More Equal Than
Mandy Messina, March 25, 2017
My parents, like other people of colour their age, grew up during Apartheid, the system of legalized racism in South Africa. The gist of this system, based on a hierarchical nexus of race and class, was always divide and conquer.
The population of an early South Africa included several aboriginal tribes, tens of Bantu tribes, some European colonizers as well as the various enslaved populations they saw profitable to force along with them from other colonies around Asia. Sexual interactions between respective groups (some consensual, many not) resulted in an even more diverse population with the addition of mixed-race peoples, such as the ethnic group with which I identify: coloured people. The goal of Apartheid was achieved by separating these groups into manageable categories and sub-categories, and legally enforcing that segregation, to ensure the White minority could rule over the majority - albeit one made up of strategically isolated groups.
Being classified as coloured, my parents lived with what has to be acknowledged as a certain amount of tiered-privilege that was built into that system of racial classification: they weren’t white, but they also weren’t black. They were afforded few choices in terms of careers and studies - a significant class/race advantage in itself – but these choices were still far more than what was restricted for racial-classes considered lower, or further away from being White. This tiered access to education left a severe legacy evident today in high unemployment and consequently, anti-immigrant sentiments.
So let’s be clear -
When we talk about so-called “Third World” or “Developing Nations”, it’s a devastating misnomer. “Previously Colonized Nations” is a far more pertinent and appropriate term.
The 1990’s saw the collapse of several systems including the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Apartheid government – the latter forced into a corner after years of negative international attention and sanctions. Growing up, in a rural part of the Northern Cape - which had been much less volatile than the bigger cities during the State of Emergency – the regime was on it’s last legs and like any system conscious of its decline, it had lashed out with full fascistic force.
Education became a new currency in South Africa’s fledgling democracy. Education equaled options – more specifically, institutional prestige was a bartering token in a country where for many years the black majority was forced into physical labor by strict and systematic restriction to further education.
(It should be noted that for many years during Apartheid numerous books were banned, perhaps most tellingly in this instance, Paulo Freire’s, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.)
Post-Apartheid, my parents and I moved to a small town in the winelands of the Western Cape, 40 miles from Cape Town. In today’s rhetoric, this is known as economic migration – seeking out better opportunities and resources for social and/or financial advancement.
Both my parents were educators, one of who earned their Masters in Education (Magna Cum Laude). I remember once, asking naively and casually about possibly ending school at 16 to attend Junior College, and was immediately and repeatedly engaged in fiery lectures about collective ancestral effort at betterment, undermining racial expectations, and not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Unfortunately, all I took away from those surprise attacks - which would ambush me until high school graduation, usually while brushing my teeth, while chewing my dinner or invariably at any time that I did not have a chance to use my words - was that it was probably a better bet to wait the final two years, move out, and live in the city. There was less likely to be such scolding in the city, I thought.
Thinking back to who I was at university, I feel an overwhelming sense of remorse and regret: I was a massive, presumptive shit.
Somehow, despite logically knowing that not everyone was going to have similar life experiences when it came to a practical empathy in real-time conversations, I incredibly dismissive of any experience that wasn’t more or less parallel to mine. Why would one feel threatened by the police? You work after school to pay for school, not for pocket money?
This behavioural flaw is something I still catch myself occasionally slipping back into today, and the subsequent cringing is for the current (and mountain of past) dismissals.
My memories of undergrad at Michaelis are getting vaguer – what I do remember is a paucity of instructors and educators of colour, and the subsequent lack of choices when it was time to choose supervisors for final year projects. Who dismissed my experiences to a lesser degree?
I guess this is where a process of realization happened – in the gas-lighting of undergrad.
Being cognizant of having my own experiences dismissed, I became slightly more aware
of instances where I was dismissing others.
Unfortunately, my passive-aggressive response to these issues surfacing was one of privilege.
Escapism can take many forms, but for me, it involved ignoring those issues from across a large body of water.
I wouldn’t get back into any significant art making for the next 5 years.
Living and working in South Korea for two years as an English Teacher, I struggled with whether or not to call out practices that I thought were problematic or if that would be in itself problematic – coming from a very Westernized viewpoint.
What I took away from time in Korea was, if an individual experienced shame from not fitting into a particular cultural norm, a more subversive and effective act was simply sharing information: that the particular system is not universal and that there were many other individuals like them in other cultures that are accepted to varying degrees depending on the country/culture.
This is something I think the Internet is most effective at: connecting shared experiences separated by countries and cultures. The way I see it, it’s a boon for those who felt isolated and shamed by not fitting a societal norm, but a bane for those who benefit from a system and are comfortable within their positions. For the latter certain progressions feel as if they are moving too fast.
Living and working in both Korea and China was another lesson in contrasting systems and the role of individuals within them.
