Seeing the Other as Human

When I turned 50, I decided that it was time to equip myself with the tools necessary to write the stories of where we come from. I was convinced that providing a platform to share and acknowledge our painful past was fundamental to reconciliation in our country. Certainly, after 25 years of democracy we seemed to be no nearer to recognising each other as simply human. Being the mother of two young adults bestowed on me a sense of urgency. However, gaining a Masters in Creative Writing (from the same university that in the 1980s required me to apply for a government permit to attend because of the colour of my skin), opened up the path to a deeply personal journey, one that would lead to a PhD in History and Heritage Studies.

Early on in this journey it became clear that I needed to retrace our history way back to the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape, an event that occurred within the global context of slavery and colonialism in which they were major players. The impact of slavery and colonisation on South African society has receded far behind the more dominant history of apartheid and yet, the racial hierarchy that accompanied it not only laid the foundation for apartheid, but shaped attitudes to race and sex that continue to inform the present.

The benign version of slavery presented to us at school was reinforced by charming paintings of colonial Cape Town, the colourful houses of the Bo-Kaap and images of benevolent masters who wanted only to ‘civilise’ and take care of the black bodies under their care. This narrative concealed the brutality and dehumanisation of the people who were brought here as a source of labour, a commodity, to be sold and traded. After emancipation, other ways to maintain control over workers were introduced, such as the notorious dop system that has left its legacy of foetal alcohol syndrome and high infant mortality rates in the Western Cape.

Racial slavery was about the degradation of the human being and simply being emancipated was not enough to know what it meant to be free, how to recreate ourselves and become independent. Apartheid tried to force us into being the same – we lived in the same areas, went to the same schools, married the same people. We carried our sameness around like a security blanket and retreated within it, afraid of the other; we developed our own stereotypes based on our ignorance of what was beyond those walls. More than simply the dismantling of apartheid legislation needs to be done in order that we may construct ways of life in which we acknowledge our human-ness rather than other-ness.

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But, to remember slavery is also to remember the vibrant and diverse cultures, new language, food, music and beliefs that arose, and to honour the spirit of survival and resistance that was engendered. Somehow people managed to find ways to survive and hold onto that which made them human. These practices of freedom – music, art and storytelling – defy and resist the memories of slavery and apartheid and attest to a will to survive. Even the humble family photograph, in spite of it often showing little skill, and found stuffed into boxes or envelopes, has the power to destabilise the dominant narrative that would have us believe that we were less-than. They speak to the resistance of the human to being objectified and it is at this ordinary archive that we need to look if we want to understand what it means to be human.

By connecting the lines between all of our stories, whether they are auditory, visual or written, we may recognise our common humanity; we break down the walls that were constructed around us, to separate us from the other. When we reach out to each other we move beyond the process of othering, and towards freedom and equality so that we may think about how we may live. Only then may we learn how to be human.

Images from my family album.

This piece prefaces the virtual exhibition, KWAAI Vol. 3 by Cape Town gallery, eclectica contemporary. 

Read a review of the exhibition here

In my genes

My two grandmothers

A while back I met an Englishman who lives in South Africa and, detecting a trace of another accent, I asked him where he was originally from. He said that he liked to think of himself as a fine European blend of British, French and Italian roots. I wondered about that – what made him different to someone who might be a “fine blend” of African, Dutch, British and Indonesian roots? Why should the former be claimed with pride and the latter spoken about in whispers, viewed as sinful and criminal?

Of course, it all comes down to politics – the politics of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – and the pursuit of gold, god and glory, which I won’t go into now. In spite of scientific evidence that proves that all humans are 99% identical, the myths of polygenesis and racial superiority persist and everyday people use terms such as “mixed race” and “bi-racial”, or talk about different “races”. Issues of race and prejudice continue to shape our relations with each other and leave indelible scars on our psyche.

Yesterday I attended a talk by journalist, Sara-Jayne King, whose memoir, Killing Karoline, explores her life as the result of an affair between a ‘white’ British woman and her ‘black’ South African colleague. Born in the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, she is taken out of the country and put up for adoption in Britain, her mother returning to SA with the news that her baby had died (hence the title). In her book, King plots her path of self-destruction through addiction and eating disorders, and explores the feelings of insecurity and poor self-worth related to her identity.  Adoption on its own must come with attendant issues of rejection and belonging, but in King’s case it is underscored with the apartheid crime and sin of immorality. I believe that her attempts to destroy herself were in part a sub-conscious drive to punish herself for an inherent sense of shame related to not belonging. It’s this feeling of having done something wrong that is part and parcel of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Confronting it  needs to start with rejecting the concept of race which is based on the superficial distinction of skin colour,  hair, bone and facial features, in order to perpetuate power and control by one group over another. 

