Monday, February 21, 2011

Race is in the Eye of the Beholder

Authors: Audrey, Cassie, Molly
Week 4: 7 February - 13 February

This was the second week of our urban home stays, and the concepts of race and poverty seemed to dominant our minds throughout our time with the families. In history class we discussed definitions and explanations of racism and poverty, while on our home stays we observed the remnants of racism and poverty from apartheid.

(Tin shacks are the main form of shelter in the settlements)

In terms of racism, we all have had different upbringings and experiences and therefore have varying opinions on the definition. Our history professor (Romanus) held a four hour racism workshop so that we all could combine our ideas into one definition. After about an hour of debate and confusion, we came to a solid yet simple definition: power + prejudice=racism. One has to have both a pre-judgment of a person because of that person’s race as well as power to enforce their views on society.

However, racism goes further than the prejudiced white Afrikaners who set up Apartheid; simply by being white Americans (21/23 of us), we are racist because our existence only adds to the institutionalized racism that is prevalent in the society of the United States. The majority of white Americans take for granted the privileges they are born with just by being white. For instance, if you think about who are founding fathers were as well as the people who have been in control of the US since our independence, the majority have been white males. Our institutions are built on the ideas and norms of white men and thus if you are not a white male, you are constantly conforming to those standards set in place. For those of you who still doubt these advantages, take a look at White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (

Learning about racism is one thing, but experiencing it is an entirely different thing. During my home-stay (Cassie), I encountered some views of women who expressed being white as the standard for beauty. I found this to be to "The settlements continue to grow every year." particularly upsetting for the self-image of

women in non-white groups, but I was able to relate it to my own experience with the standard of beauty many western cultures set for women. This standard is also usually unattainable and very detrimental to the self image of a woman. I also heard opinions expressing a division among races. These divisions were found between blacks and whites, whites and coloreds, coloreds and blacks and even between different ethnic groups. From what we have been learning about Apartheid regime, a lot of these divisions appear to stem from the remnants of Apartheid policies. Coloreds were seen as slightly above blacks, which, separated them into classes, based on race and they were forced to live in separate areas, which forced them into separate groups even more.

Herero, Damara, Nama, Ovambos and other groups were also forced into separate locations, which caused a division within the black community as well. This is possibly what spurred some of the more discriminatory attitudes expressed between and within different racial groups. While some of the views we have heard explain that these racial tensions and divisions don’t really exist as much anymore, it was interesting to get an opposing opinion from someone living in areas that were formerly used to divide non-white racial groups. A similar separation of groups occurred in the US during our Civil Rights movement. A dichotomy or divide was created between those who followed Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those who followed Malcolm X, even though they were both working towards the empowerment of black Americans. While I cannot say for sure that the divide between different ideas was purposeful on the part of whites as it was in Apartheid, it did force many blacks and civil rights fighters to choose sides where it might not have been necessary to do so.

During our first day in Windhoek, my (Molly) guide around Katutura expressed a pretty strong dislike for the Damara people: he claimed that they were the disgrace of the blacks in Namibia. Luckily, I was then assigned to a Damara family for my urban home stay and I experienced nothing like what he described. My family was just as regular as the next; both of my parents worked, and all three of my siblings completed their high school education and had either completed or were considering education at the university level. They were not the thieves and criminals that my guide had described. This just goes to show that the divide and rule strategy of the Apartheid regime worked and how large of a part it still plays in many people’s lives today.

In development class this week we focused on poverty, which has been evident throughout our time in both South Africa and Namibia. The dynamic in Namibia is especially interesting because there is a growing area called the Informal Settlements that has been exploding with people in the past ten or so years. Most of these people move in from the rural areas in search of work and a better life, but that is not necessarily easy to find in Windhoek. The thing that I find the most intriguing though is how we are told (Molly’s home-stay family) most of the people are happy to be there because it is better than their lives in the rural communities. Several other CGE students (Tamara and Yvette) have their internship in the informal settlements and have observed that many appear not to have running water or electricity, or other basic necessities. From driving through the settlements during our tours of Katutura, we have witnessed the various tin shacks and shanties they live in. While it is hard for us to comprehend why a government would allow people to live under such conditions, we can understand that it is difficult to keep up with the growing population of these settlements because no one knows where someone will build next or which way it is going to expand. However, it is clear that the government needs to address the reasons why the settlements are continuing to grow before the whole of rural Namibia has moved into the outskirts of Windhoek.

We hoped to learn more about the informal settlements and the government’s plans to fight against the poverty rates here when we visited the National Planning Commission (NPC). The NPC exists as an Office of the President to address the needs of Namibians. This branch of the government works on finding and implementing solutions that will help to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals and Namibia’s own Vision 2030. We visited the NPC offices at the end of last week’s development class; the presentation was not the most informative, but we did learn about some of the structures in place to continue the development of this beautiful country. Unfortunately, there was not much mention in the presentation or the booklet they gave us about increasing the number of jobs available for Namibians and I (Molly) feel that unemployment is one of the biggest problems here. The unemployment rate is around 50%, and my home stay family agrees with many others who think that the government has not done enough to fix the issue. It was disappointing to see that the NPC only addressed adding more trained/skilled workers to the workforce instead of admitting that they need to create more jobs as well. It does not matter how many workers there are if there are not enough to jobs for them.

Although we spent the past week in separate homes, we all learned important lessons about racism and poverty while with our new families. Our living-learning community is especially significant at times like these because we all come together to process and discuss what we learned. We love hearing each other’s stories and comparing experiences. Luckily our community connects well, and hopefully we will be able to continue sharing as our time here continues.

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