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Please shoot this black man, South Africa

“Excuse me, can you please shoot this black man?”

Believe it or not, someone said this to me last week. It was a greeting of welcome and friendship. It’s not hard to guess that I am far from the streets of America.  

I was at Joseph and Royal’s wedding in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, where for some reason my family and half the wedding guests were expected to attend the wedding photos. Walking around with my camera, some strangers approached, and wanting to be included in the festivities, asked me this question.

For starters, in a city known for its crime rate and gunshot wounds, “shoot” is also the word they use for taking pictures. If you’re passing any number of black children and you have a camera, you will hear shouts of, “Shoot me, shoot me!” It takes some getting used to.

The black man I shot, and his friend.

The black man I shot, and his friend.

But aside from the shooting, there was another surprising part to being asked to shoot a black man: the man's oh so casual reference to race. In South Africa, your race is a non-taboo identifying feature. This felt uncomfortable at first, and also feels like a huge relief. No one is offended by being called black, white, or coloured (which is anything in between). It’s just a fact. Every skin color carries a story and identity and relationship to privilege. And I’m finding it is so much easier to talk about privilege or inequality when we’re not uncomfortable acknowledging out loud in mixed company that we each have a race.

I was singled out at the wedding on many occasions for being a white woman, and I also shot a black man that day. Many of them, in fact. And we had a great time together.

Thursday afternoon, South Africa

            I arrive at school and go to my wife’s office. Deb comes in to tell her that a student at the school just had her house robbed. Men had held her father up at gunpoint at the petrol station, made him drive the back to his house, where they loaded up his valuables in his car and left with it. You hear stories like this everyday lately, she says.

            I go to play rehearsal where middle schoolers are learning to waltz. When asked if they want to move on and learn the dance to their chosen song, “Uptown Funk,” they say they’d rather keep on and perfect the waltz.

            I drive home, on my guard. I move into the other lane gently to give pedestrians space. I notice the black woman driving behind me gives them a wider berth and I wonder if people will think I’m disrespectful or racist based on how much I move over for walkers. There are hundreds of people walking between Fourways and Diepsloot. Buses honk at them, but no one is willing to fork over money for a ride. It is a long walk. I see a man begging on the road, which is not unusual. They are at most intersections. One of them is wearing a shirt and tie and his sign says, “I need money for college.” My heart goes out to him, and I feel manipulated, all in the same breath.

            I stop to get pizza. Most patrons in the restaurant are white. A white woman takes my takeout order, asking a black man named Simba to help her with the computer on multiple occasions. Even though he clearly knows more than she does, she proceeds to boss him around, asking him to get her things, criticizing the way he cuts a cake. While I wait, two white men come in from the Montecasino Tactile Response Team. I see it written on their truck. They each have a machine gun, a hand gun, and a knife.

            Tomorrow I will have lunch with a black friend, Joseph. I try to think of an appropriate restaurant I could take him to, that wouldn’t feel pretentious or offensive somehow. I can’t think of any.

            I leave and see people pulling out of the busy parking lots, directed by black men wearing vests. I see no one tip them, though tips are their entire livelihood.

            I drive home into an African sunset. The sun sets on this continent in its own glorious way. There is a fire burning in the distance, as there always is. There is always a fire burning somewhere. 

Maybe this time, South Africa

I think most of us start out with a bit of idealism in us. We enter adulthood open-eyed, wondering how we will make it, what we will find, and who life might have in store. We inherit, develop, or adopt some sort of belief system, a moral code that will help guide decisions. We start by wanting create the kind of world that we want to be a part of, yet in the end most of us just try to work out the best way to be part of the world we’ve already got.

We all make compromises along the way. We say that the idealist in us grew up into a realist, and stop seeking ways to break down the systems. Instead of Ani Difranco and Hope for the Flowers, we go to church and pray for God to take care of His people and we buy fair trade coffee and resign ourselves to doing our own small part. I am told that all the small parts add up. From where I sit, they don’t seem to be adding up very quickly.

My revolutionary spirit lasted longer than most, I think, which therefore earned me the label of a “hippie” in present-day America. I lived on volunteer stipends, learned to farm organically, sometimes considered a tent as my home, traveled to developing nations, didn’t own a cell phone. I spent a decade living like this, always grasping for the coattails of the revolution I knew must be really brewing somewhere. Wanting my one little life to be part of the answer, even if I could not exactly define the question.

