Saturday, April 11, 2015

Uncomfortable Conversations

I grew up in a bubble. When I was 17 years old I was taken on a trip into Umlazi Township for the first time by the mayor of the South Central region of Durban, Theresa Mthembu. Almost half a million people live in Umlazi, but Durban is very hilly and I had no reason to go there. It wasn't in my field of vision. It didn't exist. I had met the mayor through my involvement with the Durban Youth Council. This is a group formed of a handful of representatives from as many Durban schools as possible. It was an opportunity to prick that bubble.

I am a firm believer that the world is getting better. Bubbles are cosy and it is tempting to look back at them longingly. You knew the rules. You knew how to behave and the cultural sameness created comfort. I have yet to be convinced by any arguments that life was better then. The school I went to was very good, but there isn't even a moments hesitation in thinking whether I would have preferred the set up now. Now the school is great.

The world is still bubbly. As I travel around I come across some places that are awesome, but bits remind me a little of parts of growing up where everyone looks the same, speaks the same and believes the same things. The truth, in my bubble, is they weren't the same. One example comes from the leaps and bounds taken in areas such as homophobia. When I was growing up I didn't know any gay people. Let me rephrase, I didn't think I knew any gay people. There are a number of guys who have come out since then. I am not sure that it was at all possible for them to come out during the bubble days. People weren't ready and that must have been awful.

Pricking bubbles is uncomfortable and requires really difficult conversations. Most people aren't that great at difficult conversations. I think part of that comes from a natural defence mechanism. We grew up in a world where there were good guys and bad guys. The Wicked Witch of the West was bad. The Good Witch of the North was, well, good. This was before we saw the other side of the story. We don't want to be the bad guy and in my experience as soon as a conversation becomes a question of morality or innate goodness things get messy. Think of arguments that start along the lines of 'How can you be a Christian and believe...' or 'How can you be a Patriot and believe...'. My bubble growing up was a Patriotic Christian one. There are many things that someone today could complete those sentences with talking with someone from the past. Neither the future person, nor the past person would have thought they were 'of the West'. Starting a conversation that way means you are challenging the persons identity. You aren't defending or attacking an idea. You are attacking an identity. You are attacking a family. You are attacking the bubble rather than pricking it.

I believe lots of those guys that have come out have received wonderful support now from friends and family. I know that the school I went to is no longer the lily white bubble it was. Some of the uncomfortable conversations of the past are now almost non-issues. Some remain. I think the more conversations we can have where we aren't labelling people as good guys or bad guys, the more likely it is we can nail some of the remaining bubbliness

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