Saturday, January 27, 2007

thinking in black and white, shades of grey, or full colour

At some point in the future, I will need reminding again that every moment of fear brings some sort of positive development in this process we call grad school.

I have been in conversation with my advisor since late last year on the experience of being between spaces, with all its challenges and joys. It has all been a bit unclear and even a bit raw for me, and so I haven't really wanted to write about it, but I guess now is as good a time as any to put it out there.

I realized with a bit of a shock over this past holiday that I am generally happier in New York than I was in South Africa. It is unsurprising that I like my current academic setting better than the last one, considering how unpleasant that got towards the end, but what was a surprise was how distasteful I found some of the lifestyle things in South Africa, after spending only a few months here. I went out with friends of mine in the very short space of time I had between arriving in Johannesburg and leaving for Natal, and we went to a mall for dinner and a film. I have always been quite fond of malls. When I feel hemmed in and isolated, they were always good places to feel like I was reconnecting with humanity. I loved spending time alone or with friends people-watching, or just wondering through shops and getting a sense of what people's lives consist of. It is fascinating to me to watch who buys clothes where, or what colours people seem attracted to. The problem was, this time the space of the mall felt just as claustrophobic as the high walls around our house. Usually the shopping experience is a space to get out, but this time it felt like going from one enclosed space to another. And after the streets of New York, that was difficult. Here, the claustrophobia of buildings dissipates when I travel up to the top floor or my building to look at the New York skyline, or walk along the river. There is a different kind of openness that is not the open spaces of the South African countryside, but is the openness of the presence of people in proximity. Quite simply, I feel safer here, and that concerns me when I consider a future at home.
I also feel hemmed in by my race at home. The fact that I am white has a very strong impact on how I am viewed, and what is expected of me, and what opportunities are available to me within my own country. Here, that matters less. What does matter is that I do work that people want to know about, and that is important.

At any rate, I was talking to my advisor about all of this on Thursday when she asked me whether I was so unwilling to confront what I feel are problems in the actualization of race in South Africa because I don't know how to respond to them, or because I actually agree with them, though don't agree with the way in which they are framed. It made me think really hard, because the question implicit in that is, do I think that my whiteness makes me unsuitable for the work I am doing? And while the obvious answer would seem to be "of course not", in actual fact, I am ambiguous. I have been skirting around the question of whether white people belong in Africa because part of me wonders whether they do. And I don't know really how to answer that, and I won't know untill I have had an opportunity to read more of the current debates about these things, and think the issue through in more concrete terms. What I do know, though, is that asking whether someone's race gives them the right to be in Africa or not is just as bad as asking whether a particular person has the right to be anywhere on the basis of their race. It is the same question asked by the apartheid government, or the nazi government or any and all of those terrible, destructive regimes. Our goals should be to find a way for everyone to live with what they need, not to determine who is entitled to live, and who not. There is a very good reason why I am a pacifist.

So I hope that at some point, I will be able to formulate my position on all of this more clearly and sensibly. For now, though, being in New York gives me the space I need to look for full colour amid the black and white that infiltrates my thinking in South Africa.

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