So the following little Twitter conversation turned up on my feed today:
Now Twitter is a funny place. It’s a place of public conversation and dialogue, but it’s also a place where, in a way, we eavesdrop on each other’s conversations. I’ve never met any of these women, but I know, via various grapevines of social and other media, who they are. I’ve read (and enjoyed and identified with) some of Marianne Thamm’s columns; I haven’t read Margie Orford’s books, but I know she’s a fiction writer; and @simpleintrigue is not someone I’ve heard of, but her Twitter handle links to a blog that seems to turn her into an artist and writer called Keri Muller. So in the funny old village that is Cape Town/the internet/the world, I can kinda figure out the voices behind these words.
Why does it matter who the voices behind these words are? Why does this little conversation matter at all? Why does it matter to me? This blog post is my attempt to figure out the answers to those questions, I think.
See, it starts with that little comment: “Melissa’s Newlands: where the white tribe gathers…” See, if you didn’t know the social context of Cape Town, of the divisions and tensions and identity struggles in this little town, you’d have difficulty decoding that line. See, she’s not saying, “where the tribe gathers” or even “where our tribe gathers”. That would suggest a sense of belonging with the tribe. No, no, no, quite the opposite. This is the white tribe. This is the too-white tribe, in fact. The too-white tribe, from which Ms Thamm feels vast distance. That Other Tribe, that silly, despicably shallow, overprivileged tribe. To which she simply doesn’t feel any sense of belonging.
Oh, I get it. I get the stifling claustrophobic what-the-actual-fuck sense you can get, ordering wildly overpriced coffee and almond tart, looking around at the soccer moms, the Botoxed, tancanned trophy wives of the southern suburbs, nipping in for lunch (it seems) between the Pilates and the school run. I get it that the idea of a coffee at Melissa’s seemed kind of a nice treat (or just the most convenient place for a meeting that had to be somewhere between Rondebosch and Claremont), til you found yourselves seated there amongst the rest of a target market, wondering whether, by being there, you doom yourself to being lumped in among the horrifying homogeneity of the white suburban middle-ageing elite. Oh yuck, ne?
Oh, I know the cringe that comes with watching the 4x4s mount the pavement, power steering twirling under French manicured NailBar nails. These are SUV drivers whose idea of the Big Five is Cavendish, the V&A, Giovanni’s, Woollies and – well, yes – Melissa’s. There’s something so very awful and predictable and narrow about this universe. Something a little inauthentic about those towers of handmade strawberry preserves (not just jam here) and “rustic” breads sitting as a backdrop to shrill conversations about private-school kids or what the plastic surgeon said or how much the divorce is costing.
Oh, surely we do not belong to this awfulness? Oh, surely we have a sense of belongingness to something more authentic, more diverse, more Real than all this? I mean, after all, I live below the line/ I am an artist/writer/critic/intellectual (and you can fill in your escape clause here). Yes? No? Or: maybe, just maybe, the problem is the harsh, harsh stereotyping – and massive fear of stereotyping – that’s sitting a little too neatly hidden behind this critique.
Oh, I know the desire to narrow one’s eyes and lump them together, these white women of the south, the desire to distance yourself from them. I get the desire every time I see myself trundling a trolley of groceries out of the Woollies at Palmyra, sighing a bit at the parking congestion, feeling like I’ve turned into a caricature of a suburban housewife, stressing about getting home in time for the nanny. Stressing about traffic. Stressing about nothing, really.
But the problem with these stereotypes is that there is no escape from them. The problem with these stereotypes is that they’re racist and sexist, and that the women of the southern suburbs (or in Joburg, the northern suburbs) may well get very trapped by them.
Oh, I know it, girls. But I also know the unease that I feel when I see women – white women, privileged women, South African women, intelligent women – so very very disparaging and so very dismissive of their sisters. Each of these women you would dismiss as too suburban, too ordinary, too boring – move a little closer to their lives, scratch the surface somewhat. You might find someone that surprises you in one way or another. You might find someone that easily fits into the White Tribe vision when you glance her way and see her as part of a blurry crowd. But that’s the thing with stereotypes. They’re a bit blinding, a bit unfair. They’ll hide reality from you, and you’ll miss a whole lot of gems along the way.
It bothers me that “white” is shorthand for inauthentic, shallow, unworthy. It bothers me that there’s an element of self-loathing in there. At some level, it’s not really okay to be an ordinary, white, middle-aged middle-class woman in this country. It’s perceived as too cushy, too narrow-focused, too privileged, too something. And I’d be interested to ask the Marianne Thamms of this world, the Margie Orfords of this world, how they get over the violently silencing effect of this particular stereotyping. I know many, many women who will never voice their opinions or write their novels because of this social duct tape.
It bothers me that these women – this handful that DO have public, prominent voices – buy into this. Ja, the coffees in Melissa’s may be overpriced, honeys. But no more so than those at Superette or The Kitchen. And these are the women that buy Fair Lady and read your column, and that buy your novels for their book clubs. These women are you too.