Korea was a small, very homogenous country dealing with cultural exchange in a manner that afforded Korean culture a lot of agency and influence on the global market (K-pop, Korean food, Korean beauty products etc.)
There’s plenty of racism, sexism and classism – but the system is transparent enough in terms of allowing individuals to share their experiences (via the Internet).
China is a much, much larger landmass with a much more diverse population, where one ethnic group (Han Chinese) dominates a system geared towards homogenization. The Great Chinese Firewall as the prohibition of a pertinent few websites and services, is sometimes referred to, comes as a protectionist measure by the Chinese government, after notable clashes between the system and groups resisting persecution by that system (Tibetans, Uigers, African immigrants) was recorded and shared online.
When I started making art again, I focused on embroideries. They were easy to carry around in a bag, and whenever I had time I could put in a couple of minutes of stitching.
My series of embroidered IDs and Visas is predominantly a form of tallying the ways in which I hold certain privileges – they’re evidence of my ability to supply documentation (financial and otherwise) to support my entry into various countries.
But also, they’re a way of showing my country’s lack of privilege for being previously colonized, or as some might say, being a “Third World” country, or a part of the “Developing World”. I have to apply for visas to most countries I intend to visit, usually a few weeks in advance. My American partner does not.
They also present the various ways I’ve sometimes visually adapted my appearance to cooperate with the predominant social norms of places – and sometimes have not, and been beholden to the disruption.
The only reason I came to the US was because it was my turn to pay for airfare during the long distance relationship with my then significant other, and now, spouse.
In Texas they swap out a state Driver License for only two national drivers licenses: German and Korean. As dumb, blind luck would have it, I had a valid Korean Driver License to swap, avoiding several time-consuming processes at the local DMV.
What instead happened at the DMV that afternoon was what solidified the American Operating System for me, in regards to racial classification.
The DMV agent took my papers, took my photo and as they were inputting the information into the computer, stopped and asked me to pick a different race than African America/Black.
It was a very calm and matter of fact exchange, but I told them that the option I identified with in South Africa was not available, nor was the usual runner up, Two or more races, or Other. In America, I tried to impart, I very objectively was African and also, disqualified from being Native American, Latino/a, Asian or White, so clearly it was the most reasonable option, wasn’t it?
The answer revealed something more telling about the American System: Law Enforcement Practicalities
The agent very plainly explained that the racial identifier was used in the event that the police ever had to pursue me, they would have an uncomplicated description.
As I stood in front of the desk, with recently chemically straightened hair, the agent asked to see other forms of ID to help with a practical decision. The ambiguity thickened. They found that variably I looked “Mexican here” but then also “Filipino here” and then “White here”. It was suggested that the easiest solution (for the hypothetical police officers pursuing me) was to pick White.
Just like that, with no real effort on my behalf, I was categorized White in America. I was aware I had passing privilege, but here was the legal documentation of it.
I remember thinking of how my grandparents and great-grandparents had gone through very different, formal, racial-classification processes: During Apartheid segregation as a central tenant, meaning ambiguous people had to be filtered into a distinct category, eventually.
Tests were devised – one infamous analysis was called “The Pencil Test”. A pencil would be stuck in the citizens’ hair and if it fell out, it indicated more European or desirable qualities.
There were others, like a gestural test where the citizen was asked how tall they were at 5 years old – if they indicated with a palm facing the ground, indicated a distinct cultural link, compared to if they in another way.
This is how families where quite literally split down the middle, and forced to live separately. Socializing across racial lines wasn’t made easy either, because of the dompass (translated as Dumb Pass) – here citizens who fell on the lower rungs of the caste system were stopped for inspection before entering or leaving a segregated area.
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.
- George Orwell, “Animal Farm”
I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a range of countries and these experiences inform my work. It’s been instructive noticing how systems can be different, or similar, how various individuals are treated differently within such systems, and most especially how those individuals are all connected despite their varying privileges.
This means that if progress is made towards one group being treated more equally, another group might perceive this as a loss of their privilege or social standing.
From racially integrated schools, to government benefits for married couples regardless of sexual preference, perceived loss is very real and requires attention. On whom the burden of attention and subsequent action or remedy falls on, I don’t think I can adequately speak to at this point in time.
Mandy was born in Nababeep, South Africa, and currently lives in Oklahoma City. They're a graduate of the University of Cape Town, where they majored in Sculpture.
Mandy is an interdisciplinary artist and educator exploring ideas around systems and the individuals’ role within such apparatus. Current projects focus on the disruptive capabilities of fiction – specifically, alternate histories.
"I’m an artist, an atheist, and an African immigrant to several countries including now, the US. At 30, I’ve been an immigrant for most of my adult life, and it’s been the best lesson on navigating not only identity, but also how intricately it can be tied up with varying degrees of privilege." - Mandy Messina