‘Early this morning, you knocked upon my door
I said hello ghost, I believe it's time to go
Me and the Devil, was walkin' side by side
It must be that old evil spirit
So deep down in the ground
You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride’
(This morning I was inspired by Robert Johnson Me and the Devil Blues: but as well by the recently deceased Gil Scott-Heron’s movie clip. You can find this version at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OET8SVAGELA )
Although it is rather early in the morning - Jimmy, my Ugandan roommate for this month is still in a deep sleep on the other side of the room – I experience a need to write down some thoughts in the hope to be able to sleep with less dreams, thoughts and emotions than the first three nights of this winter school on pluralism. I want my evil ghosts which hunt me in my sleep to shut up. It’s Thursday morning, the upcoming sun introduces day four of the course. While I contemplate, black men are walking to the factory which is next to the campus.
‘White people are weird.’ A subtle but strong facial expression - rolling her eyes and moving her head - articulates Phumzile’s final statement after our first chat. We had our first dinner in the kitchen of one of the prefab Reitz dorms. We talked about food - I am a vegetarian, Phumzile likes to eat meat - and marriage: ‘I do not have any prospect on marriage, and I am fine like that.’ Phumzile responded ‘Haha, that’s so sad for you. You are 25, you should marry soon.’ ‘Are you gonna marry soon then?’ ‘No way, boyfriends are stupid!’
I did not really know how to react to that stance which seems to me a concluding one. I felt it was rather quick - a first conversation - to make conclusions. Although Phumzile might be just provoking me, I started to doubt: does she (primarily) see me as a white? How about my record collection, the books I love to read, my history, all those silly personal things which do make my life? Can I break through something which I experience as essentialism?
Yesterday in class I posed a question: If we want to develop pluralism, shouldn’t we try to get beyond dualisms like black and white. Don’t we approve the frames we want to overcome by using discourses like those? As I expected, the South African delegation, Hlumi and Phumzile as young dark skinned woman, and Helen, a white skinned philosopher did react. On the first day of the course, I noticed that while these woman were introducing their motherland, within the very group there was a diversity of opinions. The dark skinned girls were presenting themselves and their country self-aware and outspoken, although Helen sat half a meter away from them, a symbolic coincidence since there was no space for her to move next to them, sometimes nodding no with her head when something about identity and reconciliation was said.
Phumzile stated that the first thing I would notice about her is that she got a black skin. I responded the first thing I see is a woman. At that very moment I did found it hard to find the right words. Apparently the safe foundations of the way I move through this world got shaken, and because of that different sort of emotions did pop up: sadness, sentiments of not being understood and an awareness of an inability to express myself. I tried to explain to Phumzile that even if am labeling, I will try to deny my racist way of looking at people, because I want to find out who a person is through her / his life stories; the particular narratives. Instead of approaching somebody with a label BLACK on it, I would like the -or is it my? - world better if people say, hello, how are you? Tell me who are you are this time.
Is (essentialistic?) labeling something which positively defines or approves who you are, as something to be proud of? Or is it an harmful reduction of the complexity and the unending uniqueness and otherness of every individual? It is clear I am raised in the second style. When there was a black boy in my first year of elementary school, I did not knew this was a ‘neger’ (negro in Dutch language), because nobody taught me that word at that age. Culture filled me up with those sort of concepts later in my life.
When I had some wine last night, I felt tempted to fight my ghosts. To become a ghost myself and define myself in unclear stances. To escape essences. To be immaterial, to have a transparent skin, to be able not to be seen at all if I prefer, or to take any identity I want. As well there is a devilish voice inside me who tells me I want to hunt others like a ghost. Or, I understand that I am probably not clear; I am curious about the coming weeks, where probably and hopefully the layers of politeness will evaporate. At least Phumzile made a start.
Laying in bed, full of thoughts, I get mad and angry towards myself. Who am I to think that I am even able to get an overview of what is happening in countries like South Africa? The arrogant rich, healthy, white young man who thinks people can overcome labels or frames that I am. Can I do so myself? Am I just a stubborn idealist who will loose its romantic sentiments faced by some less positive encounters? Am I wearing an self-righteous mask while I am on the rich side of the world? Am I allowed to say something about the topics discussed? Which makes me the most angry is that after having this one month dialogue, I will fly back to safe Holland, straight back to my everyday life, with my studies, caring parents and insurance, while the people here, and as well the other participants, are more vulnerable to the negative aspects of globalisation.
One hour later, I hear people make breakfast, I smell coffee. Jimmy wakes up:‘Hey Frank, good morning, how are you?’‘Im fine Jimmy, how’r you?’
(By Frank Nieuwenhuizen)
Video by Evgeny Morozov, on RSA Animate