Perceptors | June 2020
The events of the last few weeks have resonated deeply with the Percept team – we’ve been saddened and enraged, we’ve turned inward to engage our compassion and turned outward to express our distress, we’ve listened and paid attention, and we know that we have so much more to learn.
This is a collection of our perspectives. They reflect our diversity of experiences and views but also share a common grappling with the issues of our time, a need for sense-making, a sensitivity for our context, a curiosity about the experiences of others.
The inhumanity of having to explain your humanity – Rose Tuyeni Peter
I initially wanted to write something thoughtful, well researched with hyperlinks about racism being a public health issue. About the history of violence against black bodies and the racist history of public health in South Africa and its links to racial town planning as a way to protect white people from the threat of “dirty blacks.”
It was going to be impersonal and academic, but then I spent a lot of time on the phone with a friend who is a PhD student at the UCT School of Economics. She vented her frustration about how much silence there was in the department on the Nattrass paper. How lonely she felt because she felt she had no one in the department she would look to as a mentor. It hurt me on two levels, firstly because I assumed everyone in the department that trained me as an economist would be rushing to condemn that paper, so I didn’t feel the need to take it too seriously. Secondly, it also reminded me of how black students and academics often have to silence themselves in the face of everyday racism, even blatant racism, because they don’t want to seem difficult or for there to be “consequences” – whatever those might be.
Other senior academics felt that she was being bullied. Imagine that. A full professor at UCT, who has won awards, sits on the review boards of journals, published books, has had the power to supervise, pass and fail students for years, felt bullied because her paper was critiqued. I am not sure if it is arrogance or privilege. I honestly feel so hurt. Hurt because I assumed that it was obvious to everyone how wrong and offensive that paper was.
I think it is hurtful that you have to explain that black people are human beings with dignity and not abstract subjects of research. Having to keep saying that is dehumanising. The way George Floyd died was so absolutely awful and I do not want to compare my experience to that at all. But it sometimes feels like a metaphor for how white institutions suffocate black people, no matter how much you speak out, they are unrelenting, and they do not listen. No matter how well you articulate the argument, they undermine your humanity in a thousand different ways – but because they ran a regression it is not racist science, it’s just what the data shows. They are not perpetuating racist beliefs, they are exercising academic freedom. Academia shows that black lives do not matter all the time, in many different ways.
Anyway, I did not write what I initially intended; I wrote a strongly worded email to the HOD of the UCT School of Economics instead.
May we speak out and take action – Mufaro Chiwara
George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have shaken me up more than I would have expected. I am both infuriated and genuinely saddened by the racial injustices in America. An event many thousands of kilometres away invoked such strong emotion in me. It isn’t clear to me why I, and so many other people across the world, have felt so strongly about these events but regularly turn blind eyes to the injustices in our own communities. How do we cry for George Floyd when we barely gave Collins Khosa a mention? How do we fight for institutional change in America and yet let Xenophobia persist in our own communities? These too are issues of black lives being treated as valueless, right here on our door steps, yet there was nowhere near as much consolidated rage for these injustices.
These are just the injustices that have a direct link to the BLM message. South Africa is filled with social injustices, poverty, crime, health issues, corruption, etc; too much of which we have come to accept as a normal part of living in the country. These protests have served as a reminder to look critically at our standing here in South Africa. How many broken systems are we living with? Systems that devalue lives and undermine our human rights. We’ve felt such disappointment in the officers in America who have not stood up to the racism in their institutions but so many of us are silent bystanders where we see injustice around us. It seems to me from the Floyd killing and the police brutality in the protests that just being a good cop doesn’t do enough good. It needs to be taken a step further. The good cop needs to be willing to speak up and go against the bad.
I think the global support for Black Lives Matter is truly beautiful and it’s inspiring to see the effects it has had in other regions such as the UK in addressing some of their racial challenges. But, I hope it doesn’t end at police reforms or institutional racism. As important as ending racism is, it is not the only pressing challenge. May we match the energy we have for these protests and direct it at the various injustices in our communities, day to day. May we speak out and take action, despite it being difficult or awkward. May we actively work to make the country and world a better place to live for all of us.
