Monday, March 21, 2011

passing as white

(I promise I talk about South Africa at the end of this post.)

Recently, watching Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, I've been thinking a lot about prejudice towards white people in America specifically towards my own people. Being from my generation, I have not had to deal with a lot of prejudice on account of my ethnicity or gender. Most stereotyping I have encountered has come from my (now former) surname, and often it played out more as people just making assumptions about me i.e. elementary school teachers asking if I am going to be absent for Rosh Hashanah or people assuming I do not celebrate Christmas. Though I have a few times run into more negative opinions, usually these are just hinted at and most often they come from people who have never met a Jewish person before. I have had to deal with none of the employment discrimination and overall societal feelings that my father and his parents etc experienced.

I always found being stereotyped into being Jewish ironic as I am not Jewish. Culturally, of course, I am as Jewish as I am Irish, but in terms of what technically makes you Jewish, I am not. And though I will always celebrate Jewish holidays (and I wonder why most Christians do not), though I am not technically Catholic either, my religious beliefs lie on that side.

Though changing my name was mostly a convenience as a result of years of answering the phone to telemarketers to explain that there was no Mrs. Silverstein residing at my house, it was also an experiment in passing. Would I be treated differently if people could not make assumptions about my ethnicity (ironic of course as Cramer was changed from Kramer as a result of WWI era anti-German sentiment)? I have found that thus far I was right. American people who did not know me before do not make these assumptions, they assume I'm just one of the mixed up 12% this, 12% that been in America a long time folks. I don't know that they necessarily treat me better as a result, but it is certainly different. And though I was never a fan of stereotyping, I don't think I like this better as is a constant reminder of the veiled prejudice of American society.

Expressing yourself ethnically is a challenge for white Americans unless you live in an enclave of your ethnicity. I feel much more Irish when I am surrounded by my mother's extended family in New York. Of course, this only happens once every few years and has much less so since I've been off living far from the East Coast. I used to feel much more Jewish walking through the supermarket looking for kosher chicken with my grandmother in Florida as she showed me off to the other old ladies. I have not been to Florida since her funeral and have seen less of that side of the family too in the past few years. I want very desperately to maintain my cultural identity as being a Jewish and Irish identity, but I find this exceedingly difficult when the vast majority of interactions within an American sphere are based on parts of my identity...being a Peace Corps volunteer, a graduate student, teacher, etc, etc.

I find the ease with which white people pass as part of the majority interesting as this is certainly a new phenomenon in America resulting from the immigration of more brown people. Reading the book "How the Irish Became White", paints a very different picture of a 19th century America in which Irish people faced much of the same discrimination that black people did. By the time my family arrived at the end of the 19th/early 20th century, that level of discrimination was disappearing with the arrival of Eastern European immigrants (like the other side of my family), but stereotypes still persisted. Now, being Irish American is seen as this cute thing that doesn't really define a person (unless they are from a working class Irish neighborhood and outside of the mainstream of middle class white America). You can say St. Patrick's Day is for you, but the rest of the year you are just like everyone else. Though discrimination against Jewish people is fresher in our consciousness and there are more Jewish communities within the middle class, it does not have the same weight it used to, and it's easy for people like me to pass as long as your name doesn't sound so terribly Jewish as mine.

Now one of the reasons, I have been pondering this issue lately is that white South Africans really cannot pass unless maybe they live in Jo'burg*. You are Afrikaaner. You are English. You are Jewish. That is it. Though there is a small French Huguenot community in the Western Cape, most of them have assimilated into Afrikaaner culture. According to wikipedia, there are white immigrants from many other countries, but they make up a very small percentage of the white population. Though Afrikaaner people are the majority in terms of white people, the stereotypes that exist about them are not positive. Beyond the worldwide view of Afrikaaners as oppressors, Afrikaaners (especially those not from urban areas) are seen as backward. Not wearing shoes is just the beginning of a long list...The English have fared better in terms of public opinion, but are still seen as a unique ethnic group. Jewish people face the same stereotypes that they do all over the world. Maybe because white people are not the majority, there is no white assimilated majority that you can find your way into. This is a double-edged sword as white South Africans can express themselves culturally much more easily than I can, but they also face all that discrimination that I have run away from.