One problem is that there are so many ways to satiate those of us that want to do good, by doing a small good, that the larger system actually remains unchanged. We offer a homeless person food, donate to a non-profit, then keep paying our taxes and spending our incomes in a capitalist society designed to perpetuate itself, not create a just world.

I once heard a story of a girl who is throwing back starfish from a beach where hundreds of them have washed ashore. She is told she can’t make a difference, there are too many to save. She throws another back and says, “I made a difference to that one!” In the same place I heard this story is a sign on the wall: Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.

I struggle in the tension between saving that one starfish, and finding a lever long enough (or a place to stand). For all the time I have spent with starfish in mentoring programs and the like, I fear that just excuses and perpetuates the defunct system. It distracts those of us who want a better world from looking for a place to stand.

After years of searching for a different way to live, I came to join an Intentional Community (formerly known as a commune). In a fairly small but fantastic way, there is in fact a model for creating a society that is structured around the ways people actually want to live, work, eat, enjoy, and find fulfillment. They redefine how much influence power and money have over daily life, and how much community and sharing do. It is the only time in America that I have seen people successfully create a new system, instead of chipping away at the old iceberg of culture to make it a few inches more shapely.

I did not stay there, though I miss it sometimes grievously and still dream of it. Back out here in mainstream Babylon, I grasp for ways to do more than change my light bulb. Is there nothing in between? What does it mean to grow up, to leave the commune, but to still be a hippie on the inside?

I just moved to South Africa. Here on this continent, it is expected to hire someone to work in your home. I don’t want to hire someone to work in my home. I know that it provides someone with a job... but it doesn’t feel right. Others here feel a little uncomfortable at first, then find themselves grateful to never wash their own dishes anymore. It goes against some internal grain of mine. Like having someone give me a pedicure. But bigger. Reinforcing those sorts of job opportunities and socio-economic (not to mention racial) dynamics is counter-intuitive to me in the bigger picture. It is helping in a small way, at the expense of the wider view. Instead of a job scrubbing my toilet, I think people everywhere need to live in a world based on more equality in the first place. Not knowing how to find a reset button that big, most of us (including us former hippies) opt for the starfish with the toilet brush. Determined that this is better than nothing.

There is a pessimism in this kind of optimism that I must rage against. Maybe because I’ve seen another way. Yet I don’t know how to bring that way crashing into the rest of the world, all going about daily life. I don’t even know how to bring it crashing into my own life. By most measurable standards, it seems I’ve sold out. A wife, a kid, a lawn, a car. I am far from the commune; I am afraid to even ask my seemingly straight-laced neighbor to borrow his vacuum, instead of buying my own. If I buy my own vacuum, it will sit around the house, like all the other stuff I own, getting use about 10 minutes a week. Which doesn’t even take into account where the vacuum might have been made, under what conditions, and what kind of economies and systems I support by making this purchase. Is it really necessary for us all to own private vacuum cleaners?

Perhaps here is where we find the intersection of doing small things that are working toward a better world, instead of doing small things to try to patch over the fact that the world is crappy. I know that the most revolutionary things have to be broken down to be small as well. A friend of mine once told me that when making a decision, he wonders, “what would the world be like if a million people made this same choice right now?” Sometimes I do find it helpful to imagine my impact magnified in this way. Yet now I think I am starting to see the next level to that question. The step further is asking, “if a million people did this, would the world actually function in a more just way, or would there be really awesome band-aids covering up the enduring systemic flaws?” The difference is subtle, but real. I don’t want a society with huge nonprofits cleaning up the endless messes, or a fat and happy homeless population. I want a world where we don’t need nonprofits, and people are not homeless (unless by choice).

Today for me that balance is not hiring a maid, and asking to borrow the vacuum. Which oddly is much harder, because that is the counter-cultural choice here. However, deep down, I know that systems of sharing are a bigger picture answer, and systems of oppression are not. Let me be clear, I do not advocate for leaving the starfish out to dry. I just want to be the girl in the story who also figures out why hundreds of starfish are on the beach in the first place, and then gets out to fix that. The girl who shops at the Farmers Market and advocates for the needed overhaul of the Farm Bill.

By understanding how the broken systems exist around us, we can maybe start imagining a way out. Not a way around the systems, but out of them. I will keep caring and believing, more than is reasonable, for longer than is fashionable. We have to have an end goal in mind, a better world we want to live in, and even if it is uncomfortable, dare.

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