South Africans are Xenophobic

I write this as I complete a third draft of my PhD Chapter on Xenophobia in South Africa. The situation in the country is still unfolding, but certain attitudes and issues are rooted in history. 

Areas of South Africa have once again been experiencing horrific displays of violence directed at foreign nationals.

Across social media are messages and hashtags of shock, disbelief, pain and support. These, I have seen, are often coupled with sentiments that the “savages” (in the words of one of my contacts) are “out there”, not online.


That view is precisely a part of the problem. You see, South Africans are xenophobic. Not a minority: a majority.


Extensive research by the Southern African Migration Project shows that 90% of South Africans feel that there are too many migrants in the country. Xenophobia is not just ‘out there’ in a mob: it festers beneath the surface of your/our day-to-day attitudes and encounters.


It’s there when outrage is expressed at violent acts but no action is taken to challenge the administration or to challenge Home Affairs, which is mandated to enforce and monitor (rather than protect). It’s there when leaders are not held accountable by those with the economic and/or social means to hold them accountable. It’s there when solidarity is only shown when one is at the receiving end of prejudice (it’s easier to remove statues than to remove xenophobia).


It’s there when one says “this is Afrophobia, not xenophobia” – because while it’s important to recognise that this is violence directed towards (some) Africans, claiming that it’s not xenophobia merely buys into a rhetoric that denies the possibility that South Africans can be xenophobic. It buys into a decade-old system of denial, and in turn it perpetuates a sense of exceptionalism: South Africans aren’t xenophobic, they’re *Afrophobic*. How twisted it is to feel that “we” must be special in some way.


It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge the painful truth that those who have been oppressed are capable of oppression, and that those who have historically oppressed continue to oppress in different ways. It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge that privilege and disprivilege sit hand-in-hand.


It’s there every time someone mentions how exceptional South Africa is – a national pride based on how the country’s history makes it ‘better than’ the rest of Africa.


It’s there every time someone buys into exclusionary nationalism – how ‘proud’ one is to be South African, and if you don’t buy into that then just leave the country (!). For to set up the parameters of South Africanness means to fundamentally define who does NOT belong.


Yes, it’s a minority of people who remain eager to use violence against migrants (only about 11% of the population by SAMP accounts).

Yes, reasons for such violence are varied and complex. No simple economic or social combination of factors can explain it all.


And indeed, xenophobic violence can be argued to be a symptom of absolute social discontent and disempowerment – a feeling of hopelessness.


Addressing the social and economic factors which contribute to xenophobic outbursts are crucially important, but as important are the psychological considerations. The journey ahead is not short and easy, but a necessary starting point is acknowledging that South Africa has historically been an incredibly xenophobic space, and that in 2015 South Africans on the whole are, to varying degrees, complicit in attitudes of xenophobia. The illusion of exceptionalism must be stripped away.


This is a painful admission, for it goes hand-in-hand with recognising a failure to create an inclusive society over the last 25 years. But this failure also presents the opportunity to start anew and begin to create an inclusive space – one which, importantly, transcends the bounds of artificial and random nationhood.


I’m uncomfortable speaking about privilege like we do

Got Privilege?

I feel uncomfortable speaking about things like “white privilege” and “male privilege” and other forms of privilege. I don’t like debating about them in the form such debates often take (read: Facebook and Twitter wars).

The reason I feel uncomfortable is not one you may think. It’s not because I’m (socially understood as) a white male who is unhappy with relinquishing a place high up in the social hierarchy. Far from it.

Instead, the reason I feel uncomfortable talking about privilege (which is an important topic for social dialogue) is that so often discussions and arguments take a thoroughly decontextualised, moralistic, self-serving form.

Discussions, particularly in the South African dialogue space, are often conveniently stripped of other influencing contextual factors, warped under the agenda of political machinations, and not at all subjected to reflection and consideration. Claims about the need to overcome racial and gendered divides often pre-emptively shut down any critique launched at the strategies being proposed (be it through “oh, this is too academic” or “you’re complicating it” or other such dismissive utterances).

My discomfort stems from the very real – lived and academic – and disturbing trend of basing ‘transformation’, dialogue and social justice on identity politics rather than a politics of coalition and reconciliation.

Articulating my discomfort has been a bit of a winding journey for me. It started off with a nagging feeling reading about the Renate Barnard case and speaking to Merle Lipton about equality and change in South Africa.  It got me thinking about the categories which we employ in the law and in society. Admittedly, I’m not a law student and my understanding of policy and the law is limited to my own research. However, from what I’ve gleaned employment equity in South Africa seeks to advance previously disenfranchised groups including all ‘people of colour’, women, and people with disabilities. Noble, just, and rightly necessary to remedy the wrongs of the past.