A few months ago, while on a visit to the USA, I did what I have been wanting to do for ages – ordered a DNA testing kit.  My friend, Mary, and I bonded over collecting samples of sputum and posted them off. I was not sure what to expect since my ancestors have variously been classified as ‘coloured’, ‘white’ or Cape Malay. In the context of South Africa this takes on layers of meaning and is imbued with a gamut of emotions, many of which are negative, like shame and worthlessness. Since I was immersed in my doctoral thesis about representation and identity related to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I thought that knowing more about my ancestral make up might add some value to my research.

Consistent with what I know of my grandparents, my DNA results confirmed that I was a fine blend of South East Asian and European populations with a liberal sprinkling of sub-Saharan African. I found it quite affirming to have a written record – scientific proof – of a history that the apartheidists sought to erase in their attempts to subjugate and dehumanise us through fixing cosmetic differences and forcing us into prescribed boxes. The time for transcending race and regarding each other as human is long overdue.

King, S. 2018. Killing Karoline: A Memoir. Published by MF Books Joburg.

Ms Markle, The Prince and the Question of Race

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So Ms Markle has found her prince and all of the modern world has seen photographs of the happy couple and the ring and shared her unconventional background on social media – she’s an American, an actress, a divorcee, older than the prince, her mother is a social worker and yoga teacher – all pretty quirky for the Royal family. But there’s more – her mother is ‘black’, descended from slaves and wears dreadlocks and a nose ring, and her father is ‘white’ of Dutch and Irish stock and works in the film industry.

Of course, the Mother Grundies have not missed the opportunity to pass judgement which is not only racist but also classist, so much so that the Prince had to step in to appeal to the media to refrain from abuse and harassment.

I love unconventional, I love quirky, I love things that don’t fit neatly into the box … but why, oh why, Ms Markle do you, and so many others, persist in “identifying as bi-racial” and “mixed-race”, as if your parents are from two different species and you are the creation of some intergalactic union? When are we going to stop referring to bio-geographical differences as races? There’s no note of Papa Markle being of mixed “race” even though his ancestry is a mixture of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds.

It’s almost 160 years since Charles Darwin arrived at the radical conclusion that we were all one species in his book, Origin of the Species (1859). Radical, that is, for his time (1809-1882) when the prevailing views were of the innate inferiority of the Negro, and people in the New World associated slavery with dark skin colour. Once black and slave became synonymous, anti-black racism increased in intensity and later became institutionalised in the American South as segregation and in South Africa as apartheid.

Historian, Niall Ferguson, says that Europe’s monarchies were prepared to cross oceans and conquer continents in pursuit of ‘God, Gold and Glory’, but without the African slaves who worked the land, Western Europe would have remained underdeveloped and dependent on the East for input regarding technology, culture and wealth. Both science and religion[1] were being used to justify the enslavement and exploitation of millions of Africans and Asians. A common belief was that black people were not far from apes in origin, so Darwin’s proposal that all people shared a common origin (monogenesis) was indeed a dangerous one.

Although the idea that God had created two men, one white and one black, went against the Christian teachings of the unity of mankind, it led to the anatomical and scientific examination of black bodies and skin, and the Royal Society went so far as to suppress research which found skin colour to be a superficial distinction among humans. The theory of polygenesis was used by British colonialists to justify the perpetual slavery of Africans as well as the subjugation of Native Americans.

Darwin was an abolitionist (both his grandfathers were active in the English anti-slavery movement) and he was reportedly deeply affected by his experiences of slavery during his voyage on the scientific research ship, the Beagle. However, while he believed in the monogenic origin of humanity, he still divided humans into different races based on superficial differences in skin, eyes and hair and believed that Europeans (or ‘whites’) were evolutionary more advanced than darker skinned people, according to Steven Rose, professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University. Likewise, Darwin’s views concerning differences between males and females reflected the bias of his time, that males were biologically stronger.

When Nobel Prize winners, Watson and Crick, discovered the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, the idea that “the blood” (or the genes) is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities was disproved once and for all. All humans are 99% genetically identical; there is only one human race. To use terminology such as “bi-racial” or “mixed-race” is to imply that there is more than one human race and perpetuates the myth of racial superiority. Yes, different populations of people may display differences in biological make-up, but these are due to what Professor Rose calls bio-geographical ancestry. So people living in the northern or southern hemisphere, hot or cold climates or in isolated areas versus densely populated ones, may appear differently to others.

The reactions to Ms Markle’s rise from slavery to royalty, as it has been called by one publication, is evidence of the pervasive racism that infects our society and it is unfair to place the burden of these perceptions on one person’s shoulders and expect change. But, maybe, if all this issue does is raise awareness and gets people talking, it will be worth the media hype … but let’s get the terminology correct. Words are powerful.

[1] The so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ was the most important biblical justification for slavery; in the Book of Genesis, Noah curses Ham, the son of Canaan, to be the ‘servant of servants’.

This article was published in The Cape Times on 14 December 2017 under the heading: Why, Meghan, do you, persist in identifying as ‘bi-racial’ and ‘mixed-race’?