Tuesday, August 11, 2009

responsibility and exemption

We had a lovely visit last week from a friend who lives in Pretoria. She is an Afrikaner great-grandmother who has fought apartheid and racial inequality her whole life. Being around her always reminds me of the difficulty of being an Afrikaner in South Africa and the guilt that would go along with your birthright. I have always been able to exempt myself from feeling responsibility for the sins of any given culture.

Growing up as an American Mennonite missionary kid in Ireland, I tried hard to fit in and generally did. I first realised the extent to which I would never fully fit in when, in response to a particularly devastating IRA bombing, my best friend told me how ashamed she felt to be Irish. I could not comprehend this level of identification--if she did not agree with the actions of that group then she had no reason to feel ashamed. I was always able to maintain enough distance to see those acts as the problems of others, to build my identity on a position rather than a connection to a particular people.

Moving to America, I could claim my Irishness. And more often and more effectively I could claim my Mennoniteness. We have always been pacifists who fought the system and were 'in the world but not of it.' My grandfather's barn was painted yellow when his people refused to go to war. This was my heritage and I was proud of it and not responsible for the atrocities and injustices of the nation at large.

The only place where I have felt the full impact of cultural shame is in my whiteness. In some ways coming to South Africa exhonerated me from even this shame--I am white but not the particular white culture that has been the oppressor here.

Too often I believe myself to be different and exempt. Maybe this has allowed me to work for justice in a way that cultural guilt would have prevented. I must believe this to be true because my accumulation of cultures and identities only gets more complicated as I move through life. And is finding our identity outside of a particular people or nation not our goal? Taking responsibility for injustice and not allowing guilt to overwhelm is how we move forward. I have found my particular path to this as has my Afrikaner friend.


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