Friday, October 23, 2009

On "being pink"

Thank you for rallying in support of my "feeling weird" at being so different living in my new community.

I'm a bit worried that I may have come across a bit focused on the issue of "white" versus "black" and not only focused on, but have come across in a negative way.

Let me try to repair.

I was hoping to describe feelings-which really, can you describe something of which you FEEL? Really?--feelings which are new to me and that I've never experienced before. The feelings are uncomfortable because they are so different and are, I believe, growing pains at the transformation I am undergoing.

Before I came to Africa, I would comment to friends that I felt this experience would “crack me wide open.” More than one person would say, “What do you mean?”

I’ve felt that this experience, of living in another part of the world with people from a different culture speaking a different language, would transform me into a completely different person. I’ve felt that this experience would change me in every way: how I see the world, what I think about the world, how I value my world, how I value my life, and how I value my life’s work. I’ve felt I would change at a cellular level and become a brand new person.

So a part of the discomfort I’m feeling, living in a new part of the world with people who are very different from me, is a part of this transformation. I’m experiencing growing pains!

Now, as far as the “white” and “black” issue: I think I would be having these same feelings regardless of my color (or lack of color!). I would feel the same if I were pink, purple, polka-dotted, or tie-died.

What complicates things, I think, for me, is that I am white. If you look at recent South African history, and one of the reasons Peace Corps is even here, the country has gone through a recent, very turbulent change in government. South Africa has become a democratic nation and the nation is very, very new in its democracy.

What does this mean? It means, that although the peoples of South Africa are trying to live together as one nation, desegregated and working and living together, they have had little time to practice.

Think about it. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 in order to unify United States of America by declaring equality for all American citizens. We’ve had almost 150 years to work out our racial differences. Have we achieved racial equality in the United States?

In contrast, South Africa has only had a democracy since 1994 and has only had fourteen years to practice!

Now, South African history is quite involved-and very fascinating as it shares many traits with American history—and I’m no South African history expert (yet!). The reasons for divisions of South African peoples into race/class distinctions are quite involved and have evolved (devolved?) over hundreds of years. But it is my understanding that the government in power prior to 1994, the National Party, was extremely oppressive to any peoples not white in race, and especially oppressive and cruel to black South Africans. And the National Party was in power from 1948-1994. The policy in place to support this segregation was, of course, Apartheid.

Any guesses on the color of people (or lack of color) who held the cruel and oppressive power in South Africa for nearly 50 years? Yep, you guessed it: they were WHITE.

So here I am, a white woman, living in a village that is only populated by black South Africans. Let me repeat: I live in a village that is only populated by black South Africans. I am the only white person working in the primary school of the village, and although three other white people work on staff of the college, they do not live in the village. There are no other white people living in the village that I'm aware of.

While I am wanted here, and I am wanted here, many, many people don’t know who I am or why I am here. These are mostly the people I encounter when I walk about anywhere in the village. And for them, I represent, guess what? I represent, for them, a person from a former cruel, and very oppressive, regime. Now most people are very, very warm and pleasant with me. Let me repeat: most people, most people, most people! But I have noticed, especially when I encounter groups of young people (usually groups of young men), they seem, well, not pleased with my presence among them.

And I can’t blame them.

But it doesn’t feel good to not feel wanted or welcome. And these are the kinds of feelings that are in that very complicated mix of feelings I was trying to describe in my former “celebrity” post.

But again, I think I would be experiencing most of these feelings if I were pink.

I'm certain to speak more to this, but for now, I am tired! Happy weekend!

Best, Karen

PS Peace Corps is in no way connected to this post, nor does it support or agree with anything written here.
PSS The photo posted is of the fig tree leafing out back in August when I was living with my host family. It is the "pinkest" African photo I have on hand. :-)


  1. You are pink and lovely. You are doing work and experiences that are yours alone. We are safe in our community of sameness. We can only try to relate and I could try humor as to when I moved to Loretto, Ky from NY....but it wouldn't be the same. I think you are there with love of learning and want to make a difference, I don't see how you can miss.

  2. Thanks Bonster! Glad to have you on board w/ the blog... Although you probably can't say the same! Another @#$% computer thing to track/fool with...

    How are the Wademan girls?