Friday, July 15, 2011

white

A typical taxi (van) in South Africa

Being a foreigner, I have no memory of Apartheid, the struggle, Freedom songs or deficient social manners where one group is treated differently from another.
Being a human, I know personally the pain and wounding that discrimination can bring.
 Once, when interviewing my grandfather for a project in high school, I found that he came to this country in a train meant to carry cattle, although he had paid the fare required for the passenger train.  Standing, in darkness and without water for three days, he made the best of a bad situation from Mexico to California.  
 My grandfather told me this at a time when all I knew of him was that he was the stoic, but loving, patriarch of the family I knew to be moral and perfect.  
My grandmother, the best cook I ever knew personally, told me once that the women in town said behind her back "Greasy Mexicans!" as she and my grandfather walked by.  The women assumed my grandmother couldn't speak English...and their opinions were the correct, beautiful opinions of whites who could cook macaroni and cheese served with beer.  My grandmother told me she was called this because she cooked with lard.  I knew better than to correct her.
My mother (a beauty queen) married my white father (an honors graduate of Boston College) after he received approval from his family.  His explanation of her ethnic background was enough to deter any up and coming white man to get approval from his family.  His, by comparison, recognized the love and got used to the idea based on his description of her faithfulness to God and her beauty.  In reality, the permission granted was heavy and wonderful, considering that the real issue was that the children of this union (with their name) would be born of "mixed race".  
We were all gorgeous, which hardly mattered, then.  
On the playground, ethnic jokes were the fashion and at the private school we attended, and I seemed to be the only one who took the Mexican jokes too hard.  My sister, Patty, tried to encourage me.  "We aren't that kind of Mexican," she said.  I knew what she meant.  "That kind of Mexican" were my friends Hector and Leticia, who I was offended for...and I knew in my heart, I was Mexican somewhere.
As I grew up, the social movement took over the States and suddenly it was out of fashion to tell ethnic jokes and it was in fashion to be tanned.  Still, High School is High School andalthough I was beautiful and popular, I was not as pretty as the blonde girls around me.    
It wasn't until I became a Christian, that all I had ever feared -being judged and found wanting by others-was ended.  Suddenly the identity I had was lost to something else: I was free.  I couldn't be defined by any person, and I was part of a large, multi-national family with different colored skins.  I was part of a family together defined by one thing: our Father.
I became a princess.
When we decided to move here, it was shocking how ethnically diverse and still how completely socially clueless South Africa was.  It was stuck back in the days of my parents growing up, mainly because their social movement had just happened in 1994.  I moved here, and I became white.
WHAT???
I'm white.  
I knew, though, that I was colorless in the Kingdom, and I loved working in South Africa, a land as diverse as any I had ever seen. Our church was welcoming and wonderful and was our family.  It was exceptionally diverse, with a white and black population that stunned those around us...who had been worshipping separately.
Being American, I had no problem going into the township, and was rarely afraid of others hijacking my car or rioting.  I was clueless to the recent history.  
In my mind, we were part of a kingdom family that didn't listen to the racist rules of the past or the present, and we existed as who we were.  One as a family. 
It wasn't until two years ago when I realized that I wasn't one with my black brothers and sisters here.  It was a wedding day of a friend, a good friend, who I had helped.  She and her husband were having a church wedding after a traditional ceremony years ago.  They had a ceremony in our church, then went to the township for their reception.
 The traditional celebration saluted every community leader that had arrived at the wedding, but we were barely recognized.  This was strange, that the church was now represented by our fellow black leaders, simply because of their skin color.  We were now the outsiders because we were white.
The hardship of being ignored, after we had done so much to put the wedding on, was one I wasn't used to.  The worst part about it, was that I felt slighted and insulted.  I felt out of place (even though we led the small church sattelite in the stead of our church leadership) and unwelcome.  I ended up leaving in tears.  
Later, after the hub-bub of the wedding, I looked for answers.  The friendships that I thought we had with all of the leadership of the township congregation were pretty much based on respect, rather than reality.  My friends who were the ones who coordinated with me hardly felt sad or sorry, since for years they were the ones feeling slighted.  What right, they communicated, did I  have to feel this way?? I was white.
White.
 A few weeks ago, our leadership decided to make a decision about the public transport of the township people to church: the church would reimburse the folk for taxi fare instead of providing  church-sponsored taxis.  This would mean that peole would have to scrounge for the eight rand taxi fare to get to church (the dollar exchanges 1 to 7 rand, roughly).  This means that we (as a church) would pay back our members and visitors the same day they would pay for taxi fare, once they were at church service.  
Some folks took this as rejection.
A week later, we suspended the second service at our church (the one translated in either Zulu or Sotho, native languages here) because it was winter and attendance was sparse.  It also was hard to staff two services per Sunday.  The decision was a long time coming, and we spoke about it with the leadership of both services quite a lot.  
This caused even more of an uproar among our friends from the township, who attended the second service.  My dear husband, a father to so many, was attacked (with words)  for not standing up for the congregation from Diepsloot and Cosmo City.   If only they knew the behind the scenes fight we did to keep the service going, and at a great cost to us.
Tonight I write, gutted and wounded.  We had come out to make a difference here and those we tried to be family with feel betrayed and insulted.  
It's as if I am the women speaking insults behind my grandma's back, rather than the sister that loves them all so much.  
 I once knew what I was here for.