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Trafficking in Stereotypes

Trafficking in Stereotypes

by Keitu Reid, illustration Alastair Laird / 03.06.2011

In the company of a chocolate cake – I curse the universe. I’m turning thirty. What’s even scarier than that is I’m still not sure who I am, though I think I know who I want to be. I imagine how life could be if I were braver. Change begins with a new sense of your own possibility. This becomes social awareness as the message spreads and soon the change is revolutionary. So I want to begin by putting on a bright red cape like Superwoman with the words ‘This is Me!’ on my chest, and fly over the townships, suburbs and inner cities yelling a secret, my biggest revelation: “I am a black woman and I can’t cook pap! So fucking what?”

There’s such social stigma to being different especially in our socially conservative country where the wonderfully enlightened Constitution shines down on us, as impossible to reach as the sun, light years away from the reality of daily South African life. There’s been a rising tide of (often murderous) “corrective rape” on lesbians in townships for years now. Disabled people continue to be marginalized and shut out of gainful work. I’m not making these people equivalent, or turning them into symbolic issues, I’m saying social injustice deepens daily in this country. Pushing us further from our ideals. Our society punishes anyone who transgresses communal norms: foreigners, gays, the poor.

Social stigma is abstract until it happens to you. You don’t know how scary it can be to be gay until that rainbow sticker on your car gets the window smashed – warning what they can do to your bones. You don’t know the bitterness of bearing children out of expectation and duty. I’ve seen women scowl at their children for ‘taking away’ their youth. Because of social stigma, better an offensive mother than a childless forty year old.

Like most of us, maybe not Gandhi or the people of Egypt, I take few risks and keep quiet when I should speak out. Stigma hardens into shared conservative beliefs when we look the other way. When we are silent. Stigma segregates as insidiously as Apartheid. But it isn’t on the books anymore. It’s more intimate and covert. It’s nerve gas getting into our heads by stealth. Something we do to ourselves. The plump girl telling herself she isn’t pretty enough. The bulimic girl who thinks she’s still not thin enough! And hurls her lunch again. Social stigma paints Rasta’s into the ambitionless dopehead corner when that gorgeous sister is strong-minded, managing her own business, humming “I am not my hair”.

Social Stigma is prejudicial seeing. Imagining the colored man with an MBA has front-teeth-missing, papsak-drinking relatives. Painting BEE as uniformly corrupt. It isn’t. Workers in a few industries have benefited from shares. Have been included for the first time in the wealth of work. Experiencing something beyond exploitation. If you are a female M.E. – social stigma says you slept your way to the top. If you are HIV positive you are a dirty bastard.

The drunk chick having a good time after work will never get married. Men who cry are wimps. Good girls don’t smoke or trawl in night clubs. Chinese men have small dicks (okay that’s actually true – just kidding). Rave is for rednecks. Shoo! Isn’t it exhausting? All these imposed labels.

South Africa is bristling with anger, bitterness and fear. We have to fight so hard in this country on so many fronts. For work and dignity. For acceptance and safety. For effective governance and decent hospitals, schools and homes. On top of the structural problems are the stigmas (the twisted perceptions of those problems): weight – gender – money – hair – height – disability – tribe – race – religion – career – history – heritage – clothes – cars  – suburb – married – single – music – thirty.

I offer myself as exhibit A. All of that list applies to me. I’ve agonized over each of those things. Yet I go on trafficking in stereotypes. Reducing complexity to get through my day. But it felt like South Africa had a moment, back in 1994, to re-make the game, to celebrate and defend ourselves! We attained freedom without war. We made it to the top of the mountain. Then we looked around from up there and our hearts sank – there was so much to be done.

Which is the long way of saying I’m turning thirty soon. I need to be brave and confront my country and myself. I want to see how far we can go.

*Illustration © Alastair Laird.

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