But I began puzzling over something to which I couldn’t find any easily accessible answers. I was able to voice my query at a Sussex Africa Centre seminar on gender, sexuality and the law in Southern Africa – but no-one was really able to address what I was getting at.

The question I posed was: what if someone seeks employment equity on the grounds of their sexuality? Is this possible? Has it happened? Why is sexual orientation not included as a category of “previously disadvantaged”?

Interjection: I know that’s a contentious thought. I’ve tried to raise it as a point for consideration on multiple occasions, but it always – frustratingly – gets dismissed. I’ll get back to why I raise it in a moment.

The language, the actions, and the social views around change in South Africa centre (on the surface) on correcting imbalances of the past and bringing about an equal society. The treatment of what is now loosely termed ‘the gay and lesbian community’ by the apartheid government and by the liberation movement was nothing short of horrific. The apartheid government explicitly linked the policing of race with the policing of sexuality, and it wasn’t right up until the late 1980s that the liberation movement – and the ANC – shifted its ideology to make way (through much contestation) for the inclusion of “gay rights”. The history of sexuality in the country is incredibly layered and complex, and it is not my intention to reduce it to a simple linear understanding.

But what can be said is that there are numerous projects, resources and accounts of the cruelty that ‘gays and lesbians’ faced under the apartheid regime. Stories of the forced labour camps, the electric shock therapy, the rapes, the beatings, the systematised stigmatisation and encouraged social victimisation.

The promulgation of legislation, including the Constitution, has advanced – in writing – the status of (some) ‘gays and lesbians’ to ‘world-class citizens’ (say what?) post-1993. But it still strikes me as discomforting that ‘correcting the ills of the past’ doesn’t extend to – at the very least – a consideration for this demographic. I can rationalise, to some extent, why not. Some of the arguments I’ve come across include:

  • “Oh, but gays and lesbians are a minority” – Certainly. But as Chimamanda Adichie reflected earlier this year, “the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority”.
  • “Being gay or lesbian is an individual choice – there isn’t a real community, and applying the policy to such individuals is more about advancing that individual person” – So completely void of historical understanding. Void of all knowledge of the rich sexual history of the country.  This view also fails to take into account the absolute decimation of thriving socio-political communities by Aids, the government, and the lack of social/legal recourse to claim protection and solidarity against both of these plagues. It also fails to take into account the enormous collective psychological trauma of growing up gay or lesbian in South Africa and feeling completely disconnected from any sense of community, feeling ashamed to be a part of a community that is still widely stigmatised, or oscillating somewhere between.
  • “You can’t claim recognition of being a lesbian first and foremost – you would be seen as a woman, or black, in the law. And so you would be entitled to seek advancement within these categories” – Now THIS is starting to get to the heart of it. But I’d first like to point out how incredibly problematic it is to assume which identity or subjectivity a person values ‘most’. There’s something horribly controlling and authoritarian about declaring what someone else is and what someone else must value within themselves, stripping that person of any sense of day-to-day community and agency.

This last protest, however, does offer a legitimate realisation that in reality it would only really be gay, white men who would benefit from any sort of adjustment to employment equity views. The common assumption here is that all gay white men are middle-class, well-educated, privileged individuals – very often the case, but wholly ignorant of the reality.

Back to my interjection above: it isn’t my intention in this piece to claim, therefore, that all white gay men should be advanced within the scope of employment equity. It’s not my claim that white gay men are the most hard-hit demographic in post-apartheid South Africa, and that focus should be shifted to helping ‘them’. Indeed, the tendency to focus on (white, Western) ‘gay rights’ in other contexts, at the expense of other social problems, is hugely problematic. Neither is it my intention to critique the ‘fairness’ of equity policies – it is vital that we correct the wrongs of the past, and such critiques of ‘fairness’ are better left to legal experts for now.

Rather, the intention of this piece and my Renate-inspired-mind-wander is to think about how we view privilege, equality and progress in South Africa.

Within the current discourse someone has to categorise themselves as a person of colour and/or a (cis?) woman and/or disabled. And what this speaks to is a rigid hierarchy of identity categories which current strategies of change perpetuate and which current debates allow (even encourage) to fester.

This reliance on identity categories and the privileging of certain categories over others is understandable. Natural, even, given the systematic disprivileging of those same categories in the past.

