Race & Culture Shock: 3 Lessons from South Africa

Written by Tammy Johnson

October 27, 2014

A few years back I was invited to a conversation about race, spirituality, disability and sexuality. I was excited: “Yeah, let’s go there!” I thought.

So there I sat, waiting for the forum to start when the facilitator asked us to introduce ourselves by giving our name, group affiliation and preferred pronoun. Hold the presses! What was that last one? I played it cool as everyone took their turn, but this was rocking my world. As the discussion went on my inner dialogue went something like this:

This is new. I’m really confused. Isn’t it obvious what I am? Is this yet another pretentious so-called progressive community one-upism move or just another way to prove my radical stripes? I’m so tired of that. Wait, what did they say? I need to take this in for a bit. Hum. I still don’t know if I’m down with this but I get that they are under attack. But what does this mean for me? Will I have to change? Where do I fit in?

Culture shock is a bitch. There I sat, not ignorant, but actually very aware of how the world around me views my gender. But binaries be damn, I was going to have to deal. And over time, I dealt. I listened, learned and got over myself. Yes, this was a valid, critical issue. And yes, it was also MY issue, my fight too! As a black woman I understood that the definition of womanhood has always been measured by a white, western standards. From my hair to the cadence of my speech, I was constantly doing battle with those standards. But if I was going to fight for a definition that fit the essence of my very being, as a Black ciswoman that fight wouldn’t be a just one if it in turn denied others that same sense of agency.

It’s painfully obvious that I am not the only one going through culture shock these days. The uptick in the militarization of local police forces, the hardening of immigration laws, and the mounting attacks on reproductive health care for women are merely the means to which systems are attempting to maintain themselves, to beat back cultural shifts that progressive forces are making in this county.

This is nothing new. There has been a fight around the identity of this county, the definition of citizen, for the prize of being on top of the social hierarchy since the birth of this nation. So the nation builders not only embedded their bigotry in laws, institutions and systems, but in the very culture of the country. It was neatly placed in the cakewalk of the mistrial, the vows of the wedding ceremony and the signs at the water fountain.

For better or worse, there are numerous lessons to be learned about cultural shifts and nation building from our allies around the world. In her article, A Paradox of Integration, Eve Fairbanks offers us a few of them through the lens of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. While Black students gained greater access over the years, white supremacy continued to dictate campus culture, from the curriculum to hazing traditions.

  • Lesson One: Increased access and diversity isn’t enough. The mere presence of an increasing number of Black students did little to uproot the racism embedded in the institution. But integration and increased diversity rarely speaks to issues of power and validate the dominant culture’s voice. Strength in numbers alone, be it South African Blacks or Latinos in the United State, isn’t enough to break the hold decades of social conditioning and institutionalized ideologies has on the psyche of millions.
  • Lesson Two: People cling to what they believe gives them comfort and power. Oppressive systems use that belief to maintain themselves. Cape Town University creative writing professor, Imraan Coovadia offers, “People are fine with racial difference as long as there’s no culture conflict.” Change, even when it’s thrust upon a socially savvy sister like myself, isn’t easy. When – not if – conflict happens, we are challenged to change our language, our actions, our mode of operation that the labor pains of justice will require us to keep on pushing. We can’t stop with holding the bigot, the homophobe or privileged party accountable. We also must uproot the tradition or policy that made that behavior the norm or it will be repeated by the next person indoctrinated by an oppressive culture.
  • Lesson Three: Tell a new story. Students at South Africa’s University of the Free State have been engaging in conversations that challenge them to envision a new campus culture. We spend a lot of time and energy to prove 10 ways from Sunday how the status quo is evil and must go. But then what? A vacuum tries to fill itself. If we aren’t putting forth a new story, a new vision of a what justice looks like, we shouldn’t be surprise when the void is filled with a new and improved form of oppression.

Yes, we have to change laws, policies and practices. But we also have to change the conversations from the picket line to the Facebook newsfeed. Since culture is the story that we tell over time about they way things are and or not, we have to start telling a new story. We tell this story every day, through how we live our lives, how we run our organizations and especially through how we build our movement.

Whether it is flipping the script on how we define gender or who is a citizen, the nation-building task of storytelling makes cultural workers of all of us.

Feature photo: M.A.R.C (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tammy Johnson

Tammy Johnson is very clear. Her life’s purpose is to be a happy Black woman. Some days that shows up as a shimmy in the middle of a workshop on racial equity, and on others it is simply a pause for breath. Johnson is a dancer, producer, culture keeper, writer, equity consultant and godmother extraordinaire. Her kinfolk in Tennessee taught her early on how to be a love-warrior as they fought for their right to just be as Black people. Later as a community organizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Johnson directed living wage, welfare rights, public education and election campaigns. She has partnered with World Trust and Art / Work Practice, and spent a decade at Race Forward advancing racial justice at as a national organizer, trainer, writer, policy analyst and public speaker. Johnson co-produced the television special Colorlines: Race and Economic Recovery with LinkTV, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and Colorlines.com. As an independent consultant she has successfully brought somatics and artistic wisdom to the fore with groups like The Laundry Mat Project and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. The Oakland, California based Johnson stays true to her path by embracing work moves us all closer to world of justice and healing, and most importantly, work that gives her joy. Visit her website at https://www.tjuniverse.com/

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