March 27, 2012

When ‘Keeping it in Your Head’ Won’t Cut It

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When I was a young, stupid and shortsighted pre-schooler, after saying something scathing to my older sister (“you’re ugly!”) my mother told me, time and time again, to “keep it in your brain.” As toddlers, we are incapable of filtering our thoughts. We lack empathy and are, as a result, unable to understand how the receiver of our remarks interprets them. However, as we all grow up and develop welcomed social skills, we also learn the oh-so-under-appreciated value of constructive criticism.

Last weekend, the New York Times published an article arguing that Cape Town and Capetonians are considerably more racist and racially segregated than the rest of South Africa. While I have yet to explore South Africa in its entirety, I believe it is true. Cape Town does to some extent represent, as the author put it, the “last bastion of white rule.” No matter how much South Africans preach color-blindness, there are still very evident differences in, not only the socio-economic status of Whites versus Blacks, but also the lifestyles (e.g. a bar in which the only Black person is my American study abroad friend or a restaurant where I am the only White customer).

Cape Town has a long way to go (as does America) before reaching racial integration, but I think, despite its slow progress and questionable governmental representation (mostly in Cape Town), that South Africans can teach America something crucial about racial divide: South Africans may be racially divided (perhaps due to longstanding unequal policies), but, as I have experienced it, they are also actively engaged in social issues.

Landing in Cape Town I was startled to hear the word “colored” being used in everyday conversations as a descriptor similar to “blonde” or “friendly.” To me, the term felt derogatory and crass, but I quickly learned that South Africans not only use colored in an entirely neutral, non-judgmental, descriptive way, but also that they love to talk about race, socio-economic status and gender — and do so constantly. Casual conversations in bars are about apartheid, tax deductions and Afrikaaners’ land grants.

In the U.S. I think we too often shy away from talking about real issues because we fear being “politically incorrect” or offending someone, somewhere. We have learned, after two-hundred years of self-improvement, to essentially, keep it in our brains. This hesitation — this universal respect — we have when discussing touchy subjects like race, politics and economic policy is impressive, no doubt. White Americans hesitate to use the word “African-American” to describe a friend, and, at least at my Thanksgiving table, politics conversations are entirely off limits because they could potentially alienate someone.

And this delicacy we, as a society, have developed is incredible. We have learned what is inappropriate and potentially hurtful, and it demonstrates legitimate progress that “firefighter” and “Latino” have replaced their stereotypical ancestors. However, I believe that we have, to some extent, learned to tip-toe around one another so much so that we have lost important conversations in the meantime.

In order for both Cape Town and the U.S. to move forward, we have to have hard, complicated and potentially uncomfortable conversations. We all carry baggage — stereotypes, stigmas, judgments and misconceptions — that, if we are afraid to discuss, will never be sorted out. I am by no means advocating the propagation of name-calling or unfiltered speech, but rather, encouraging hard (and thoughtful!) discussions to be had, even if they get heated. For example, during what feels like a particularly drawn out presidential primary, no matter how much I detest a few of the right-wingers out there, I will admit, I sometimes admire their ability to just say what they think (albeit outrageous and said in the least delicate way possible).

As adults we have (most of us, at least) developed filters that allow us to articulate our thoughts without name calling, accusing or alienating, if we don’t want to. I think it is important that we utilize this communication and talk about the difficult, and often most delicate things in order to progress. It is a triumph that as a nation we have moved past terms like “colored.” However racial segregation, sexism, anti-Semitism and ignorance still exist and without addressing them — always keeping them in our brains — we will never move past the shallowness of political correctness.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler

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