Thursday, July 28, 2011

Queer Without Borders

It's only now occurred to me that I have yet to write about my final project, and the places I have gone and beautiful people I have met because of it.

When  I was Queer Peer Services Coordinator at the Ramapo College of New Jersey, I organized what we called Queer 101 Panels for various social issues classes. These panels basically consisted of 3-5 students with some sort of LGBTQ identity that would answer whatever inquiries their audience had. Having served on at least 50 of these panels myself, I  learned rather quickly what kinds of questions non-queer people had for me and my community. I've answered anywhere from "How old were you when you knew you were LGBTQ?" to "How do lesbians have sex?" Upon panel after panel, I realized that everyone had a unique story, and that I never grew tired of hearing them.

I decided to conduct and record my own Queer 101 Panels in South Africa! I began with hotel staff, moved onto queer peer educators at the local LGBTI community center, and finally ended with a group of university students.  I thought I would hear some radically different stories, but in truth all of their stories sounded so familiar. Aside from the obvious difference Apartheid tended to cause such as understandings of race, many of their narratives seemed as though they were slightly different versions of stories I heard many times before.

Their voices seemed to play on repeat. The struggle to identify their own sexuality. The anxiety around coming out to the family. The physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that seems to occur far too often in the LGBTQ community. Their many struggles with religion and spirituality. Their difficulty to find a safe and welcoming space to call home.

Their experiences have touched me deeply, and all I've wanted to do the past couple of days is to find more and more people to tell me their stories. But alas this South African journey is coming to a bittersweet end. What I take with me is that no matter how different a place may seem, we are all inevitably connected through basic human experience. Perhaps this experience is connected even more so when queerness is taken into consideration. Perhaps queerness occurs without borders! I consider everyone I've met a member of my queer community, and I'm so touched to have found a home here in South Africa.  I'm incredibly honored to have been able to meet so many wonderful, courageous people, and I know this journey is only the beginning!

P.S. I am not able to post my final documentary on youtube because of the safety and security of the people I interviewed, but if you are my facebook friend expect to see the final film soon! See everyone in the States!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Education as a Tool to Reconcile Racism

The question came up in class as to whether or not education can be used as a tool to help mend the racial divisions of Apartheid. While I think education is a good start, there are problems with the current education system that keep it from being as powerful a tool as it could be.

Racial interaction happens on two important levels in schools:

1. Student to student
2. Staff to student

While many schools have changed drastically in terms of racial demographics, many schools still contain a majority. The schools in the townships that we have learned about have been primarily Black, while more expensive less accessible schools schools in more suburban areas continue to educate primarily White students.  I'm curious as to how students make sense of their identities and interactions with those of other races when placed in a school where there are only a handful of people who look like them in their peer group. Unless the teachers are comfortable facilitating difficult conversations around race and reconciliation, will Apartheid simply become a history lesson rather than a recent system that affects current systems like education and the economy?

I use the word "staff" as opposed to educators in the second category of interactions for a reason. Race matters for educators and support staff. We visited the Oprah Winfrey school (no we didn't see Oprah despite my prayers), and I couldn't help but notice that while a majority of students were Black, there were very few Black teachers or administrators. In fact, the staff that was painting one of the dormitories were entirely Black. One of the tour guides of another group was commenting on how she preferred White teachers because Black people in South Africa weren't as educated or talented.  She was Black.

My tour guide expressed that she wished she has more White students in her peer group because she was told by a few White students that she had met from a different school that the Black Economic Empowerment Act was reverse discrimination. Oprah's school is technically for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, so there were only a few White students. This does somewhat fit the national populations considering there are far more Black people living in poverty than White. My tour guide didn't really understand that the school she was attending, and other programs like it, are more so to rewrite the systematic wrongs of Apartheid policy. Even though those policies went away, it will take decades for the system to function more equally.  To call Oprah's school or the Economic Empowerment Act reverse discrimination is to completely ignore historical wrongs.

I couldn't help but wonder how students at Oprah's school found mentors. Personally, I tend to seek out mentors that I have similarities with. Aside from Oprah herself, I was having a lot of trouble finding successful Black women with whom the students could look to for guidance. How many of those teachers and counselors really understand the students' struggles? And is success being defined as being more acceptable in White spheres? I wonder if that one tour guide would feel the same way about teachers in South Africa if she had more experiences with Black teachers in Oprah's school.

