Tonight, as I was reading a Mail & Guardian article about some of the depressing responses to Michelle Obama’s recent speech at Tuskegee University’s commencement ceremony, something was triggered within me that provided some clarity on a feeling that has been bothering me subliminally for a number of weeks.
The internet backlash from Michelle’s speech reminded me of the sinking heart with which I read many of the comments following the recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa, when brave people stepped forward to share their own stories of dealing with the prejudice of South Africans against immigrants from other African countries. The comments on these articles were littered with white South Africans complaining that these stories didn’t mention all the murders of white South Africans that happen so frequently in South Africa, with particular emphasis on the murder of white farmers.
Now, I’m not saying that the killing of white South Africans isn’t imporant, or shouldn’t be rallied against. I do not believe that we should peaceably accept the taking of ANY human life, regardless of their skin colour or country of origin. But my impulse on reading those comments was to say, “This isn’t your platform. Right now, please, can you put down your bitterness and resentment and listen, just for a few moments, to someone else’s struggles and pain, without needing them to acknowledge – in this particular moment – your own.”
So often, when people dare to speak up regarding their experience of prejudice – whether it be based on gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or a vast array of other societal categorisations – the outpouring of criticism is painfully predictable.
I find myself wanting to gently whisper into every well-protected heart behind each bitter voice that is shouting to be heard, “Listen; listen. Put down your opinions and prejudices and fears and anger. Put down your need to be right and your need to control other people’s expression. Put it all aside, just for a few deep breaths, and try instead to feel the reality that is being expressed.”