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Whiteness sours the joys of Diwali

Diwali in Laudium, Pretoria, was always alive with people and light. Our Muslim and Christian neighbours joined in. Children, closely watched by parents, spelt their names with sparklers in the air, faces turned to the sky.

Despite moving to an area open to all races in 1989, this didn’t change. Our new neighbours, black families and returning exiles, were warm and took part in the event.

Now the days leading up to Diwali are replete with tension between Hindus and animal activists. Watching the interactions escalate, it reflects perhaps a fundamental oversight about what is really going on.

South Africa is a stark example of race equals space, with past laws that required the carrying of passes to enter white areas and segregation of all facilities. Twenty years later, despite the removal of the barriers to living, eating and going to school anywhere, these racial spaces remain.

White space explains the experience of a black person when entering a white environment and the increased visibility and whole gamut of preconceptions that this “intrusion” carries with it. The domestic worker who was attacked by a white resident in Cape Town’s Kenilworth for the crime of “walking while being black” is a perfect example. Her mere blackness and femaleness made her suspicious and carried preconceptions with it – that she was a prostitute and didn’t belong there. His reaction to her intrusion: violent and irrational.

Like white privilege, it is hard to see if you have not been on the receiving end. The opposite is a good explanation: a white person entering a township might experience increased visibility and feel vulnerable – they might experience “otherness”.

What is the difference between the two? White people rarely have to navigate black space, which is peripheral by design, but black people routinely negotiate white space, which remains the default setting of our economic hubs and places we aspire to be in. Judaeo-Christian whiteness is also the default setting of the world, and everyone else is the other.

What does this have to do with Diwali? Intrusions into white space by the other have been well documented by researchers. It is greeted with suspicion and vehemence, a rallying against an “external” force that seeks to upset the cultural dominance in that space.

Hindus moving into desegregated neighbourhoods, whether Sandton or Umhlanga, are, consciously or not, perceived as a threat to the status quo of white Christians.

Sociologist Malory Nye studied the reactions to the establishment of Bhaktivedanta Manor, donated to the Hare Krishna movement by George Harrison, in the village of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. She found that, rather than blatant racist incidents, the opposition was insidious and often used the law to respond to incidents of “disturbance” rather than openly addressing the fear expressed in other forums – that the white rural nature of Hertfordshire would be changed by an influx of Asians.

The experience of Muslims in the United States mirrors this. This year, plans to establish an Islamic cemetery in Texas were met with both blatant and insidious forms of opposition. Aside from the irrational fear that the cemetery would be used for terror activities, there were a number of seemingly rational objections with no basis. These included that the absence of caskets in burials would result in contamination of ground water and the spread of disease.

Conflict about white space is typified by:

  • Initially insidious opposition;
  • Administrative and legal processes, including calling the police, lodging disturbance complaints and opposing building plans, being used to marginalise “foreign” practices;
  • Seemingly rational objections to cultural practices, which have no basis or are easily remedied;
  • Ethnic slurs, which, as the conflict escalates, reveal the true nature of the issue; and
  • The moral high ground being claimed, with the other being accused of barbarism.

Fireworks are obviously a potential health risk, but the reactions on social media each year are telling. The opposition is overwhelmingly white and the interactions, though based on an emotive subject such as animal rights, is racially charged and deeply irrational.

I call it deeply irrational because one cannot control the behaviour of all Hindus in the country but one can prevent the harm of which one complains. An online search will reveal when Diwali is and one can take one’s pets to a kennel or sedate them, as most Hindus who own dogs do.

The reactions to Diwali are also disproportionate to the reactions to New Year or Guy Fawkes when there is no “other” to rally against.

The interactions in formerly white areas often reveal themselves in tweets like “You are barbaric”, or “Go back to Chatsworth”. This is the crowning moment in the assumption of the moral high ground and the marginalisation of values not your own to make the most joyous time in the Hindu calendar into a spiteful bout of online bullying.

The opposition to fireworks during Diwali demonstrates all the features of intrusion into white space.

A better approach would be to join your neighbours and experience these traditions first hand. There would then be space outside of anger to suggest that people move towards silent displays, or perhaps understand why these practices are so precious to Hindus.

The constitutional right to the freedom of religion should not be limited lightly. All South Africans must introspect about the true reasons behind our reactions and our commitment to pluralism, whether it is fireworks, mosques in Emmarentia or ritual slaughter in Sandton, Johannesburg.

This might be a good juncture to recall the Prayer for Serenity: God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Maushami Chetty is an attorney and professional speaker. She speaks and consults on gender mainstreaming and creating a truly South African corporate culture

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