The Power of Words – South Africans Need Some Context


Context_Logo-04Sitting with a group of 16 students earlier today, I was amazed to find that no less than 11 cultures were represented. These ranged from Twsana, Zulu, British, Italian, Jewish, Afrikaans, American to name but a few. It was an energizing experience as we discussed some unique traditions and practices from the various backgrounds represented.

Last week we were treated to a barrage of racially inspired or fuelled incidences, from hair styles, babies compared to dogs to inappropriate words. South Africa never ceases to stretch the boundaries of what should be seen as ignorant/foolish comment. I sat listening to a radio show where one particular caller took it upon himself to vividly depict what mark Twain meant when he said “Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt”

But dear #Ronnie, in a debate around school policy showed his true colours when he supported the hair policies of schools with no cultural or contemporary context as a way of preventing black female students from eventually wearing grass skirts. I sat gobsmacked, angry, needing to bring clarity and honour back to my culture group. Fearing my own daughter falling victim to similar thinking (or at least something that resembles thinking) I tried to call in to bring context, to explain the beauty of bantu knots, Afro’s, braids and how they CANNOT be compared to purple hair, mohawks or the like. After pressing dial around 85 times without success I came to think perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.

These incidents seem to be happening with a greater frequency of late, whether because of freedom of speech, access to social media or a decrease in intelligence or tact, it does appear there are more racially offensive comments/incidents coming to the fore.

The challenge I find is that we need to talk about what has happened, what is happening and what we want to happen in the future. We need to dialogue, to understand, to find common ground or at least understanding. The danger with comments or positions such as those from last week, is that they shut down meaningful dialogue for fear of offence. Without open, respectful, unity seeking dialogue, we will struggle with understanding and learning to live and grow with an appreciation for each other and the cultures we represent.

An example is how the word coloured in South Africa describes a people group, in the USA, it will incite a beating. But if someone doesn’t know how different contexts receive the same word, it would be completely unfair that they are labelled as hateful etc. Context is so important but this requires a conversation, and potentially, an uncomfortable one.

Another example I came across was a very well-meaning young white Afrikaans lady, taking a group of students on an outing. The students were hot and thirsty and decided to grab a drink of water from a tap. The young lady then called for these two little black boys saying “Come on my little monkeys”. There was no ill intent, no malice, no desire to ridicule or insult. In fact she was using the word in an endearing way, much like I use for my two boys sometimes. BUT, given our context in SA and the current racially charged climate, should someone have overheard this and taken it out of context,the result would have been anything but sweet.

Obviously, no harm was intended, but a conversation is needed. We must understand or place on our radars what words we should use and which ones we should delete from our vocabulary. Perhaps we need some form of sensitivity training to contextualize why certain words are more harmful to some groups than others? Many may say that it should be obvious, but past experiences certainly show otherwise.

There are many who are living with a sense of entitlement, on every side. Many who believe they are better, they deserve more or that others deserve less etc. But the reality is that if we are to move forward as a country, if my multi racial family is to be seen as normal, if we are to become a more unified and inclusive society, sensitive to the hurts and experiences of others, we need to gain a deeper understanding of one another’s cultures and contexts. Not so that we can agree all the time, but so that we can have a greater sensitivity in our interactions with each other as we begin to understand the journey each of us has travelled.

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