Smu is in Pietermaritzburg on a school field trip today. She was so excited for it last night…it was almost the only thing she would talk about. She didn’t know much about what they would be doing but that wasn’t important. All that mattered was that she was going. Over dinner (mealie pap and beans, some sort of chicken stew, and an apple/mayonnaise salad…yum!!!) Smu confided to me that she wished that all of her classmates could go on the trip. “You have to pay,” she said, and a lot of her friends couldn’t afford to go. “How much was it?” I wanted to know. “Mmmm…” Smu scrunched up her face. “A hundred rand.”
I immediately felt a pang of guilt as Smu picked at her stew. The knock-off Bafana Bafana shirts we’ve all been craving are 80 rand, or just over $10. Smu’s field trip is under $15. I remember “cheap” school field trips that were easily $60, more than a real Bafana shirt here. Trips that anyone unable to pay for could still go on because the school would pay. Smu’s friends don’t have that luxury. I have never felt my privilege weigh so heavily.
Two days ago, a child asked Harrison how much a plane ticket to the U.S. cost. He wanted to visit Gettysburg to film the ghosts there, he said. We all laughed about it later, but the thousand dollars spent on each one of our flights is an inconceivable amount of money to the families we are staying with—families feeding up to six mouths on a few hundred rand a month.
As a self-proclaimed radical feminist, I’ve thought a fair amount about privilege and oppression and about the ways in which I’m privileged. I’ve thought about how to minimize the impact of my privilege, about how to check my own power, about how to control my own ego. But even identifying the ways in which I am privileged, the ways in which I am a member of an oppressor class, the ways in which I am an oppressor is different from actually watching my power and privilege and membership in that class at work.
Zed made a powerful point today. We don’t even have to open our mouths to be labeled an American here; it’s not our accents that give us away. It’s in the very manner in which we carry ourselves and the confidence which we radiate everywhere we go. We were brought up to fear nothing and to meet such challenges as these head-on. That bearing, combined with our speech, serves as a constant reminder to this community that any job here is ours for the taking, even if we are not white, because we are “skilled” and because our English has a different accent. Listening to Zed enumerate the privileges associated with us by South Africans merely because of our nationality made me sick. When I came “home,” I began to realize just how right he was.