Recently, we had a deeply moving session called “Mapping Your Community”. The discussion was about where we all come from and the communities we choose to associate ourselves with. As someone who has been on the move and then lived in a residence for a large part of my life, I found it extremely hard to map “my” community on a sheet of paper. My first challenge was choosing a community which I identified as home and the next was to identify what I saw as strengths and weaknesses of my community. This was mostly challenging because a lot of what I believed and thought about my hometown was either the rose-tinted memories from my childhood or the overly-negative, sensational stories on the media. And so I felt as though both of those perceptions were extremely warped and thus, not true representations of what the real Rosettenville may be. My being away from home for so long made me feel as though I lacked the legitimacy to give a nuanced depiction of my neighborhood.
After listening to the stories of my teammates about their communities, we discussed the idea of shame around certain communities and the people who come from them. For the longest time, I had told people that I live in Rosettenville – despite having moved away from it for over 7 years. This was because I told myself that it would always be my home and because I had always felt displaced in the new neighborhoods I found myself in over the holidays. But recently I found myself ashamed of even saying that that was where I came from, because of recent media features on the rampant drug abuse, forced prostitution, and xenophobia in Rosettenville.
Being a student in university, I found it easy to tailor my identity – to tweak it, adjust it and sanitize it to my satisfaction and that of others. For fear of stigmatization or being the victim of stereotyping, I gave people as little information about my community as possible. At university, I preferred the “nomad” story or the vague “I’m from Joburg, in the south, near Mondeor” story and in Jo’burg, I preferred the “Oh, I’m a student in Cape Town” story because very few people know the where Stellenbosch University is where I come from.
On this idea of shame, we discussed how stereotypes of certain communities followed the people who hailed from them and how desperately we tried to reinvent our identities by distancing ourselves from those communities. In order to not taint our exceptionality and credibility, we tend to disassociate ourselves with the stereotypes of people from our communities.
But today I learned something I wish I had learned a long time ago – that succumbing to the shame that I felt when speaking up about where I come from makes me complicit in upholding the stereotypes about my community. Shame is often a great tool to silence people, to get them to doubt themselves. But shame can also be used a catalyst for change. By owning our stories of grief, pain and vulnerability, we put a human face to those lived experiences which are otherwise merely regarded as society’s “others”. We change the perceptions that nothing great comes from “poor, black” communities because no one else tells our stories if we do not. We become the untold success stories of our “hoods”. We diversify the face of excellence.
And in doing so… in owning our communities – with all their imperfections – we diversify the face of excellence. We owe it to ourselves, to our families, friends, neighbours and greater communities.