But the reliance on those categories we resort to in our discussions of WHITE PRIVILEGE or MALE PRIVILEGE or RACE RELATIONS  fundamentally perpetuates the acceptance – socially and legally – of those very categories. And as Catherine MacKinnon reflects, “categories and stereotypes and classifications are authentic instruments of inequality. And they are static and hard to move. But they are the ossified outcomes of the dynamic intersection of multiple hierarchies, not the dynamic that creates them. They are there, but they are not the reason they are.”

I like that phase: ossified outcomes. The hardened, reinforced century-old bones which give skeletal support to our social bodies. But these sturdy categories of understandings are merely the products of hierarchical social structures. The identities, stereotypes and categories do not produce the structures themselves; they are merely the instruments.

And so when we uncritically perpetuate categories, and when we create systems based on those categories, and when we undertake noble campaigns which seek to bring about change on the basis of those categories, we are only fooling ourselves. For the structures which give rise to those categories – and thus those pains, inequalities, social ills – still exist. Indeed, we work with them ourselves.

Such a realisation is not new. Indeed, many friends reading this have shared similar thoughts and resources about how the fight against white privilege, or male privilege, is about changing the system – about changing the structures. We will always need labels and words to describe, and people will always identify with certain words and concepts. But it is one thing to have identity categories and another to base politics on them.

In expressing such realisations, where many of these thoughts and resources fall short is in considering the meeting point(s) of both power, and disempowerment. Privilege, and disprivilege. It is far more comfortable, and comforting, to speak about how “thinking about your white privilege will disturb you – and that’s ok, then you can act” or how “feeling ashamed about your male privilege is okay, because now that you’re aware you can change your actions” because it creates a clear binary between those who do “check” and who are “checking” their privilege, and those who are not. It creates an alliance between the victims, survivors and enlightened ones and sets “us” up against “them” – those not yet enlightened, those who exercise their privilege shamelessly.

It’s not comforting to think that some of those ‘others’ may be disprivileged themselves. It’s not comfortable to think that many of ‘us’, we who ‘check’ ourselves so regularly our metaphorical eyes are perpetually rolled back in self-reflection, sclera making us blind to our surroundings, have lived power and privilege over others. It’s easier to divide according to categories than confront the blur that is experience.

Discussions of change and privilege in South Africa often rely on a single-axis understanding of identity and discrimination. Race, or gender, or sexuality. The Renate Barnard case made me think of the 1989 case that Kimberlé Crenshaw engaged with – though obviously drastically different in content and context. Crenshaw looked at how the American legal system, in terms of anti-discrimination law, rarely treated black women as self-identified black women – they were either protected under the law as ‘black’, or as ‘women’. But the historical, social, economic and political specificities of experience linked to being a ‘black woman’ were absent, not understood, and disregarded. Crenshaw argued that rather than relying on a privileging of one dimension of inequality or power we need to consider “the multidimensionality of marginalized subjects’ lived experiences”.

Crenshaw offered the approach of ‘intersectionality’ – giving a name to a perspective that has existed since the 19th century. With its roots in black feminism, critical race theory, and activism, ‘intersectionality’ is effectively an approach – a sensibility, a viewpoint, a mode of understanding – which is primarily concerned with a critique of social power by considering and working against interlocking forms of oppression. A highly contested term (it’s become a bit of a buzzword in academia), intersectionality is primarily concerned with the politics of power and knowledge production and the ways in which these are implemented in and adopted by society. It’s an activist-driven concept which moves away from identity politics: it moves away from emphasising categories as discreet objects, instead shifting attention to multiple forms of discrimination, power and privilege.

And indeed a part of recognising the “multidimensionality” of life is that individuals can at once occupy a space of privilege and disprivilege. Of being empowered and disempowered. These are linked to the underlying structures in society – structures which permeate identities and experiences.

Intersectionality as a concept, as a method, and as a framework (many authors and activists had developed models and views about how to do this – Grzanka’s collection is a great resource, as is the special edition of the Signs journal dedicated to the topic) can be employed – should be employed – as a way to critique not the categories of power in South Africa, but rather the structures of power. Change should be based on shifting those structures and speaking to complex experiences rather than on a game of oppression Olympics.

It’s natural to expect South Africa to focus on race-related issues. It’s one of the biggest issues from the past, and it’s vital that equity policy address race relations. But I have a real problem not only with how this is often done, but also with how we speak about it. It comes down to the existing structures of power. It’s not that I deny that ‘male privilege’ is real and a problem. It’s not that I deny that ‘white privilege’ is a vile poison that needs to be cured. It’s rather that I feel framing social issues, social change, equity and democracy using this particular framework – or rather, using the framework put forward by many popular interpretations of the concepts – is not conducive to meaningful change.

