A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.
For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”
Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”
Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.
Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.
A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”
She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.
As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”
I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.
Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.
The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.
“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.
The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.
In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.
“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.
When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.
Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.
“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”
Which brings me back to my koan.
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”
In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.
Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.
So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?
How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?
Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.
So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.
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