Thursday, 18 February 2016

Working - as a person of colour and survivor of abuse

The transition from being a student to working is tough. The trade that you make for financial "freedom" comes at the cost of your time and autonomy.

Those of us who are lucky enough to do work we at lease somewhat enjoy, still face countless struggles in trying to adapt to the peculiar dynamics of the work force. In the work place, the social norms are not like they are outside. As much as organisations proclaim to be "flat", "title-free" and non-heirarchical by the nature of work itself, there is a heirarchy - someone with twenty years of experience in a field is going to have an advantage over someone with just one year of experience.

The idea of a flat organisational structure is thus untrue. It is especially untrue if you are a minority, a double minority or a triple minority. Let me explain. Single minorities are those who are let's say, black. Double minorities are those who may be black and queer, or black and female. Triple minorities are those who may be black, female and disadvantaged in some other way - perhaps a survivor of abuse.

South Africa is a country with one of the highest violence against womxn and children rates in the world. Violence against womxn is so commonplace that it has been accepted as part of society and in many cases, even among those highly educated and well resourced, is not questioned. Add the more subtle components of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect into the equation and we have an entire cohort of humxns of colour (and a few not of colour) who have suffered at the hands of some abuser - whether it be in their family, a traumatic experience, in the education system, in their community or inherited trauma attributable to the nature of the apartheid state.

There are many such humxns who have been able to forge an education for themselves, and have made the transition into the working world. The challenges these humxns face in the working world is unlike those of their peers and their likely seniors - most of whom have benefitted from the system designed to take care of them. A system that speaks their language and caters to their needs. Most of whom are - let's face it - white, or male,  and often white males.

Working in an environment such as this for a person of colour is challenging for the following reasons:

We stand out like a flapping fish in a stack of hay. The way we operate is different. This is not to say that we do not have what it takes to banter and cope with our privileged counterparts, but merely that we are not of their world. Everything we do is different. We see the world differnetly to the way they do. Even the things we listen to, eat, and laugh at are different. And right here lies the age old dilemma that comes from this whitewashed world - we have to make the effort to acclimatise to them. For instance, over the  years I have learnt to roll my R's less hard and soften my tone less I be referred to as "intense"(code for too black, too ghetto, too rough).

Equal treatment does not exist. By asking to be treated equally as a womxn (and humxns) of colour I am not asking you to treat me equally as shitty as you do my male counterpart (while I get paid less) or equally as crap as you were treated when you were at my level. I am asking for you to treat me with the dignity that you would your child, or your senior. That basic human dignity. Not to be a general bigot - which is clearly too much to ask for.

Our life experience is one of trauma and abuse. This is all day everyday, day in and day out. The microaggressions we face - as tiny as they may sound: "What kind of a childhood did you have that you didn't read Harry Potter?" "How did you not know what Mean Girls was?"  You don't see me walking around asking them "How do you not know Mzekezeke?" "How have you never seen yizo yizo?" "How have you never watched jam alley?""Remember the presenter from Selimathunzi?" This is what I was doing while you were at boyscouts and summer camp. This is what I was doing while you were holidaying in Italy and the Americas.

More seriously, because many of us grew up in households that may not have been emotionally stable, so that we had to protect ourselves from physical, verbal and emotional abuse - we learnt how to cope so that we could get here. Which brings me to my main point: This history of abuse means that we (people of colour and survivors) process "criticism" in the workplace differently.

When your white boss tells you that you are stupid, or that your work outputs are useless, discards them infront of you, and tells you that you can not be trusted, this can be triggering. Triggering of an already vulnerable center of self. Triggering of a lifetime of abuse resting beneath the surface.

As someone who is a survivor of intense abuse, criticisms brought up in an authoratative, superior tone are triggering indeed. Triggering to the point where I find myself unable to work in the wake of the trauma that surfaces. And do I have an outlet to express it? No. I have to get up and get back to the grind as is expected of me. Except now with the self-doubt imbued by an overly critical senior. There is a serious lack of compassion in these environments.

This post is not a cry for coddling or special treatment - it is simply stating a fact. We have suffered at the hands of people with more power than us for too long. This translates to no difference in the work environment. In fact work environments can be more triggering or traumatising because of processes that are in place to protect the company.

One such process is the HR function. Saying that HR has your best interest at heart is like saying that the tax man has it in your best interest to ensure that you do your finances properly. The purpose of HR is to make sure that our grievances do not turn into trouble for the company. This puts any employee in an immediate position of less power - automatically unlikely to trust the function - now couple that with being non-white and non-resourced and this only amplifies.