Meaningful change will only come about when we have an honest discussion about the structures of power in society. How you can be a middleclass black man and still have privilege (if we consider privilege in terms of class), but still be disprivileged in terms of race. How you can be an impoverished, cisgendered, able-bodied woman and still have power and privilege – something uncomfortable to consider! – in relation to gender.

How, then, do we change those structures?

It’s not just a meaningless academic debate: countless projects exist which explicitly employ this intersectional view, rather than a single-axis ‘privilege’ view. Successful, meaningful projects – which are, unfortunately, not widely reported upon because our current language and framework for understanding often don’t allow us to see their value [I’m happy to share resources about the projects if you’d like to read more].

All of these projects share the recognition that key is a shift away from identity-based politics to a politics of coalition: a mode of operation where politics, policies and actions come from values and shared goals. Where identities stem from such politics, and not where politics stem from identities.

A privileged view of the world, yes? Perhaps. But one that is adopted successfully in other contexts. One that is certainly positively adopted in debate contexts.

It’s a dangerous line, and a potentially volatile proposal. It would be easy to take an ultra-liberal view and interpret the idea that everyone has both privilege and disprivilege as a way to excuse behaviour and not hold people accountable. It would be easy for it to be misinterpreted as apologist. Which is why a thorough framework for consideration would be needed, based on real-world models and a real recognition that the violence of our society, and the inability for a person – for example – to openly declare oneself as gay or lesbian in certain parts of the country without facing severe ‘punishment’ –, are, in part, inextricably linked to our current failure to address the systems which create such conditions of intolerance.

When we speak about privilege in our current framework we render those who are not so neatly categorised silent and invisible. We create divisions based on existing structures which facilitate the very privilege and inequality we seek to challenge. And we often fail to engage with other forms of privilege and disprivilege. Where, for example, are the nation-wide discussions about the privileging of South Africanness over Africanness? Over humanness? Of privileging being human over being ‘non-human’? All of these have a real impact on our societies and our ecosystems!

That’s why I feel uncomfortable speaking about male privilege and white privilege. It’s not that they’re not real issues. It’s not that we don’t need to speak about race, gender, sexuality.  Rather, it’s how the concepts of privilege are utilised and how they’re debated.

Discussions and proposed strategies for change often simply reinforce underlying structures. To claim one form of privilege is worse than another reinforces existing hierarchies of power, and makes us complicit in perpetuating those very hierarchies. We need to speak about social issues in a way which does not decontextualise privilege and power (note: re-contextualisation does not ever mean excusing behaviour or apologising – responsibility is as important as reconciliation). Intellectual engagements with privilege-as-concept do not necessarily decontextualise it – it’s just that often in the South African context popular applications and interpretations are guilty of implicit hierarchical imposition.

Let’s speak about inequality in relation to the structures which allow that inequality to exist. But beyond that, let’s speak about inequality and structures in an honest way: how we often select and choose who is equal, and how though we may say we are a society committed to positive transformation and full equality we often rely on (and celebrate) structures which fundamentally oppose our goals. And then let’s begin to challenge those structures, and challenge our own actions which allow them to thrive.

We naturally need to have priorities – but prioritisation must take the form of an intersectional engagement, or we risk ossifying the structures which shape our current realities. A shift in our view of society and the way we engage is needed. We need to feel enabled to speak out against all forms of inequality – and we need to be empowered to recognise when we are ossifying power dynamics which contribute to disprivilege and disempowerment.

South African Elections: Guilt? Pride? Neither.

SA elections 2014The up-coming South African general elections have me thinking about identity and belonging. They have me thinking in particular about pride and guilt – two things I really struggle to grasp.

I voted last week (I’m in the UK at the moment so I qualified for an early overseas special vote). I almost didn’t go and vote – as would be my right. As I mention below I don’t believe in the concept of a nation, and voting would endorse that structure. But on the morning of the day I decided to go and vote.


I voted not because I love South Africa. I don’t. I don’t love the abstract concept of a nation – I don’t understand how to, and most importantly I don’t want to. I love individual people living there.

I don’t believe in the “infinite potential” of the country. I fundamentally disagree with the concept of a nation and have no personal affiliation with the sort of national identity the government is trying to forge.

