By Thakane-Rethabile Shale
I was lucky enough to grow up in Lesotho, a country that has been largely unmarked by racism and apartheid. Growing up, racism was something I read about in books, something that happened to other women in faraway lands. It is this kind of non-exposure to real life racism that I carried with me all my life to varsity in South Africa where when meeting what other black students described as a racist white person I would simply see a rude person. For me, colour had never been a factor and my privilege had blinded me to the problem. I was even at times dismissive of the other black student calling them hysterical and shrill.
I was reminded of this particular insensitive blindness when I was recently discussing the high statistics of rape in Southern Africa, where Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa were at the top of a list of 11 countries with the highest rape statistics across the world. The men I was talking to seem to consider me shrill. I tried to explain that in any situation where a woman is walking alone and meets a group of men, the first thought that comes to mind is gang rape and they thought we were overreacting. The conversation left me not only angry that they could not understand something so clear and well documented. It seems to me that they were intentionally blinding themselves to the problem.
It was not until I calmed down a day later that it dawned on me that all the black students I used to accuse of overreacting in South Africa, in particular, may have felt the same. Racism was well documented, it was happening, but since I had not been personally confronted with it, I intentionally blinded myself to it. I had and continue to experience race comfortably because for me race has never really been a problem, not in my face in any case. It is the same way that men experience other men, especially in as far as sexual assaults are concerned. Yes, it is something that is happening, something that they read about but, of course, they assume it is something that happens to women on television or in the newspapers.
Whether every man you meet is a sex offender waiting to happen is as much a question for debate as whether everyone named Kobus will call you the K-word and attempt to bury you alive. We are fully aware that there are probably some nice men out there, the same way one might meet a Kobus, who just wants to hang out without harm to your human liberties but one can never be sure and it is always often better to err on the side of caution.
It is very offensive really to assume people are overreacting just because you have not been exposed to what they have been exposed to. Our experiences, unfortunately, colour us and our view of the world. Human experience also sadly includes the experiences of those you perceive to be like you, so things that happen to other women affect us in the same manner as things that happen to people with whom we share the same skin colour. So, in the same way that black men feel rage when they read of a Trayvon Martin shot by the police in a place as far as the United States and begin to develop a mistrust of white policemen, we also read of a woman gang-raped on a bus in India and we also develop a mistrust of public transportation. If it can happen to someone like you, your mind rationalises that it can happen to you. Is it okay that we let our experiences be coloured against all men? Perhaps not but in the vein is it okay that black people in countries where racism was rampant let their experiences colour them against all white people? Are we going to be surprised that people affected by religious extremists in countries such as Nigeria are now mistrustful of all Muslims? It is, of course, unfair. We should not be letting isolated incidents prejudice us against whole groups of people but people who have had the privilege of not having their experiences wrongly coloured should not be so quick to assume that those who did are being shrill and unreasonable.
* Thakane-Rethabile Shale is a lawyer, writer and an investigative journalism intern with the MNNCIJ