Wednesday, April 28, 2010

We suck at talking to each other

Last night I was sitting with two Yanks and two Brits chatting about South Africa. One of the things that came up was the process of getting married in Zulu culture, specifically, the practice of lobola. One of the Yanks (Called Yank 1 fro now on) worked with/knew a Zulu woman who was about to get married and had told her that cattle were being passed around (apoplogies, I don't know the ins and outs of the process) for the purpose of her being married to some oke who she had been in a relationship with for a long time.

Yank 1 - who is very pleasant and NOT AT ALL the type of typical Sarah Palin charicature you may fall back on - then said that when she had spoken to the wife-to-be, and while doing so, asked the prospective marryer how much she herself (Yank1) would be worth, and whether it would be more than a chicken. Cue laughter from the other people at the table. Yank 1 then mentioned that the Zulu woman hadn't taken what she said in jest.

My reply was that I could see the Zulu woman's point of view. Someone foreign, white American nogal, was taking the piss out of a very important ritual for Zulu people. Yank 1 certainly did NOT mean anything malicious by it, nor was she trying to make a point. It was just something she had said as a joke. The Zulu woman evidently didn't see it as such, and it showed.

Yank 1 couldn't quite understand this. In fairness, I don't think many people who aren't Zulu (or have similar rituals) would.

I also think that Yank 1 doesn't know what it is like to have been on the receiving end of prejudice. I think it is key. Being prejudiced against makes one defensive.

What may have been meant in jest, was received as some kind of light form of imperialism.
What was intended as a joke was taken as a patronising observation.
What was probably intended as something jovial, was taken as a slight.

Being gay gives me a tiny insight into what it is like being on the receiving end of preconceived ideas, and I have become incredibly defensive before when I percieve a comment to be a slight on me or my peoples - anything that could be interpreted as your way is good and mine is bad or stupid or lame or evil or whatever.

And this reaction is not confined to Zulus and gays. Try Christians, Muslims, farmers, Afrikaners, handicapped folks, people with AIDS, traditional leaders, coloured folks, Durbanites, Jews, French people, New Zealanders, anyone who has ever supported the Lions, Scottish and Welsh people... the list goes on.

(Pretty much everyone except white athiests. They're a weird exception.)

So do I think Yank1 was wrong? No. I am saying that as a white American, she may not know how she is being perceived when jokingly comparing the ancient (black - it is a notable point) process of lobola against being bought for a chicken. And perhaps if the Zulu woman had explained why she felt like she did about it, things would be clearer.

In fact, if everyone spent more time thinking AND explaining, we'd be in a healthier place.

It reinforces the notion I have that we suck at talking to each other. People are never going to understand unless you tell them things. If you just expect them to know things, you're living in La La Land.


Boy Uninterrupted said...

oh Si ... i think i love you. i really do.

you've got it right here, but i think, ironically enough, it's white protestant males who are the only ones who can really hide behind the defence of ignorance. everyone else has in recent history been subject to other's kinds of preconceived notions about who they are based on what is basically a check-mark in a census box.

everyone else has had that RECENT smidge of insight into ignorant, preconceived notions, yet many still continue to hold ignorant, preconceived notions themselves.

Simon said...

Osiame I think you make a good point here. The question is whether people choose to hide behind an excuse, or do it without knowing.

From my point of view, being a white athiest means you have never undergone prejudice, certainly not in the sense that a black or gay or Muslim person has.

I don't think you can relate to what people undergo without having experienced it first hand. I suppose you could try. I certainly have never known what it is like to face racism as non-white person, yet I give enough of a shit to try. I think that's the key.