We are constantly treading water. Not consciously obviously. Consciously we graft, we work hard, we succeed, we exceed.  Subconsciously brewing in the background are the ways we were taught to believe that we are less than, and these come out so clearly in this environment of smoke, daggers and unbalanced power.

*Disclaimer: I do truly enjoy my job at times and do not want to quit. If you know me then this post is just an abstraction and refers to no particular incident - but an amalgamation of incidents over the years.  
** No shade to HR - just stating facts. 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Song for a lover of long ago

I suppose public fora are generally not the places one should pine over lost lovers. Not that I'm pining.

The great thing about writing anonymously is that one can be truly honest. And I intend on making the most of it. Inherent in all of us is this part of our psyche that tends to activate after some slight inebriation. This zone that activates makes us think about lovers that were and what we would do to be able to just let them know x, y, or z.

This happens to me every now and then and I suppose Valentine's day is a sort of catalyst for it happening again. So...on this note, and not inebriated at all, but after much thought if I could say something to my lover of long ago, it would go something like this:

"I miss your hands and your laugh. I miss the detachment and the thrill.

I miss your muscles. I miss your shoulders.  I miss your technique. I miss your general douchebaggery and that feeling when you were - fleetingly - not a douchebag. Ahhh the satisfaction of knowing that I can get you to be nice.

I miss how I thought you were so dumb but didn't care because I was insanely attracted to you. To the point where I may or may not have fantasised about our beautiful kids and compromised with myself in my head about their intellect.

Do you know that you were my best? I didn't even know... Until a couple of years later when I realised that you were so good it didn't even register... I really want you to know it - even now - but I can't admit it to you because we're not there yet. In fact we would never have ever, ever been there.

I remember the disappointment when you were less than I bargained for, but ended up being more than I bargained for in terms of execution. Well done.

I remember caring so little that I could just drunk dial - no - sober dial, text and facebook you not giving a fuck if you thought I was desperate.

Then I remember what a big part of the game was getting you under my control. And I don't miss it that much anymore... except that I do. Especially two weeks before my period, when my hormones are out of control."

Ofcourse in no real world would one ever let ex-lovers know these things. In  reality a lot of these exploits were just temporary distractions from deeper realities. And that is precisely what makes them so fucking awesome. So fun.

I recently learnt that the thrill of the chase actually activates the same center of the brain that cocaine does. And let me tell you... I have felt it. And still feel it. Even chatting to exes makes me excited. Not sexually. Maybe excitable is a better word. There's a rush. Do you like hearing from me? Do you still think about me?

It's all really ego-centric. To the point that it is shameful.

But - I have come to accept it as my guilty pleasure. I mean I know, and I am sure every person who asks themselves the question will know, that these are fictitious characters. They are so fictitious that the pining for a lost lover of long ago is not the pining for one  particular lover at all. It is a pining for the combined feelings that these pursuits have given birth to. The spontaneity. The fun. The excitement.

However, with the honest reflection comes... well, the honest reflection. It definitely does not take too much digging to realise that these humxn beings were never going to be deeper connections. There is a beauty in that kind of non-attachment and freedom to be oneself and concerned with oneself fully that means attracting people who we are just not going to invest in. And that is okay as long as there is a sense of self-awareness, and restraint. As long as there is not a pathological component. As long as we are able to weigh up the costs and the benefits and put self-care first.

Ofcourse I could write about how unglamorous these interactions really are. But who wants to read about that - especially on the Saturday night before Valentine's day.

So how about we keep it light and all you humans go make a new song for a lover that will one day be lost too.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Guys in the Beamer

Violent crime is something that we implicitly accept as South Africans. It is part of our social contract - what that means is that it is simply the price we pay for having so much in a country that has so little. This does not justify crime when it does happen, but it is an (unfortunate) reality of where we live.

This post is not one about the traumatic experience I had being followed home, hijacked and having had my partner assaulted about a year and a half ago. But rather about the trauma that ensued thereafter... and how patriarchy fits into all of it.

I am no stranger to violence. This does not mean that I want violence to be inflicted on me, just that it takes higher than average levels of violence to illicit a response from me (see: walking the line between two worlds).  The episode that ensued surrounding the day of my graduation - the day I was hijacked - was exceptionally traumatic. It heightened my sensitivity to the way our shamefully male entitled society functions as follows:

Given that it was graduation season I had  a couple of obligations on campus. This particular obligation was a prize giving ceremony. Unfortunately I was hijacked the night before and could not get out of the ceremony that was taking place that day. I was up until 4 a.m, after waiting with my partner in the waiting room of a hospital until he was admitted and kept for observation. I should not have been driving. I was sleep deprived and shocked. In either case I borrowed a car and made my way to this prize giving ceremony...

