I sat under the air conditioning in a charter bus and simultaneously struggled with and enjoyed my privilege. This image is the manifestation of the division of two individuals who are phenotypically similar enough to be mistaken. It is in this context in which both individuals (myself and a South African child named Michelle) become victims inside the story of history. “I”… a dark skinned man visually fitting into the idea of the Dark Continent just as much as “her.” Only the last four hundred years separate us and in turn create (in our lives) very different fates.
My lineage is one that started somewhere in Western Africa, hers begins somewhere in the southern hemisphere of Africa.
My lineage tells a story that includes the slave trade, sharecropping, Jim Crow, poverty, and finally where I have most recently found myself— “privileged.” This final stage (my privilege) is a concept that the majority of the people with the inception of my story cannot conclude on (I find myself lucky).
Her lineage tells a story that includes double colonization (first from the Dutch and then the British), alienation (in a land that she is from), forced into a system of capitalism, subjugated and separated by the legislation of apartheid and currently thrown into the margins of poverty and struggle.
And through the backdrop of our two histories colliding, I found it to be a pleasure to meet Michelle. A girl who has held onto her mother’s language, something that I am constantly reminded of losing, since many here assume that I speak their language. I wonder what original language was spoken among my ancestors, and what it means for me to be well versed in English, but not in any other language, especially any originating from Africa. But I digress.
What was most striking was coming to understand that even though I grew up in poverty, I have not known poverty, not “this” type. This past week marked the first time that I visited a township while being here in South Africa. The name of the township is Lwendle and there were a series of emotional riots that I went through while there. Starting with Michelle, the little girl that I got a chance to talk with the most. And as she led me around her city she spoke of her fears and her favorite pastimes growing up. (She couldn’t have been any older than eight or nine).
So a group of 24 UChicago students (the majority being white females) were taking a tour of a township and getting a view into how the people in this particular township live their lives. I mention the racial and gender makeup of the group as a means to emphasize the importance of not ignoring the position into which you are entering a community. Whether that “position” is as a white person, a man, or an American (all categories of privilege) it is crucial to not ignore who we are when entering into foreign communities.
At the corner of this community was a museum that was based around migrant workers that lived in these low conditioned hostels in the 20th century. I wasn’t sure whether to treat this experience as a moment of learning, observing, or capturing. I wanted to learn from the housing situation in this community but I didn’t want to treat their neighborhood like it was an exhibit at a museum (even if a physical musuem was literally a part of the community). I wanted to observe what was taking place in this township, but I also wanted to interact with the Children who were innocently playing patty-cake and happily talking to us as we walked around. I wanted to capture what I saw so I wouldn’t forget, and encourage others not to forget the socio-economic struggle that was apparent in this neighborhood. This process of capturing made me fear that these people were being treated as exhibits, learning from them as if they were statues behind a glass. This type of “learning” I am against. But either way, some realities must not be ignored.
I could only interact with them through the window of privilege. Because even when talking with Michelle I knew that in a hour or two I would be back on my charter bus right under the air-conditioning driving back to one of the nicest and safest areas in the city. I do not wish to mask the privileges that I have somehow stumbled upon. The privilege to be the first in my family to graduate from a University, the privilege to be the first in my family to leave the country and travel to Africa, and the privilege to leave from the hot sun and the community in which Michelle lives, once we felt like we “learned enough” from them. I do not wish to hide this privilege, but hope to use it to better marginalized communities both in the States and in Africa. I have connected with an organization that works on bringing equal education to townships in South Africa, this is possibly my opportunity to help and continue to learn from the communities that I look forwarded to interacting with more in the future.