A Story I Lived By…

My mom came home that day trembling and crying. At the time I was in primary school and she was working at the Free State Technicon (now known as CUT). She explained that she witnessed a mob of students viciously attacking another student in her office (both the mob and the victim were black students, this is important in the light of the rest of my post). They were jumping over desks and shouting as they were chasing the victim, and at one point the victim was so petrified of the mob that he lost control of his bladder. Hearing about the violence and humiliation she witnessed was, for me, a young white girl who had grown up in a very protected environment, similar to what psychologists would experience as vicarious traumatisation. Something changed inside of me and somehow, without my mom interpreting the event or making any judgments about the event, and without any conscious effort on my side, a belief was born in me on that day: “Groups of young black students are angry and dangerous. Better to stay away from them as much as possible.” 

The belief may seem illogical. Why was the belief shaped around the “mob” not shaped around the victim? Why was the narrative shaped around fear and not around sympathy for victims? I don’t really now the answer, but I do know that (without my parents ever saying anything of the sorts) I grew up somehow believing that black people are dangerous. It is just something that was there, without ever knowing where exactly the idea was birthed. And so shaping another belief in this direction was probably just a matter of following the same train of thought.

(I think many white South Africans live with this belief, whether we are aware of it or not – “Die Swart Gevaar” legacy of the Apartheid years still needing to be put to death…)

So this belief became a narrative, which in very subtle but powerful ways penetrated the way I lived my life: I went to university and because I studied undergrad in Afrikaans and found myself in smaller classes post grad, I had limited encounters with students of other race groups and never was exposed to groups of black students during my years at university. My only “exposure” to black groups of students was from mass media which portrayed black students to a very large extent in ways that confirmed my biased understanding.* Whenever there might have been information to the contrary, I am very sure that I would have not paid much attention to this because of the selective type of thinking known as confirmation bias.** So the narrative continued to exist…“Black groups of young people are dangerous. Avoid them. Have as little as possible to do with them…”

And so I fell in the trap of what Chimananda Aldichie calls, “The Danger of a Single Story”. I have blogged about this before, but she states that when we let a single story drive our defining perception of a certain person, group or situation it creates stereotypes and “the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.” The consequence of believing such “single stories” about others “is that it robs people of their dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

I believed a single story about young black people. My belief robbed them of their dignity and humanity. My belief prevented me from responding to brokenness in our society with justice (which is love on a public platform). My belief enabled me to ignore or judge protests and strikes without really knowing or understanding what was going on.

By the grace of God, for the past 18 months, I have found myself in situations were I have been able to sit and listen to stories of young black people. These stories have moved me deeply and have done much to restore their humanity in my broken thinking. I have been privileged to build honest relationships with black young people who have taught me so much about life, about South Africa, about the brokenness of our country, about what it means to be human and Christian, that I would have never understood if I only held to the single story.

With all of this being said, and in the light of the current #feesmustfall protests in our country, can I urge you not to limit your beliefs about this movement to only “a dangerous mob of angry destructive students”? Can I challenge you to rehumanise the movement by understanding it’s complexity? Can I challenge you to not only consume mass media on the topic? Can I challenge you to build at least one deep and genuine relationship with a person who has been protesting…? You may just find that they are protesting for the liberation of all of our humanity. As Desmond Tutu said, “All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”  

*Strange how mass media, even now, tells us very few stories of the many peaceful protests by groups of black young people in our country.

**Confirmation bias according to Wikipedia is: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”