I have a lot more about staff-student interactions, but I need a little more time to process a recent experience. Until next week, but in the meantime please posts reactions and thoughts in the comment section!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Running Parallel

After interacting with schools, organizations, and folks from South Africa for three weeks, I can't help but to find similarities with the States.

Even though slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws ended several decades ago and Apartheid ended only two decades ago, they both have had long lasting impacts. These impacts can be seen both on interpersonal and institutional level. Institutionally, schools are still incredibly unequal in terms of resources and quality of education.  Schools with majority Black learners in the townships produce significantly less matriculating students than those with primarily White/Afrikaans learners. The one university program we visited in Soweto had a fairly diverse mix of students at the BA level, but diversity was lacking when I looked at the racial makeup of the MA students and professorial staff.

The poverty disparity in terms of race is also incredibly visible in almost every area we've been in. To be fair I haven't seen every part of South Africa, but after having visited Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and several townships I feel as though I've observed a fair amount of the major areas. But I didn't realize just how unequally wealth is distributed here until I found myself shocked in Durban to see White people asking for spare change. For the entire trip, up until this past weekend, I had only seen Black faces on the streets asking for food or money.  I didn't realize how desensitized I was to the racial background of , to a certain extent, until I was in a more urban area where the population wasn't as homogeneous as the townships.

In many communities, there is also a distrust and lack of emphasis on the importance of education.  The affects of an inoperable government and education system are still evident. Even though in theory everyone has access to some form of education now and the system is compulsory until grade ten, our observations show that students are held to the same expectations nor are they provided with the same affirmations. A course called Life Orientation is offered at many secondary schools, and is meant to provide practical life skills. It was discussed in my class that many White students are taught how to be good bosses/employers, while many Black students are taught how to be good employees. Expectations definitely affect performance and aspirations. If those who educate you tell you, either implicitly or explicitly, that you can only amount to subservient professions, you may begin to believe it.

Some of this may sound a bit bleak, but I have to ask myself, is it really all that unfamiliar?

I grew up in urban areas where the faces of those living in poverty were almost entirely the same color. The school districts New Jersey are also segregated along the lines of class with large implications of race.  School districts had unequal resources and student achievement suffered greatly. the majority of students in colleges are White, especially for upper-level degrees. Granted, the disparities are more striking in South Africa because the majority of the population is Black and not White, but both countries suffer from distorted representations in higher education.

Of course the countries are different, especially in terms of recent past versus distance past of government-sanctioned racism, but as I spend more time here I become more and more shocked by just how similar our current systems are.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Colored Like Me

The concept of “race” is something I've found myself reflecting on quite a bit while in South Africa. I mean, how could I not? “Race”-based segregation that seperated Blacks, Whites, Asians, Indians, and Coloreds (people of mixed-heritage) ended less than twenty years ago. I keep putting “race” in quotation marks because the simple notion that there is more than one race in itself perpetuates the same type of thinking that has been responsible for many atrocities throughout human history.When I was younger, my education told me that racial categories were concrete, and that those categories carried with them languages, customs, and traditions. But in terms of how race is usually utilized, the only thing people infer from one's racial identity are ability, intelligence, and 'civility' of different groups.

I've heard the word “Caucasian” used a few times on this trip to describe White people, and it triggers me. According to 19
th century anthropologist Blumenbach, White people originated in the Caucus region and are considered the most beautiful, intelligent, and superior race. The Caucus region was also fabled to be the birthplace of mankind even though we know that the human race originated in Africa. There were also sub-racial groups within each of these categories. In fact, according to Blumenbach, the white race included Egyptians and other north Africans, known as the Hamitic race. You may be saying to yourself "why is this a bad thing, he's saying that some Africans were as superior as whites?" Well, the Hamitic race was added as a sub-group mostly to explain the great historical civilizations of Arabia and Egypt. Blumenbach needed a way to separate "good and intelligent" Black people(Hamitics) from he viewed as the animalistic Black people of southern Africa(Negroids).

How has this way of thinking impacted our lives? Colonialism, slavery, the holocaust, Apartheid all seem to come to mind. Blumenbach's work still echoes today. Genocides, racial purity, race wars, racism, and the imaginary notion of reverse racism are especially prevalent amongst the current debate about the Black Economic Empowerment Act in South Africa and immigration in the States. And while the race may not be a scientific or medical truth, discrimination based on race is a very real truth.