On my way, I could barely focus on driving, and was expectedly shaken up. As I got closer to campus I decided to take the road that goes behind Baxter and behind Graca Machel as a shortcut to upper campus (as opposed to the main road that boasts a lot of traffic). Driving on this secluded road I passed by a few guys in a BMW. A blue BMW. They hooted as I drove passed them. I kept driving, and as I looked into the rear view mirror I saw that they were driving behind me.

"They can't be following me" I said to myself out loud. This can not be happening. Not after last night. I speed up. They speed up too. I take a short right, they follow, we find ourselves in the parking lot of the girls residence Graca Machel. I drive up to the gym, they follow. I start hyperventilating. Maybe they were coming to the gym. I stop dead and pull up the hand break. They stop dead next to me. My heart is in my chest - this exact situation played out less than 12 hours ago, and ended poorly. My partner's bloody head flashes before my eyes. I get out of the car, choking on my tears and lack of air and shout out to them:

"Please stop following me, I am not a racist, I was hijacked last night, the guys... followed me home, they followed me, I have a prize giving on upper, I am not a racist..."

They start laughing and get out of the car. The driver gets out last and asks me if I need help, why I am driving and if they need to escort me to upper campus. I vehemently decline.

"No, no, I'M FINE." I repeat.

Tears streaming down my face and heart palpitations a bit calmer I get into the drivers seat and make my way to the prize giving.

After the prize giving I have to drive back home, on the exact same route I was followed on less than 24 hours ago. I can barely breathe. I start wailing and the tears are endless. I make it home. When I narrate my story to the people I am staying with I am met with much sympathy but also the response that I could have "manifested" the guys in the beamer following me...

I have thought about what happened that day at least a thousand times since it happened. Riddled with guilt at the fact that I thought these men did something wrong and my cringeworthy defense that I was not racist. I knew that these were "good" guys, I mean it was obvious that they were definitely not going to attack me in broad daylight. So then why did it affect me so deeply? Why did them following me shake me up so much? Was it a pure projection of my trauma from a mere few hours ago? Why did I feel so violated?

Fast forward eighteen months and I am sitting at a dive bar in town next to a friend of a friend. This friend of a friend - Andile* - says that he has been meaning to ask me for a long time if I recall an incident that happened around upper campus the previous December. Apparently his friends narrated to him that they followed this pretty girl who pulled over and turned out to be really frantic and a total mess and also happened to have been hijacked the night before. Of course we come to the conclusion that they were talking about the same girl because her exotic description matched up with what Andile suspected would be me.

I apologised frantically to Andile, and asked him to please let the guys know that I was really traumatised and was not racially profiling them.

On the way home I still felt uneasy... Why was I apologising? Was I really feeling so bad that I hurt these guys' feelings by profiling them because of my traumatic response? And then it occurred to me.

It doesn't matter that these guys in the beamer were not going to assault me with a machete or steal the car I was driving. What mattered was they they felt that it was completely within their rights to follow me.  In what world is this okay?

On any other day I may have laughed it off, or ignored it. But not that day. My heightened awareness and vigilance did not allow me to "brush it off".

I now understood why that incident gnawed at my psyche for so long. These mother-fuckers thought that it was totally okay to follow a womxn whom they thought was attractive. To keep following her when she sped up clearly indicating that she was not interested, and then to laugh, and as an after thought offer to be "chivalrous" and escort the poor soul to where she was going.

These mother-fuckers harassed me, violated my space, then insulted me by asking to "escort" me. Did they not realise that had they just left me alone I would have been alright? Did they not see that they have no business intimidating a person in that way? Aside from the fact that I was outnumbered what they did was so wrong, on so many levels.

This makes me sad. It also makes my blood boil. As a womxn I have come to put the feelings of men above my feelings. I wonder now how many times I have let incidents like this slide by me unnoticed. Coming back to the social contract under which we live, I am saddened that criminals are only identified as gangsters who hack people open with their machetes - not people who violate our space and cross boundaries because of their sense of entitlement awarded to them by their genitals. These microagressors walk around unnoticed and are constantly among us.

*Andile is obviously a fake name
**I feel like this post is controversial but I am unapologetic for writing it. More than willing to engage on it though.