I’m not “proudly South African”. Pride, for me, is a deeply personal emotion. Am I ashamed to be from South Africa? Of course not – I am from there. Am I proud? No, why would I be? I had no say in where I was born or where I grew up. South African society shaped a part of who I am, but I’m not “proud” of that – it’s just a given, in the same way that I’m not proud to have brown hair, or two eyes. I just do. I just am. Do I admire the acts of certain other South Africans? Definitely. But I also admire the actions of individuals from other countries and other histories. Do I empathise with some of the struggles in the country? Yes, but as much as I empathise with the struggles of other people elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because I grew up looking to transnational identities or non-South African media forms to feel a sense of belonging when I was younger that I don’t fully grasp the concept of a national identity. I know a great deal has been written on the subject, but for me it comes down to the realisation that I can choose my subjectivities: being from South Africa is no more important than ‘being Queer’, or than being of German/Lebanese/Scottish/South African (not necessarily in that order) descent. Why should I privilege a national identity in an age of increased transnationalism? How can I be expected to attach concepts like “pride” (or “shame”) to facets of my upbringing over which I had no control?

So no, I didn’t vote because I believe in ‘the nation’. I don’t stand when national anthems are sung.

Rather, I voted because I care about my friends and family living in South Africa. I care about what happens tVoting South Africao them, and the conditions in which they are living. And I care about the conditions in which I live when I travel back and live there.

I voted because I care about certain principles, even if the structures in which those principles are realised are (deeply) flawed.

Of course the end result is the same. Whether I vote because I care about a nation or because I care about certain individual people I’m still buying into the same system. But I do think that intention matters, particularly in relation to defining and understanding one’s own sense of being and belonging (though to some theorists and philosophers argue that, of course, is all a part of the delusion…).

Thinking on that, there does seem to be some sort of shared danger when it comes to active citizenship in South Africa. A danger whether you support principles underpinning nation building, or whether you have individual views on what it means to be democratic. And I think this ‘danger’ is why I take such issue with the rhetoric of “endless potential” in the country. The danger: there seems to be a surge of (online?) voices encouraging people to vote, to be a part of change, to take ownership of the future, to be proudly South African…and yet between elections many of these voices are uncomfortably silent.

The danger is the illusion that active citizenship begins and ends with voting once every 5 years.

I wonder how many of those voices attend rallies and marches over the weekends during their free time. I wonder how many of them make daily ethical decisions about which shops to shop at, which items to buy, which brands to support. I wonder how many of them do more than ‘liking’ a post on Facebook or sharing an online petition. I wonder how many of them actively campaign for rights, or donate to causes, or call out day-to-day instances of prejudice. I’m sure many do. I’m sure many don’t. (And of course, many of those decisions can only be made when one is wealthy enough to make them).

I certainly don’t claim to be a paragon of good. I’m as guilty as the next person about not doing as much as I know I could do. I recognise that and I’m working on it. It’s a constant process.

Active citizenshipYet I do feel distinctly uncomfortable engaging with people who spew speak about ‘endless potential’ at election time and then do or say nothing more about being active citizens. Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect people to fully dedicate themselves to advancing democracy. Some people do, and I admire them hugely. Most people I know are just concerned with getting by day-to-day, regardless of the country they’re in. It’d also be unreasonable to expect that people, perhaps even most, don’t already do something ‘extra’ to speak true to their explicit views. Unfortunately I write from experience, and in my experience many of my connections have freely informed me that beyond being armchair activists and voting come election day they don’t “do” anything else – and many of them feel they don’t ‘need’, or want, to. Or – and this is the more common occurrence – they bemoan the state of affairs whilst actively perpetuating the underlying attitudes. Eating steak whilst shaking their heads about the cruelty inflicted upon Rhinos. Lamenting the spread of capitalism whilst tapping on iPads. That sort of thing . I think we’re all guilty of that hypocrisy at some point or another.

So I’ve wondered whether the rhetoric of endless potential is damaging to South Africa. Does the amount of energy spent on encouraging people to vote instill a false sense of democratic involvement? Does the speak about potential and voting and being involved foster a false education around what it means to be democratic citizens? Or do we acknowledge that the most we can reasonably expect is a single day of action once every 5 years? (If the latter it does seem to strongly sour the rhetoric of how much potential the people of South Africa have).

I do think that there’s potential in South Africa. Of course there is.

But I think that there’s potential in every country. In every location, with the right people.

As a part of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program I listened to a respected historian speak about the history of South Africa: she said something very unpopular, but something which stuck with me. She said there’s nothing unique about South Africa: there’s nothing unique about its history, its people, it cultures. Yes, there’s diversity and difference, but its history and future are not ‘special’. Extraordinary in many ways, yes. Admirable. Respectable. But not unique.

That’s not Afropessimism, of which she was accused. It was a frank assessment of her (very educated and researched) understanding of South Africa.

