Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When “-isms” collide: racism vs classism vs ageism vc sexism (thinking out aloud)

Recently a colleague made a jibe “not everything is about race” while we were in conversation. I would mention her race except that would perpetuate the label that’s been lumped on to me: the angry black woman. I realised that as one of the few black staff members, race talk is always awkward in the staff room. We usually play it safe by making jibes at each other by talking about the weird things Coloured people say (“You’re gonna learn…who learn you English?”) or the most recent one, why do white (often English-speaking) people think it’s okay to call older people by their name? My Coloured colleagues and I stick to titles (Mr, Mrs, sisi, bhuti etc) unless the white person insists I use their first name, even when they are old enough to be my mother (which is very awkward).

 
These conversations can be fun and light-hearted and we feel like we are the rainbow nation and we’re all getting along in spite of the differences we hold onto. That’s until one of my white colleagues say they don’t get what the big deal is with #blackface, “what's the big deal” and then I'm placed in the position of being the “expert ethnic” and speak on behalf of my race. Or a white colleague questions the credentials of a coloured woman because she doesn’t meet his standards about what an educated person should say and behave like so she couldn’t possibly have gone through the arduous task of reading and writing her Ph.D “she probably bought it” he says. Or I complain about the class dynamics and my class sensibilities are questioned. Who is the problem in this situation: the one who judges according to race or the one who judges according to class or the one who uses culture? The simple answer is, all of the above.

 
When I admit my class consciousness I have noticed some who says something potentially racist will not admit that they are racist. We don’t like racists but it’s okay for people to say horrible things about working class and middle class people. Why? It’s somewhat okay to be a nice guy and say sexists things from time to time, but it’s usually just a joke and if anyone takes offense, they lack a sense of humour. I’m starting to think that we have a pecking order: the racist is the scum of the earth; then the sexist. If you haven’t checked your privilege and you’re middle class, people often turn a blind eye to comments about poor people (“why can’t they just get a job?”). If you’re somewhere in between classes and you feel like you can point fingers at both middle and working class then you’re the expert because you’re in both worlds. And then ageist on the grounds of religion and culture is usually pardoned and the conversation can move on swiftly.

 
Of course, the problem here is that if one is working within binaries of race, class and gender the complexities about the things we say when we forget who is in our company can get lost. I haven’t worked this problem out in my head except that I want another way of talking to people about race, gender class without killing the conversation because I’m the resident “angry black woman”.

 
I’m just thinking out aloud and making sense of some awkward situations I find myself within. What happens when my “nice” colleagues say something I think is racist and they think I’m being too sensitive? What happens when I say something offensive but because I’m the “angry black woman”, I may be exempt from correction in the fear of me pulling the race card? It all sounds quite silly to be honest. Grown people who can’t have frank conversations with each other for the fear of being misunderstood.

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