We need to be actively anti-racist – Jason Webster
My main thoughts and reflections stemming from the BLM movement is how we as (specifically white) individuals need to use our voice and positions of privilege to tackle racism and systematic oppression. Being complicity “not racist” is not enough, we need to be actively anti-racist. The former has always been relatively easy. When we are not the direct target of oppression, it is easy to look away when seeing it. To drive past townships and ignore the system that led to their existence. To ignore those that think “back then” was a better time, because engaging with them is not worth the effort. To be actively anti-racist is to make the effort. To call out everyone: friends, family, colleagues, and workplaces; and tell them that their behaviour is no longer acceptable. Not only to call out racism when we see it, but to actively raise the voices of those around us that have been silenced though decades of systematic oppression. We need to become the people that racists fear, and to behave in such a way that it is contagious such that others who are privileged look to us as examples of anti-racism, who then change their own behaviour to fight the systems that have been put in place to oppress a majority in service of a minority. Long standing systematic oppression can only be met with systematic deconstruction, and we all need to be part of the deconstruction efforts.
On a more personal reflection, I have often wondered if I have done enough. Growing up in a small town with closed minds, I was often met with instances of blatant racism. I have been in homes where the old South African flag was hung up proudly in peoples living rooms. In my formative years, I could do little but gawk, not understanding the full implications of what the flag meant and what it told me of the people living there. Since my formative years, I have tried to use my position of privilege to raise those voices around me who may have been less privileged, and to confront racism head on.
In a personally unsuccessful attempt against the system, I’m reminded of a time during my masters where I was on an organising committee for a statistical workshop. The professor in charge had mentioned he wanted the workshop to operate at a “white level of competence”. I was alone (on a committee of four) in confronting him for this. He apologised and believed the matter was over. I left it, but a long year later decided I should have taken it further and laid an official complaint against him to the university. The result of the investigation that followed was that he had “said a regrettable thing for which he apologised” and nothing of any major consequence came from it. I wonder then whether I should have reported the incident sooner or if I had been more experienced or presented a better case, would the outcome have been different. I regret having not acted sooner but hope that the action of the investigation and official processes had at least left some mark on him and the system that had protected him.
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction – Aphiwe Baleni
I have been intentional to restrict the amount of BLM content I consume in the past few weeks, for example I haven’t and do not intend on watching the video of George Floyd’s death as I find such content emotionally distressing. The first difficulty is watching/reading the actual racist act that emerges in different ways. But after the event – be it a school assignment or questionable research or police brutality – the second difficulty is the intellectualism that then ensues and requires mental effort to motivate to others on why the act was racist and argue for basic civilities or decency. This second point is illustrated well by the comedian Michael Che, “we can’t even agree on ‘black lives matter’… how is this a controversial statement ..what can be less than matter, exists?’ He makes a similar point about equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, to have people fighting for equal rights, not more, just equal.
The one incident that I was not able to stay away from was the research by Nicoli Nattrass. I was interested in the question that she set out to answer. But the paper left a lot to be desired – ranging from a lack of motivation for the framework used to decide on the questions and the small sample that she admittedly described as opportunistic and unrepresentative. I would have hoped that if we are dealing with sensitive topics, we would employ more rigour but perhaps that is asking for too much. I then went into a rabbit hole and found her other ‘interesting’ research. Fortunately, the following quote by Toni Morrison has been my guiding light and it pulled me out of the rabbit hole and many others
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
The irony of writing this is not lost to me.
I am listening – Jodi Wishnia
During the BLM protests, I have seen so many posts stating “the pandemic is systemic racism”. In the face of a global public health pandemic we are reminded, as always, that everything is intersectional.
South Africa is no stranger to racism or police brutality. Both feature heavily in our past, but also firmly in our current state. We all read with horror the findings from the investigation into Collins Khosa’s death at the hands of the SANDF- eerily reminiscent of the “he slipped on a bar of soap” excuse for deaths in detention during Apartheid. The more recent IPID investigations show witness intimidation and other abuses of power. All while our Government puts out statements in support of BLM. The irony is palpable.
As a white South African woman, I am listening. I want to ensure that I am actively anti-racist and that my circles and spheres of privilege are too. I stand wholly behind BLM and the calls to defund the police and re-fund social services sectors.
Mean reversion: individual agency and social solidarity – Shivani Ranchod
I read Overstory in December last year – it’s a magnificent piece of fiction which weaves in a scientific understanding of trees. I was struck by how we encounter trees as individuals, but in reality, they exist as a deeply connected community. I think humans are the same – at first glance, 8 billion disparate individuals, but in reality, profoundly socially connected creatures who thrive on communication, community and shared imagination.
