Changing generations

2008-11-05 00:00

On Monday, October 27, The Witness carried two articles about the politics of parenting in multicoloured families, in which Gita Dickinson challenged Michael Worsnip’s previous take on the ticklish issue of the continuation of cultural traditions in families who have crossed the boundaries of colour. There is of course a valid historical reason for the tendency to tie issues of culture to colour in our racialised society. The question is: in this process of liberating ourselves from racism, how do we break out of the narrow confines of cultures and identities defined by racial barriers, especially in a way that avoids repeating historical patterns of privilege and oppression?

I’m from the generation that bore children who were considered to be immoral. Isn’t that bizarre — because children came from love that was declared illegal new babies were labelled products of “immorality”. Worrying about stares, stereotypes and cultures of ordinary people on the street was a relative luxury … in comparison with which the need to register the children to provide the protection of being able to remain with even one parent in the event of the law using its full might against us.

Where to live at all as a family was quite a challenge in itself. But we did. And in whatever form, we came through and here we are —products of South Africa. Happily, the form and features of families made in South Africa are becoming more multicoloured and the issues we are dealing with are moving on to new places, with new issues, like those raised in recent articles.

And this is what we need to remember. We are pioneering new forms of family. Pioneers are by definition bravely forging ahead into uncharted territory. We are also by definition “not the norm”. A characteristic of societies that don’t deal well with difference is that the vulnerable and marginal more easily attack the weakness of each other — in part because the power of the dominant norms is too great to dent effectively. And those who we can more clearly see are those who reflect our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

This is the nature of oppression and how it easily becomes misdirected into horizontal oppression. That is a little what Dickinson’s response to Worsnip sounds like to me. It is raw and angry and hurt — as our protective parenting does and should bring out when we hear and see things that threaten to hurt our children. But I think she has misread the situation, considering that challenging racism would ap-pear to be part of her motivation — which is surely in part what the Worsnip-Putzier family is grappling with too. And angrily imposing harsh blacks and whites on to the subtleties of greys in the lived reality of multicoloured lives is to cauterise with oversimplification. Children of multicoloured families are not only one colour. To argue about black black over white black is to deny wholeness as much as matching culture to colour is denying the social construction of race in the first place. The colours we are called are political — they have no more inherent characteristics than they have inherent cultural traditions. If we claim that certain colours demand certain cultural traditions we run the risk of precluding possibilities of progress and change. There are no specifically coloured cultural sacred cows.

As families braving barrier-crossing, we need to recognise and celebrate the contributions to new ways of being that we make more accessible and manageable through our risk-taking so far. We must also not minimise the vulnerability that this exposes our children to. But we also need to recognise that we cannot claim to know and name our children’s definition. That’s the whole point. They go way beyond and ahead of us. And we, the little minority who are treading the thorny path without mentors and community and family pathways, need to support each other with love and teaching.

We want to show that it is important to have the conversations about colours — to understand and claim and strengthen. Because our children will be hurt by ignorance and bigotry and prejudice and just plain lack of protection from recognised “normality”. They are and will be different from the known and familiar norms of conventionally monochrome families and communities. So while we must be vigilant and critical of reconstructions of racism, we need to be sure that our responses are really anti-racist. Together with all South Africans, but much more fully and intensely so, we have to live in a way that acknowledges the powerful presence of political and social racialisation of colouring at the same time as we personally relate in colourlessness.

Everybody on the pioneer path needs to be able to participate in the conversation about how we overcome the oppressive traditions of colour-prescribed culture. Just as much as those who speak from within privileged identities in our society need to be careful how they affirm their choices so that they are not callously inconsiderate of subordinate discourses, so too must we at all costs avoid privileging the experience of some colour combinations over others — lest we betray our children’s necessary faith in us as rabid anti-racists.

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