Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Should a white person talk about issues in SA?

Blind spots: Muslims joined this week’s Pride celebrations in London. The writer was chastised for trying to be a ‘white saviour’ after addressing Muslims in Cape Town about LGBTI issues. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty)

Blind spots: Muslims joined this week’s Pride celebrations in London. The writer was chastised for trying to be a ‘white saviour’ after addressing Muslims in Cape Town about LGBTI issues. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty)

What is the right thing to do? I spend an extraordinary amount of time wrestling with this question. That’s not because I’m an especially moral person, I should clarify. I once stole a bar stool, which is absolutely nothing to brag about and yet here I go again.

So, no: I don’t agonise over the right thing to do because I’m such an intrinsically good person. In fact, I suspect the opposite may be true. People who have a moral compass in tip-top working order probably instinctively know the right thing to do in most situations.

Still, there’s no doubt that South Africa is a place where it can be trickier than many contexts to know the best way to proceed. This joint is just one big moral quagmire.

Is it okay for me to pay someone to clean my house, for instance? Does it help perpetuate a system that keeps black people as labour for spoilt white people? Should I be cleaning my own house out of principle? What about the position that my employment contributes to feeding a family? Does it make it better that I scrub my flat from top to bottom before my cleaner arrives in the vain hope that she won’t think that I’m a spoilt white person?

The other day I was standing on a balcony in the middle of Cape Town and a man on the street below called up to me and asked for money for food. I had R10 in my pocket, so I threw the note down to him. I was a bit drunk. In retrospect, I cringe. Who am I, Marie Antoinette? Aren’t those visuals grotesque? Was it worse for me to throw money at him than it would have been for me not to give him any money?

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, because I am the type of white liberal that almost everyone hates, not least me. The end result of this constant self-doubt is, of course, paralysis. If pretty much every option for action is morally questionable, isn’t it easier just to lie motionless in the foetal position and wait for the sweet embrace of death?

I have been contemplating this matter particularly urgently over the past few days. Last week, an old friend asked me to come to his mosque to talk about homophobia in South Africa. It is a mosque with a proud and progressive reputation, and he explained that in the wake of the Orlando massacre they had been having serious conversations about ideological blind spots within the community.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel anxious about this prospect, but it also didn’t take long for me to agree. I agreed for a number of reasons, but primary among them was a sense of curiosity about how the topic would be engaged with. I have never had the opportunity to talk with a devout faith-based community about homosexuality, and I could not predict what the reception would be like.

I was told I would have to wear a headscarf, which, frankly speaking, I had ambivalent feelings about. On the one hand, I did not want to cause offence. On another, the feminist issue of Muslim women veiling is one that I simply don’t feel particularly entitled to have an opinion on. To be honest, though, the thought of putting on a headscarf caused me less discomfort than the prospect of having to address the mosque in my socks. That felt embarrassingly exposing, and not just because I’m almost never wearing two of the same socks.

On the night, I gave a short talk in which I made the point that the majority of attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are not carried out by Muslim extremists but, in the United States at least, by white supremacists.

I also said that I could not speak to the Koranic teachings on homosexuality, but that it would set a powerful example if more religious figures across faiths would stand up like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and preach a message of tolerance towards gay people.

The dialogue with the audience afterwards surprised and moved me. In addition to some important points made about human rights and intersectional politics, several audience members expressed a desire to embrace the gay members of their community in far more active a fashion than I had felt comfortable endorsing. I left feeling hopeful and inspired.

Until I logged on to Twitter, that is, to face criticism about my decision to accept the invitation to talk there. The argument was that, as a white woman, it was not my place to lecture a mosque about gay rights. That I should have suggested they find a Muslim feminist to make the same points, instead of trying to play a white saviour role.

Do these arguments have validity? Probably. Doubtless I was naive to think I would escape without some backlash. I’m still picking it all over in my mind. Until I’m done, you’ll find me in the foetal position.

 
Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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