I think that the combination of a sense of privilege based on a false understanding of being special, and the illusion that democraticUniqueness citizenship begins and ends with casting a vote, is a dangerous one.

As I read news stories I find myself increasingly irritated and angry about the actions of certain politicians and “leaders”. But as I read news feed posts from my friends I also find myself exceptionally irritated by vociferous exclamations of eternal optimism, nationalistic pride and idealistic ambitions. Afropessimism annoys me – where’s the use in it? But Afro-optimism also annoys me – perhaps even more. Hopes and dreams are important, but so is a healthy dose of reality. I acknowledge, though, that straddling that line between reality and pessimism can be difficult. You need optimism to help you get through the harshness of reality – but that, too, is a balance.

Social issues aren’t going to be solved by dreaming, voting, and then retreating back to middle-class suburban bubbles. Whether you believe in nation-building (which I don’t), or you believe in a balance between individualism and a new form of re-imagined transnationalist collectivism (which I, partly, do) social issues are going to be solved by constant awareness, research, dialogue, reflection but – ultimately – engagement and action.

Democracy isn’t an end-point: it’s a constant state of being in which freedoms ebb and flow depending on how engaged a people are.

I voted for the party with the policies which most closely align with my own views, and for the party which currently exhibits the most democratic principles and attitudes. Histories are important to be aware of – but they certainly did not determine my vote. I did not vote according to how a party was 20 years ago. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to determine ‘which party deserves my vote’; to get caught up in discourse analysis – I’m often guilty of that. But at the end of the day action is required, as is the recognition that perhaps 10, 15 or 20 years ago South Africa had the potential to develop a truly pluralistic parliament, but that may no longer be the case.

The election has me thinking about broader questions of what it means to be – perhaps because some (most?) political figures and political parties draw on identity politics to stir up voters. I’ve seen friends post articles about white guilt, middle-class guilt, patriotism, nationalistic pride…and I’ve felt a strong sense of disconnect.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been trained, through my studies, to be highly critical of emotional connections to identity categories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve struggled, personally, with questions about what it means to belong in various contexts where belonging is so conditional. Perhaps it’s just because I have no soul. Ha.

But in relation to white guilt, or middle class guilt, or other forms of guilt that people assume (or often expect) I should be feeling, I often feel quite perplexed. I don’t take responsibility for the attitudes or behaviours of my ancestors. How can I? I don’t feel obliged to identify in certain ways, although sometimes resisting pressures to conform can be difficult. Am I white? Yes. Do I feel proud about that? No, but I don’t feel ashamed or guilty either. I just am. Do I recognise it gives me privilege? Yes, but I act to remain aware of that – I don’t take on guilt or shame for it. In the same way I don’t feel pride for a national categorisation I don’t feel guilt for a class or race categorisation.

I feel proud of my achievements, and I’m proud of many of my friends and colleagues. But I’m not proud of Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu – how can I be? I admire them hugely, but pride? No – I don’t know them well enough to feel pride on their behalf. I feel guilty about not exercising enough, and about writing this instead of my PhD chapter. But I don’t feel guilt about being labelled and socialised as white, or middle-class. Of course, it’s from a position of privilege that I am able to recognise that. But that’s okay – it doesn’t mean I can’t check my privilege and remain conscious of how I think and behave.

I feel neither proud to be from South Africa nor guilty that I do not espouse the values of nation building. I just am from South Africa and I just have a different set of ethics to a nation building agenda. Does that mean I will deride and dismiss achievements? No. Does that mean I will celebrate the potential of the country? No more than I will celebrate the potential of individuals in other contexts.

So what can I take, then, from these thoughts and feelings at election time? Not the hope that South Africa will enter a new era of prosperity – that will only come with hard work. Definitely not a sense of despondency that it will collapse into anarchy – that will only come when no-one fights for democracy. Certainly not the dream that the country will become great, and wondrous, and all shall feel pride – I have absolutely no desire to be a part of fighting for the development of a nation-based identity.

What I think I can take is the personal reminder that it’s easy to disconnect from the world and to be seduced by the bubble of middle-class seclusion – but that will undermine the ethics to which I try and live up. I can take from my feelings of frustration a reminder that constant action and constant consciousness is required – whether in the form of making decisions about where to shop, what to eat, or how to recycle. That engagement does not begin and end with voting. I can take from it the affirmation that even though I am bound to a national structure I can exercise certain prerogatives to take steps towards living out what I claim to be, and what I think are, my principles.

