Thursday, 9 July 2015

Iain Ewok Robinson On Whiteness In South Africa

Ewok as YOBO
“Can’t heal nothing without pain” – Toni Morrison

In 2012, after returning from teaching English and poetry in Cape Town Townships, I had my first photography exhibition as part of the Afrovibes Festival in The Albany, Deptford. I published a travel journal, “The Coloured Experience” alongside the exhibition. Chill Pill, the poetry night I co-curate has been in collaboration with The Albany for over four years now. Last year we collaborated with Afrovibes and installed a Chill Pill show inside a Township Cafe’ at The Albany. Currently, I am in South Africa looking to meet the nation's poets and poetry programmers to start potential international collaborations. Along the way I'm thrilled to meet Iain Ewok Robinson in Grahamstown and see his latest one man Spoken Word show, YOBO, which is a commentary and deconstruction of whiteness in South Africa.

First off, man, it’s been a long time in the making and we finally get to meet! When I was last in South Africa your name rang from Cape Town to Durban! I want to congratulate you on your new one-man Spoken Word show, YOBO. An ambitious piece and I applaud you for taking it on… so, what is “whiteness”?

Ha ha! Master Antrobus, it's been a highlight of my festival this year, touching base with a head like yourself.  So YOBO, yeah, ambitious, but from our perspective (my wife Karen is the co-creator and director) we just felt that there was no other way to approach this subject other than head-on as you said.

When I think "whiteness" I think "blinding white light".  It's a type of mental blindness inherent in most white people that allows us to view other races as victims, as oppressed, as previously disadvantaged, but somehow disables us when it comes to seeing ourselves as privileged, advantaged, as perpetuating an ongoing racist paradigm.  Whiteness is an act of "othering" if you will, of positioning white as normal and anything other than white as abnormal.  Whiteness is the result of centuries of inbred superiority along a completely arbitrary genetic difference, skin pigment.  It is a condition that allows us to say sorry but not to feel sorry, to hide away in plain site, to feel sorry for ourselves for being victims of self-inflicted guilt.  I think the idea for me was best encapsulated by an author called Peggy McIntosh in an essay called"White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack".  She says "White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."

What’s racism got to do with us in 2015? (said the brown Brit to the white African)

The world has never been as readily accessible to us, in terms of our being globally connected through media, and yet even with this incredible expanded knowledge base we are somehow growing further apart.  Segregation along lines of class and race and religion is growing as rapidly as the technology that purports to bring us closer together.  We are finally seeing each other for who we really are: scared fight-or-flight animals with a consciousness that has us not at the top of the food chain but at the bottom of the crab bucket.  Racism is a manifestation of some of our most base animal instincts for survival at all costs.  Confronting it and transcending it means that we have to be able to see it, to recognise it, and the act of exposing racism in all of its manifestations is also an act of community, of coming together, or eradicating arbitrary categories and differences that enable us to be separated easily.  It's such an arbitrary category in fact, race, as evidenced by the existence of a brown Brit kicking it with a white African.  Humans, we seem to love labels so much, we buy into them because they seem to make us feel more certain of ourselves somehow.  Maybe it's because we are so settled in our consumerism that we respond so readily to these easy to apply images of each other.

YOBO got a standing ovation on the first night, but you mentioned walk out’s too, considering it’s a head on commentary and critique of Whiteness in South Africa, you must have expected that?

Yeah, totally, I think we ticked all the right boxes with that one!  Same story tonight at our second show: ovation at the end accompanied by one or two walk-outs during the piece.  What's interesting to me is when the walk-outs happen.  Tonight I managed to pin-point the exact moment.  It was during what is arguably the most judgmental part of the performance, a voice-over called "Dear White People" that is essentially about owning our privilege.  I will never know exactly what the reason was.  Maybe it had nothing to do with the show!  Maybe there was an emergency at home and they had to cut-out, but in all honesty I think it has more to do with people not wanting to feel preached at, not wanting to be challenged.  Some people come to theatre so that they can escape, or so that they can bare witness to someone else speaking their thoughts for them.  This piece, as you pointed out, tackles the topic head-on and doesn't leave you any room to hide really.  It was intended for that purpose, because I think that trying to make this subject matter comfortable for white-people is retroactive.  As one reviewer said, he was "looking for more charm, more humour, more enticement to enjoy…Maybe Robinson's too angry to sugar-coat the pill."  I think he nailed it.  I think that the time for mincing our words is long gone. 