*Jo'burg is different as is more of a cultural melting pot than anywhere else in South Africa, but I'm not really sure how that plays out as I haven't spent a lot of time there.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

a world without water

There's no water. In our village, water is a constant problem for people. Though most people have taps in their yard or plumbing in their house, this does not mean that water will come out of these taps. In fact most of the time, water does not come out of the tap. It's sporadic, some people we know have gone 9 months without water. While the longest we've gone is about 2 months (right now we're about to pass that point). The water usually gets turned on after rain, but we haven't had rain in a while. We've also heard rumors that the ward counsellor (our government representative, just like in American cities) has paid them not to turn on the water so his friend can get a contract for water trucks. This is just a rumor, but at this point, who knows. What I do know is that the water trucks are not sufficient to meet the needs of people in the village. They come at different times during the day, won't drive down certain roads (like ours), and some people have told me they haven't seen one in weeks near their house. For people who are home all day, getting water is a bit easier, but it sometimes involves waiting in line with buckets for hours. If you work, it's close to impossible to get water. Some people dig in the bed of the dry river for water. This isn't common most of the time, but as the situation has gotten worse recently, there've 5 to 10 people there every time I've walked by (and that's just one place along a long riverbed). Because the Department of Education gives our host mother money for electricity which is more than enough, we were able to use that money to buy water to fill our two tanks. But this is relatively expensive (about $80 for 5000 liters as much as some people earn in a month), and if you don't have large water tanks like we do this makes it impossible.

What is hard for us to understand is why people do not dig wells. As South Africa is such a developed country, most wells are dug by machine making them very cost prohibitive, but it's hard to understand why this prevents people from just starting to dig. I know it's not glamorous, but when you have no other option, why not just dig? It's crazy the things people will do and refuse to do in order to be assert that they live in a developed place when the reality is that they do not have access the services that developed places do.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Yesterday, we attended a funeral and a wedding. Though we've been to lots and other parties, it was the first time we attended two on the same day. The funeral was for a teacher at one of our schools, and the wedding was for people we didn't know but we were asked to attend by a pastor who volunteers on one of the school's governing bodies. The funeral (and memorial service held on Thursday afternoon) were a bit bizarre to us just because we knew a little more about this man than many of the people who's funeral's we have attended. He was a very nice man, a neighbor of ours actually, but had been sick for the past 20 years. I remember first meeting him and noticing how sick he seemed. His condition got progressively worse since we have lived here. He stopped teaching about half way through last year. Other than one of the other teachers who would drive him to school, the doctor, check in on him, etc, he seemed to live a very solitary life. He was the only man of his age (51) that I ever saw going to the shop to buy his own bread and things. Most people ask children to do these tasks for them, and we are usually the oldest people at the shop. His funeral and memorial were huge affairs since he was a teacher. They had to have two separate sets of women cooking, one for family and friends and one for teachers and students, because there were so many people there. I wonder where these people were during his life, but at the same time realize how many more people were showing support for his family and those who really did care about him than would have in the states (where I'm sure he would have been forced out of teaching years ago.)

Anyway, attending these events also reminded me of all the things I'm going to miss about living in South Africa...singing Tswana hymns, dance marching around parties, chakalaka, old men and old ladies, etc, etc.

It's also weird though because though we've lived here over a year and a half, people still are surprised to know that we have done things like attend funerals (our cousin stopped by for a chat yesterday and we were talking about the funeral and he asked if it was our first), take a taxi to Pretoria (something unfortunately we have to do almost once a month) and navigate our way around Pretoria (as a city person, I love walking around Pretoria and we both know the city very well), say ko ko instead of knock knock, understand/speak Setswana, eaten pap, etc. It's okay when these assumptions come from random people as we are meeting new people almost everyday, but they often come from people who we've gotten to know pretty well in our time here. Though two years is certainly enough time for us to accomplish our work here, I think really overcoming these assumptions would take a lifetime.

In my attempts to talk about other things, I haven't mentioned work in a while. Things are going well though we are busy as we don't have much time left here. I'm trying to prepare to go to a conference in Botswana with 3 teachers in July both in terms of finding funding and prepare what we are going to present. Our community service club has been even better this year...the kids are focusing on crime as their issue and organizing an after school club to keep kids off the streets. I'm trying to finally set up a few workshops before we go. Our book donation should arrive this week so we've got lots of work ahead of us to organize the books. We've got the constitution almost done for our camp so they should be submitting the nonprofit organization application in the next few weeks.

Things are good though it's hard to believe how soon our time here will be coming to an end.