I can take from it the realisation that even though I voted if I truly believe in progress or change I need to follow-through with constant engagement and action, as exhausting as it may be. And I can take from it the very important recognition that even though I have friends who may not vote I cannot, should not, judge them, for they may be far more engaged with democracy and change in their day-to-day lives than I am.

“No fems!” – gay men and prejudice

Gay gym bunnyThis week I read an interesting piece by Brandon Ambrosino called “The Tyranny of Buffness“. It explores the seriously high pressure within the ‘gay community’ to acquire a godlike body, and the shame felt when one does not match up to the expected standard. It’s a very real account of anxiety and insecurity – something I can personally relate to. I’m pretty sure I have some form of undiagnosed body dysmorphic disorder – I refuse to wear t-shirts and shorts, and only go to the beach in jeans (though the advice on that website isn’t great – sure, I’ll just “become comfortable” with myself…so easy!).

The buff body, like Ambrosino mentions, is often all about a desirable and visible masculinity. For all the reasons that the article explores – resisting negative stereotypes about being gay, reclaiming and asserting power, consumer-culture attractiveness – buffness seems to have become the order of the day for mainstream (white Western) gayness. Like the article says:

[B]eauty acts hierarchically in the gay community. Those who have the resources to “Adonize” their bodies are rewarded with power and influence. Everyone else is excluded–and then blamed for not working harder.

So much so that national and international “Mr Gay” pageants repeatedly choose ‘representatives for the whole LGBT community’ cut from this buff cloth (really? In a contest where only gay men can enter you’re going to find a representative for lesbian, trans, and queer people too?).

Shameless plug: I wrote an (academic) article about this in South Africa, if you’re interested in reading more

Don't be a girly manAlthough Ambrosino’s article touches on it, I’m struck by the broader social implications that this trend has on being and belonging in the ‘gay community’. Indeed, it’s something I’ve really noticed, coming back to the UK after being away for 3 years: the clear disdain many gay men have for women and those men not masculine/butch enough.

Obviously this isn’t a new realisation: academics have been exploring gay misogyny for decades, and a search of “gay male misogyny” on The Google gives you a good few hundred-thousand hits (including this interesting article).

But what really strikes me is how the rise in ‘buff culture’ seems to go hand in hand with the rise in anti-femininity and anti-effeminacy. I mean it’s really, really noticeable. Like Ambrosino mentions in his post, if you go onto any gay social networking app you’ll find lines like “No camp!” or “No fem guys!” or “Only straight acting!”.

That phrase “straight acting” is incredibly problematic. As Niall Richardson writes,

‘Straight-acting’ is, arguably, one of the most offensive terms of contemporary slang. To be ‘straight-acting’ is to be ‘masculine’ and the term therefore insists on essentialist ideas of gender in which masculinity is perceived as the inherent property of straight men while gay men can only ‘act’ or ‘pretend’ to be masculine.

It implies that acceptance can only be found through ‘acting’ a certain way, and that straight men (the real masculine men!) are beyond reproach for what are their ‘natural’ (non-acted) masculine drives.

Rant aside, buff culture often seems to go hand-in-hand with effeminophobia – the fear of effeminacy. Many gay men I’ve met and interacted with do not feel uncomfortable around other men who are attracted to men, and they do not dismiss guys who identify as gay. So, often their prejudice isn’t defined by the idea of homophobia. Rather, it’s defined by their intolerance towards anything that’s not masculine enough. Anything that’s ‘too feminine’, and anyone who is effeminate.

Historically effeminacy has been merged with gayness (for an interesting exploration of this check out David M. Halperin’s How to do the history of male homosexuality“). In a culture where men are still perceived to be superior to women, gay men claim power through the privilege afforded to them by society for the prize of their gender. In relation to bodies, Richard Dyer notes that the importance of the body for a gay man lies in its status as a “last-ditch defence against merging with the feminine”. Effeminacy, then, or not being ‘masculine enough’, blurs what society tells us is the natural and obvious divide between men and women. Gay men have a hard enough time being accepted – why do some guys have to be so fem and act like women?! – something I hear far too often.

So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that in a context of increasing gender fluidity, in a context where historical male privilege is (in some places) being dismantled bit-by-bit, in a context of slow steps towards further equality, some men attempt to hang on to their power, embodying misogyny and effeminophobia as they pump iron and expect others to do the same.

Sure, I find muscled bodies attractive. I’ll happily acknowledge that. What I don’t find attractive is the expectation that all men should look as if they spend 2 hours in the gym each day, and that gay men should be butch, disgusted by female bodies, and actively avoid anything that makes them obviously ‘fem’.