Do you think YOBO could speak beyond your shores? For example, the US’s Black Lives Matter gets a name check, what conversation can be had internationally?

This piece is very specific in its use of South African-isms to localise the discussion, only because I don't feel equipped yet to deconstruct racism outside of my immediate context as a white South African male.  That being said, it does speak to the idea that the real work to be done in terms of addressing this condition of "whiteness", especially with the more hidden insidious institutional racism, is really about seeing it, exposing it and activating white artists and creatives to tackle it head-on by turning the tables.  As many international activists and writers have said recently in response to the exposing of the brutal racism that still exists within the American public policing system: Racism is not a black problem, it is a white problem, and the real work in righting this wrong needs to be done on white people by white people.

Brett Bailey on Exhibit B set
We were talking about Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. When that show came to London it was protested, apparently there were no protests in South Africa, what do you think that says about racial consciousness in these two parts of the world?  

I don't think that South Africans have had enough large inclusive conversations about the notion of a type of institutional racism that seemed to typify the reactions that were the London protests.  For us race is still very much a he-said-she-said surface level type of personality clash, where to be racist is simply to use derogatory words or demean others through outright acts of dehumanisation.  This idea that there is an entrenched almost invisible superiority complex that pervades our society is only really being exposed now through the work around transformation being led by student groups and grass-roots activists at our universities e.g. #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellies.  A lot of people here would have succumbed to the ease of simply brushing off Brett Bailey's work or ignoring it rather than confronting it.

You’re a musician, rapper, graffiti artist, educator and a parent… How does race play a part in each of these identities?

Well, I group all of those aspects of my career together as seeing myself as a Hip Hop artist, and Hip Hop culture taught me about race and politics and alternative education.  Hip Hop draws it's roots from black Jamaican and American working-class culture.  However, the power of Hip Hop is in its ability to transcend race, to cross borders and connect people beyond race, gender, age or language.  So expressing myself through the elements of Hip Hop culture has introduced me to the problem of stigmatised racial categorisation ("A white rapper?"), and it has shown me some solutions, at least enough for me to believe that we have the ability to connect beyond the barriers that we have constructed in our society.

The biggest barrier that I face as an educator in South Africa is language, which is still very much tied to institutionalised racism.  The oppression of indiginous black Africans through a dispossession of their language is for me the deepest cut of all.  Education is at crisis point here, and my ability to play a part in addressing that crisis is ham-strung by my inability to communicate effectively in any language other than English.  My work as a poet and a teacher comes with the bitter pill of reinforcing the dominance of English as a medium of instruction and mainstream communication in our country.

As a dad?  I want my son to speak twenty tongues and use every one to tell stories about the way we were and never want to be again!

As we’re both poets who teach, I have to ask, did Suli Breaks see your response to his Why I Love Education But Hate School and what’s the story behind that?

Yeah, he left a comment on the YouTube site, something like "I'm glad we can keep the debate alive."  I basically wanted to provide a vital balance to his seemingly one-sided argument about the validity of standardised schooling systems.  While I agreed with some aspects of his agenda, I just think that he didn't take into account the teachers themselves, at all, or the parents.  He grouped them all together into one "education system" that completely dehumanised the incredible individuals I have come across, both as teachers and as colleagues.  I know from first-hand experience how teachers and parents have to struggle to navigate the dominant education system that serves to produce cogs for the capitalist machinery, where they are having to satisfy the education outcomes of policies that are determined by politically aligned committees and look good on paper, but when you have to apply them to "real-time" teaching, face-to-face classroom connections and conditions, prove to be lacking.

So Ewok, we’ll be seeing each other in Sweden alongside Sage Francis in October for the Ordsprak Festival. The force is with us… right?

Yeah yeah!  There's a powerful posse of poetic heads lining up for the Swedish journey, and the Upsaala Ordsprak Festival 2015 looks set to be some continent shifting consciousness connecting brother, best be warned!  Three days of Slam, Spoken Word and the purest poetry.  Salute my man, see you there!

Follow Ewok on Twitter - @EwokEssay 

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