The functioning of human society seems to me to be a delicate balance between individual agency and social solidarity. When we err too far on one side it creates systemic pressure to revert to the mean. Soviet Russia didn’t pay sufficient attention to the individual, modern day America doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the collective.
Covid-19 and the associated economic shocks have been a clarion call towards social solidarity. They have grabbed our attention by being pervasive but have also shone a light on our vulnerabilities: those who do not have access to healthcare, the elderly, the incarcerated, the bodies already ravaged by other diseases, inequality. In South Africa, Black bodies are more vulnerable to Covid-19, Black bodies have poorer access to healthcare, Black bodies are more vulnerable to economic shocks.
Looked at through “a mean reversion” lens, it feels unsurprising that the BLM uprising has followed so closely on the heels of Covid-19 – it is another call to solidarity. Social and institutional structures that ignore the interconnected nature of human beings are unsustainable – institutional racism, end-stage capitalism and health care systems that don’t provide universal health coverage are all examples. To dismantle institutional racism, we have to take a long, hard look at the supporting structures on which our society is built.
Closer to home, it would serve us well to pay close attention to the fractures in our society – our own police brutality, our own institutionalised prejudice, our own deep inequality.
On a more personal level, how do we go about shifting our own engagement with systemic issues? To me, it all comes down to awareness and compassion.
Awareness is necessary to make the unfamiliar familiar. We would do well to remember that we descended from the nervous apes (the brave apes were eaten…) and are wired to see threats. Dismantling otherness means building familiarity with the lived experience of others. Read, listen to podcasts, build relationships with people who aren’t the same as you.
Mindfulness practices help build empathic neural pathways and teach us how to listen deeply. Research on compassion practices show how primed human brains are for compassion – we just need to direct our attention there.
Given the weight of history and the scale of the systemic issues, it is easy to feel like awareness and compassion aren’t sufficient. The collective is made up of individuals, and the collective can’t shift unless individuals make it possible to shift. True compassion isn’t just about connecting with the experiences of others and paying attention – it’s also about the compassionate action that arises from really caring. Compassion ignites courage and compels us to act. If we start with compassion and return to compassion, the collective commitment to both dismantling and re-building will emerge as a natural consequence.
“I can’t breathe” – Dave Strugnell
In my early childhood, I was asthmatic and a frequent bronchitis sufferer. In teenage years and adulthood, the asthma weakened to the point where it just seemed to have gone away: for many years, I didn’t even keep an inhaler close at hand, having become quite blasé about my new normal. But then last autumn, it came back with a vengeance: a recurrent chest infection that rolled in waves for three months, fitting in a small handful of quite debilitating asthma attacks. And I was reminded for the first time in decades of the feeling of helplessness that comes with being almost, but thankfully not quite, entirely unable to suck in oxygen; reminded of our always tenuous link to life, and that the threads of that link are inextricably woven around the breath.
I am a white man in a world largely designed by, and for, white men. I can be conscious of that fact, and of the privilege that goes with it, but it’s difficult for me, for any of us, to see things in a real and felt way other than through the lens of our personal experiences and circumstance. While I can intellectually grasp the special challenges of being a young person of colour in a deeply prejudiced society with power structures set up to entrench and enforce that prejudice, making the emotional connection to how it must *feel* to be a black man on the receiving end of police force entirely disproportionate to the situation, and entirely at odds with how I would be treated in exactly the same circumstances varying only my skin colour, is nigh on impossible without a Zen monk degree of universal compassion. My emotional bridge to that is “I can’t breathe”; the phrase resonates with me deeply because I can identify with the helplessness that comes from an inability to draw breath. But the identification can only go a short part of the way: I can usually obtain relief from a sharp pump from an asthma inhaler; there are no strategies to protect breath against the heavy, vindictive knee of a member of the force supposed to protect its citizens, armed to the teeth with both weapons and prejudice.
Eric Garner. Javier Ambler. Manuel Ellis. George Floyd. And the many thousands of other victims of racism and police brutality, in the United States, in South Africa and around the globe. May your suffering and sacrifice continue to inspire the demand for a dismantling of power structures that perpetuate prejudices and discriminations that have never served humanity. And remind us constantly that Black Lives Matter. And yes, of course, all lives matter, but that empty counter-slogan does nothing but deflect attention from the simple and unacceptable fact that it is black lives, and lives of marginalised and vulnerable social groups in general, which are disproportionately at risk in a society which effectively treats them as if they matter far less.