this, otherwise we’d never know” say “Patriarchy has served me my entire life and I am ignorant to the challenges that women face. Are you aware of any known cure for my ignorance?” There’s no telling how this would pan out but I’d sure respect you for admitting that your were ignorant.

Instead of saying, “I don’t understand why women need to talk amongst themselves,” say “I think it’s great that you’re creating a space where women can leverage off each other and while I’d also like to be part of the conversation, I have no right to tell you or any woman what she should be doing with her voice.” Again, this is totally five-high and or hug material. We’d probably launch into a conversation on how we could go about breaking conventions and how we could leverage of each other to do something great for women. You would inspire me and you’d also probably be a unicorn, but a girl can dream.

It’s really not that challenging to stop and check your privilege. And if you want to be part of the solution, I applaud you, I really do. We need more men who want that. We also need more men who don’t think they have a right to tell women what to do. We need more men who call themselves feminists. We need more men challenging words, thoughts and actions that cement toxic masculinity in our communities. We need more men who listen, who have been listening to what women have been saying for centuries. We need more men who believe that patriarchy is wrong and who are willing to do something to challenge something that serves them. We need all sorts of men to do all sorts of things, but by god, we do not need more men in book club.

Welcome to the Western Cape- Please mind the gap

I’ve always harboured the belief that I could live in the Western Cape or in Cape Town, the mother city of South Africa. That aching beautiful coastline where white sandy beaches meet tortoise water. The wine farms, lush and green with abundance. That three hours out of Cape Town in almost any direction is a weekend away. Man, I knew that I could live there and more so I wanted to live there. That was of course, until I did live there for four months this year. It wasn’t that the Western Cape wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t that mother nature didn’t show off often and, in a jaw-dropping fashion. It was beautiful and that was part of the problem. It was challenging to see such beauty and think that it existed for a few, for a wealthy few. Nowhere else in our country has the divide seemed so stark and sickening. I would drive out of the estate I was put up in, the very same estate with private vineyards and stables, and not even a few hundred meters away was an informal settlement. Absolute wealth ran parallel to abject poverty. No sunset, no weekend away, no wine club “member only” benefits could take the taste of discomfort out of my mouth.  It’s one thing to read about the fact that we are the most unequal country in the world, it’s a totally different thing to see that gap manifest. How could I justify a world where the wealthy hide behind a walled, protected estate and the poor build homes of tin with no access to running water and electricity down the road? How could I justify living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, that is actually a place of misery and suffering for a vast majority?

I’d like to pretend that the idea for this blog sprung from some lofty, moral high ground. It didn’t. This post started because of a chocolate, a missing Lunch Bar to be precise. Part of me was trying to settle into being away from home, part of me was trying to find my feet on a new project and all of me felt like I was failing. So, in other words, it was another day at the office. On this particular day I knew that, despite my feeble attempts, I would succumb to the hollow and empty promises that comfort eating would provide. What I didn’t count on was not finding my “emergency” stash when I opened my kitchen cupboard (read hanging onto the cupboard door using my body weight to open it in a manner that was both lazy and satisfying). Upon closer inspection, I found that not only was my chocolate gone, but so too were some of the “just in case” biscuits I had bought earlier in the week. In the weeks that followed, other items, mainly food would go missing. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my initial reaction was one of anger. I guess it was easier to be angry at the person who had taken what belonged to me than it was to first look at myself, and to think about those tin houses walking distance from the estate. Whoever was sneaking away my junk food was actually doing me a favour but all I could focus on was the invasion of privacy I felt. All I could think about was that someone had stolen from me, someone had taken what belonged to me. Someone had gone through my things and had taken what they wanted, with no consideration of repercussions or of the fact that I was fundamentally a “good” person. I was in such a vile mood that honestly, in that moment, to consider the thief’s point of view would have been saintly. To think that someone had taken from me nothing that I needed, that someone who came to clean my apartment probably saw a reminder of life she could not afford didn’t even cross my mind.

It was only driving to work the next day, when I tugged my jacket a bit tighter to fend off the brutal winter wind that I thought about everything I had. I didn’t own the apartment I was living in, but it was paid for by work. I had warmth, I had more food than I could eat, and by many means, I lived a privileged life. When I went running in the afternoons in the estate, I would see Ferraris or people out on their horses, sure they almost always seemed offended to find a brown person in their midst but that’s a story for another blog. All around me there was excess, all around me was wealth and at a level I have never experienced before. And all around me that wealth had a face, it was white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither justifying theft nor am I saying that my junk food thief lived in an informal settlement or in abject poverty. But I do wonder what it must have felt like to be her. To show up at my apartment for a meagre wage, find my cupboards stocked with excess and to go home to whatever she had, all the while thinking of everything she didn’t. And to think that I never thought of her empty belly, I never thought of the fact that she might want to eat something when she came to clean my apartment. I had more than I needed and I never thought to share. I know that that scenario is no less valid in Johannesburg, where many of our domestic workers go home to small spaces, barely able to make ends meet, thinking about their children who are often sent away because their parents can’t afford to provide for them. It’s no less painful to think about, but somehow the contrast in the Western Cape was too jarring, too sharp. Somehow those high, guarded walls, the horses, the vineyards are all too much. And maybe it’s because the hands that tended the gardens, cleaned the homes and raised children were black. Maybe it’s because the wealth I was seeing was built off black labour with very little reward in return.

In the area that I lived in, it would be easy to think that the apartheid still existed and that I miraculously passed the pencil test and got in. Harsh, I know, but I don’t really have another way to describe it. Somehow, I had managed to sneak in, but I was never at home, I was always an imposter and I was constantly surrounded by talk of how our country was going to ruin. I’d listen to white women talking about how “things had changed” in the area they grew up in, and when I’d probe, they would look around trying to find a black face in the crowd and say, “you know”. I’d do a Sunday timed run in the estate and find that the only colour in that group would be that of my skin. It made me uneasy. It made me uneasy to see the clear divide between wealth and the help along racial lines. It made me uneasy to hear people talking at a wine farm about the house they’d just bought in Franschhoek and then hear of how there are no opportunities for white people in our country. I longed for the rainbow nation we were meant to be and all I got was angry. I was angry at the smugness of the wealthy, at the overt arrogance in their existence and I was angry to be a part of it. So, as much as I love the Western Cape, it’s really not for me. I cannot bear the beauty side by side with the ugliness of the divide. Nope, I do not think I could live there, my heart would not handle it.