What really strikes me is how often this is explicitly expressed in person. On several occasions I’ve met gay men who refuse to go anywhere that’s recognised as a gay space, or who refuse to go to drag shows because they’re “too gay”. Of course this can be for many reasons – a genuine disinterest in performance, bad experiences of places, disinterest in going to pubs… But each time I’ve asked it’s been a manifestation of the same reason: gay men have a bad enough reputation as it is, so we shouldn’t be doing anything which makes us seem anything less than real men. And real men don’t behave like women.

I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I’m sure some argument could be (has been?) made that this sort of attitude often stems from a personal sense of ‘privilege in crisis’ and a sense of social disempowerment. Men are led to believe that masculinity is absolute and attainable. Gay men struggle to be accepted as ‘real men’ by society. Instead of working to recognise the socially constructed ‘nature’ of gender, many try and compensate by clinging to visual markers of masculinity in an effort to prove themselves and show that their masculinity is not in crisis.

But to paraphrase Connell, masculinity can’t be in crisis, because crisis implies stability out-of-sync. Masculinity isn’t – has never been – stable. It’s unattainable because it’s an ‘ideal’. It’s a social construct.

Telling people to acknowledge this is easier said than done, of course. And suggesting it’s as simple as recognising it and moving on is as ridiculous as telling those with body dysmorphic disorder to just “recognise their own value and love themselves” (vomit).

Obviously I’m not implying that all men who gym are misogynistic or effeminophobic. That would be silly. And obviously I’m not suggesting that the only misogynistic or effeminophobic men are those who frequent the gym.  But I do have a problem with the culture of buffness that Ambrosino identifies. We should all have a problem with it.

We should have a problem with it because it perpetuates a culture of discrimination and intolerance, using the body as a tool to isolate and project judgement. It perpetuates a wilful ignorance of privilege. It cultivates a ridiculous hierarchy of social and subcultural acceptability and desirability.

So what does that mean? Stop gymming? Of course not. It’s been my resolution for the last *ahem* years to become more active at gym. I think it begins with (gay) men stopping and asking themselves why they buy into buff culture, asking why they expect others to be be a part of this buff culture, and questioning their own reactions to ‘fem guys’ and women.

Some men fire back that “oh, fem guys simply aren’t my type – that’s why I don’t want to interact with them”. Okay…sort of…not really – to a point. It’s rather shallow and absolute, but hey…each to his own. (I’m sure many feminists and queer theorists would gladly offer numerous arguments about the problems of separating attraction from politics…I’m not letting my brain go on that tangent right now).

Gender queerBut I’m not talking about sleeping with men. I think there’s a difference between acknowledging your attractions and recognising your own deep prejudicial and discriminatory behaviour and attitudes (or is there? Hmm, maybe not?). Saying “fem or camp guys just irritate me” (again, heard that one so often) is not okay. That’s prejudice right there, and it’s as unjustified as saying “all gay men are disgusting and carry disease”.

It’s not okay to say “straight acting guys only” on your dating profile. Think before you speak/write, and check your prejudice.

Ultimately it’s about recognising and remembering that privilege is relative, and that oppression and discrimination are still oppression and discrimination.

Previous Posts: Reflecting on UKZN

UKZN StrikeI’ve shared my opinions in a couple of other places. I wrote these two pieces about my previous institution, UKZN.

UKZN Crisis – A Letter to Management

And a follow-up piece, when no changes were made:

UKZN Is Failing Its Students

Unfortunately, very little was achieved from the letter I wrote (hardly unexpected). Although many staff and students expressed their thanks and support, and although the letter was circulated throughout the university, management seemed to take little notice. I was dismissed as an annoyance. I am no longer based at UKZN, although I have many friends and colleagues who both work and study there. They tell me that things are much as they were, and that all they can do is to keep fighting and working towards the best interests of the students.

One positive outcome from the experience of sharing these views was that many of the students who I was lecturing at the time read the peace and shared their outrage. It was heartening to see undergraduates take action and recognise their own responsibilities to take action. At a talk I attended, Mamphela Ramphele expressed the view that the problem with democracy in South Africa is that no one taught the people, us, how to be democratic. Democracy is a constant process of struggle, not an end point. People need to realise that the onus is on them to change things, and to fight for that change. If UKZN was (is) a microcosm for the rest of South Africa, the same view can be extended to the students there, and at other universities in the country: they are not taught what it means to be a student in a democratic institution. Being a student means fighting for your own education, taking ownership of your own future, and becoming outraged when decisions are made to curtail your intellectual growth. Bearing witness to that moment of recognition, even if amongst but a few, was a privilege.