All of this emphasis on race makes me reflect on my own racial identity. My ethnic identity is Italian, Jamaican, and Indian, but I've always called myself brown in terms of race. Jamaica is made up several different ethnic groups. While 90% of the population is Black (African in origin resulting from the slave trade), there are also substantial White, Indian, Chinese, and Arawak populations on the island. After slavery was abolished on the British island, there were huge amounts of indentured servants brought over from the other British colonies and protectorates. Chinese and Indian workers would finish their mandatory years of servitude and then set up families and communities of their own. These lines and separated communities have continued over the decades resulting in only 7% of Jamaica being multi-ethnic. So apparently my father's mother was black but his father was Indian.

Why does any of this matter? Well as someone who has constantly felt lost in their ethnic identity and having very few mirrors in my family to identify with, I have always found some refuge in being knowledgeable about why I look the way I look. Why my skin is an ambiguous brown instead of a clearer shade of definitely this or that. Why people will forever ask me "what are you?" Why the texture of my hair comes as a surprise. Being in mono-racial spaces makes me uneasy at times. With the participants on this trip seem somewhat segregated by race, and I feel forced to be two different people in one space versus the other, rather than my whole self in both spaces.

So when the little girl from the community project asked me if I was Colored, all I could do was say “yes.” I wonder what it would be like to have a brown community to relate to. Although racial segregation is a terrible travesty, imagine if the Colored category existed as a community in the States. I have to admit, it would be so wonderful if I could be my full self instead of having to float in three racially divided worlds.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Master's Tools

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa is alarming. While a few people close to me are HIV+, and I somewhat consider myself a queer health and sex educator, I've never been in a space full of so many HIV+ children. We visited a community project that provides meals, services, and a space to HIV+ children, many of whom are either orphans or in the foster system because their parents have died. The project was headed by a mix of people including local community folks and two Americans.

As soon as we entered the church where the center is currently operating out of, a few of the children climbed up a few of our waists, some what begging to be held. We tried to hoola-hoop a bit and then the children were told to go outside and play. We did not know they were all HIV+ until one of the staff members, one of the American women who work there, began to explain the project to us. My immediate thought was, wow. How can so many children be HIV+ in a relatively small area? Wouldn't anyone who knows they're positive want to do everything in their power to ensure their children aren't? Aren't prenatal drugs that can be taken to prevent transmission from mother to child available everywhere?

Well the answer is, no they're not. Healthcare and health education are not so readily available or financially accessible. I have to admit, I was angry. Not at anyone in particular, but at all the broken systems that had lead up to this situation. I tried to focus on the positive aspects of the project. The participants are given whole meals every weekday and taken on different trips. The younger children have a group of people roughly their age to play with everyday. But the teenagers were distant and stayed indoors. I wondered if the program was to provide a safe space for HIV+ youth, or to keep them away from others. The gates surrounding the gravel playground took on a malicious connotation.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Greetings From...SOUTH AFRICA!

Hello Not Your Average Feminist readers! As some of you may or may not know, I'll be spending the next month in South Africa! This trip is a blessing and a privilege, and I can not wait to share some of my experiences with you all. Luckily for me, there is a journaling component to the course I'm taking, so I decided to share my entries on NYAF. Most of my writing will revolve around issues of race, gender and queerness, but expect some random observations and tidbits as well.

I suppose a good place to start would be with what I expected South Africa would be like. When I was younger, I had a single narrative of “Africa.” I put Africa in quotations because Africa was always referred to as though it was one country with uniform experiences. It was almost always spoken about in relation to other countries rather than as a continent with multiple countries. For instance, I learned about the Slavery from Africa, Roman Empire and Africa, England and Africa, Belgium and Africa, France and Africa. The list can go on and on. Before high school, my education had painted a bleak desert-like place full of tribal customs and half-dressed warriors.

What is most disturbing about this experience is that the majority of my classmates identified as Black. But even as I sat and listened to the history of slavery vs. immigration, I always wondered when African identity became African American identity. Other stories of peoples immigrating to the United States spoke of pride and holding onto one's ethnic identity and cultural traditions. But African people, once again African as a collective rather than as individual nations, were just in the States and only had a place in the retelling of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Now some folks, like myself, identified as Caribbean and not African American, but even African diaspora was never discussed.