God's Word for today

Monday, 7 September 2009

Culture, language, and race

This will probably sound like quite a rant for first thing on a Monday morning, but this post on Jenny's blog made my blood boil!

Let me perhaps backtrack a bit so as to put things in context.

Part of the richness that is South Africa is the way in which so many different cultures can call this beautiful land home. The fact that we have 11 (yes, eleven!) official languages is a reflection of this diversity. However, the architects of apartheid did their level best to keep the various cultures apart, and we are still reaping this 15 years after democracy.

Sadly, the Church has similarly been split on racial and cultural lines. For this reason, when we are stationed as Phase One probationers, we are placed in cross-cultural settings so that we can gain exposure to other cultures, and (hopefully) an appreciation thereof.

Now I'm not sure if it's the legacy of apartheid, or the arrogance of being English, or both, but unfortunately while most black people are able to speak English, very few whiteys can speak Xhosa, Sesotho, or Zulu (the main indigenous languages, together with Afrikaans). And this can sometimes make communication difficult.

I have mentioned in previous posts how important it is for us to try and understand each other, and (if possible) learn another language. As it turned out, my own station is in a historically coloured area where the main language spoken is Afrikaans - a language that I understand and can speak as well although on a fairly rudimentary level. I struggle with the Afrikaans words for "sanctification", for instance. What am I talking about? I struggle with simpler concepts such as "steward" or "offering", so I usually announce that "die stewards gaan nou die offering opneem" :-).But others (such as Jenny) are placed in a Xhosa context, and although she tries valiantly to say a few sentences, her Xhosa education is very much a "work-in-progrress" and greeting someone in Xhosa is a far cry from being able to conduct a meeting and participate therein.

And herein lies the rub. That the minority of us are unable to communicate with the majority in their own language is a travesty. Having said that, we ARE trying - we really are! And yes - it IS arrogant to expect everyone to communicate with me in MY language if I am not prepared to attempt to communicate in theirs. I remember going to a Local Preachers' Convention about two years ago, and even though the proceedings were conducted largely in Xhosa, I was grateful to those sitting next to me for giving me a basic rundown of the proceedings in English.

I also firmly believe that one needs to respect another's language and culture, and make every effort to understand both. I have on many occasion said that, for the most part, the cultural practices of others are not wrong - they're just different. However, such respect needs to be mutual. It is therefore reasonable to expect others to try to understand my culture as well, and where I am coming from.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the whole thing of "respecting one another's culture" becomes a convenience thing. For instance, it's okay for me to get crapped out if I make a decision (in good faith) on behalf of others, because the predominant cultural norm is one of "consensus" decision-making. But if one of the others goes ahead and makes a similar decision without consulting the others, then it's okay. And if a group of white ministers want to form an exclusive grouping based on skin colour, that would be (quite correctly) be branded as racist, but for a group of black ministers to be part of such a grouping (i.e. the Black Methodist Consultation), that's okay. And if a minister is chairing a meeting in English, heaven help her if there is no-one on hand to interpret, but if she is excluded by the others, then that's okay.

Well, guess what - it's NOT okay! And I'm flipping annoyed that a dear friend and colleague of mine had to be embarrassed in the way that she was.

One of my Phase One colleagues is continually berating the rest of us for wanting to hide or "run away" from issues of race. And that may be true. But if we want to be honest and really tackle race in a sincere manner, then we need to tackle it in ALL directions. Because ALL groups - white, black, coloured, asian, you name it - are capable of being racist. And if racism is wrong, then it's WRONG - REGARDLESS of in which "direction" it's being perpetrated!


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Steven
Thanks for your support. But just to soften it a bit I do believe that my people were just thoughtless and that they weren't intentionally sidelining me. We all have a lot to learn - ministers, yes, but also congregations who have to work with a cross-cultural minister or in 'geographical circuits'.

Neill said...

Hear Hear