Almost five months. I lived in South Africa for almost 5 months. I could hardly imagine so much fun and pain, so many learned lessons and new perspectives, so many breathtaking and tragic sights all could be crammed into a mere 150 days. Yet I experienced all that and more. The John Luke that stepped onto the South Africa soil on the 2nd of July is drastically different from the John Luke that stepped into O’Hare International Airport on the 23rd of November.
As my time in South Africa has come to a close, I have taken some time to reflect on what lessons impacted me in the now and will continue to impact me for the rest of my life.
My change in South Africa can best be described as becoming woke.
Woke is a millennial term that urban dictionary defines as the state of “being aware” or “knowing what’s going on in the community.” This typically describes people “waking up” to issues of race or social justice. In South Africa, my woke process began as I came to understand society in a whole new light, see injustice in the day to day, and understand my place in it all.
University of Cape Town offered one of the most transformative classes I have ever taken: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. In this sociology class, I learned that society is set up in a way which gives a person who fits into a certain mold the most power while those that do no fit the mold are left in the margins. When there is power, there is often oppression, and those that feel that pang of oppression are those that are in the margins. A lot of that is just words, so who holds the most power? Who fits in the mold in which society’s structures give the most power? In reference to race, class, gender, and sexuality the mold typically holds the white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, masculine male. And everyone outside of that – Blacks, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, low class citizens, women, Non-binary persons, disabled, queer individuals – are all people who will feel that pang of oppression.
These are all concepts that I had maybe seen before or heard others talk about, but I never before really had to think about them. My rural Indiana childhood home didn’t make me think about it. My friendly and welcoming West Michigan environment and college didn’t make me think about it. My whole world, which I realized was predominately white, middle class, and heterosexual, didn’t make me think about it because truthfully, it didn’t affect me as a white male.
Yet that unawareness was not possible while being in South Africa. The moment I arrived, I was surrounded by oppression as I saw the difference of extreme wealth and extreme poverty within a 10 mile radius (as seen in my first blog in SA). This wasn’t just poverty linked to class as I had seen many times in US cities, but a poverty that was so strongly tied to race. Due to South Africa’s history with apartheid and colonization, race and its association to poverty and oppression was very prevalent in my day to day interactions – from who held what positions to the opportunities of my fellow classmates to the beggars on the streets. Apartheid had only been lifted about 20 years ago, so being in South Africa was like being in an environment that was the United States 20 years after the Jim Crow laws were abolished. Even though 79.2% of South Africa is made up of black Africans, while the rest are white, Indian, and other, the 8.9% of white South Africans hold the most power (2011 SA Census). As white supremacy and privilege screamed at me every day in all my interactions and conversations, it made me think about the world I lived in.
I had to ask myself “who am I and what does my privilege mean?” I started to understand that due to my race, due to my class, due to my biological sex, due to my sexuality, due to my nationality of an American – I held extreme privilege in society. I reflected how I saw myself potentially abusing my privileged place of power and how even the simple little actions I did could be oppressive . For example, South Africa has this amazing place located in Woodstock called the Old Biscuit Mill which is essentially a farmer’s market on Saturdays that has the BEST food. Much talk and excitement had been built up about going to this must-do location while in Cape Town, yet the first thing noticed when I woke up one Saturday morning to check this adventure off of my list was how white (in terms of race) the Old Biscuit Mill was. And in understanding the location more, I realized, that though the Old Biscuit Mill was a nice family friendly Saturday morning outing, it was the work of gentrification, or the upscaling of a specific area that then causes the cost of living to increase in that area and pushes the poor residents, usually those of color, out of the neighborhood. The recently gentrified Woodstock essentially had a financial apartheid and again the white privileged people were the ones that benefited from it. When I was providing my business at this market, I felt like I was just feeding into the oppression and injustice. This simple thing that seemed so fun and like a must-do since I was in Cape Town was in reality, oppressive.
Through my awakening process, I also began to see how privilege is so wrapped up in the society that we are born into – both in terms of South Africa and the United States. I saw how things with good intentions behind it could be oppressive: domestics jobs, chivalry, or even Disney. Even though domestic work can provide income to someone of a lower class who needs the money, often the positions are filled with a person of color, and thus the job still feeds into the white supremacy system as lower class people of color are serving upper class whites. Though a man chivalrously opening a door for a woman is a nice gesture, it feeds into the age old concept that a women is too “weak” to do it herself, and must have a knight in shining armor open the door for her. Even if the intentions are just to be polite, due to the historical context, oppression is wrapped in it. Even with Disney, something that brings joy across the world, it wasn’t until 2009 that a black princess was represented. It wasn’t until 7 years ago that a black child even had the option of connecting with a princess that looked like them!
While my new understanding of society should have been liberating, it came with a heavy weight. A denseness labeled as white guilt, feeling upset about the societal oppression of the world and feeling guilty because, simply being born a white male, I held the most power in the system. This guilt also stemmed from times where I realized where I had been oppressive or still was. This is not an example I love to share, but about a month into my time in South Africa, I was getting off of the train and a black woman asked me a question. At that time, I was on high defense (because the train wasn’t the safest), and I found myself assuming that this person was another beggar and wanted money. So when she asked the question, I responded how I often had responded to beggars: In a sympathetic voice, “Sorry. I don’t have anything.” I didn’t even realize until later that this black woman just wanted to know how to get to the other side of the tracks. I was being oppressive in terms of class and race in this situation – not even giving my time to listen. I instantly felt terrible for what I had done, but it also made me realize my societal privilege that I still had to work on breaking down. For the first time ever, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin because of the meaning behind it, the meaning of “whiteness.” In my discomfort, I had to decide what to do with this guilt – to either sit in it and be despaired or have a change within myself and try to make a difference somehow.
As I was sitting in this guilt, in a discussion with a black female friend, I asked her “What can I do?” And to that she said that I must continue to understand and break down my own privilege as well as be a voice in a place that she might not be listened too – in a place where she might just be seen as another stereotyped, angry, black woman. So that is what I am trying to do: to break down my own privilege and understand and learn the way society functions and the oppression and power within it. More than just learn, but to be willing to share what I have learned even if it may not always “keep the peace.” But to share, I must do so in a way that doesn’t just feed into more oppression as can be seen in with the White Savior Industrial Complex. So, that is why I am willing to not go to class during a time of protests because I think it’s an unjust action (full story here in my protest blog). That’s why more of my Facebook shares aren’t just funny dancing videos anymore but also movements like replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Day. That’s why I am more liberal, radical, and progressive. That’s why I am even writing this blog.
I am a changed person with a changed perspective. Why? Because of this awakening process. I could claim that I am woke, but even that is an abuse of my privilege because I still have so much more to learn and understand about the world around me, as I believe everyone does. I have changed. Never before did I have to even think that I was white and now the understanding of that is constantly on my mind. And it goes beyond just my race, but class, gender, sexuality, abilities, and more. A very wise person once said to me, “The greatest privilege is to be unaware of your privilege; to choose to be ignorant.” I was definitely that. So I ask you, “What is your privilege in society and what does that mean to you?” And with that understanding, “What needs to change?”
The greatest privilege is to be unaware of your privilege. It is up to you to make that change – to become a changed person, and thus a changed perspective.