Resting in Power: Resisting the Depolicitization of Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

10741303-republic-of-south-africa--circa-1994-a-stamp-printed-in-rsa-shows-nelson-mandela-circa-1994I was sitting at home this afternoon, quietly working, when my Twitter feed suddenly started swelling with grief. Though the world had known that the life of Nelson Mandela would end sooner, rather than later, and that the year had been filled with precarious moments during his repeated hospitalizations, the news has hit us hard. My eyes welled up with tears, and as I communicated with friends, and shared the news of his death, we mourned together, silently. It was as if a hush had come over all of us, a quiet knowledge that with Mandela’s passing, we were witnessing the end of an era, witnessing the death of one of the greatest freedom fighters we have had the privilege of knowing.

And yet, in and amongst the messages of sorrow at his passing, and joy in celebrating his life, were a number of statements about Mandela—both by politicians and by citizens-at-large—that erased an important part of his life: the ways in which he actively fought against violent white supremacy, and the ways in which the global community turned their backs on apartheid in South Africa. Predictably, while it is being remembered with deep sorrow and a deep recognition of history, the death of Nelson Mandela is also in danger of becoming branded and sold, commodified and traded on the public market of memory.

While I do not begrudge anyone their grief, or wish to condemn their expressions of sorrow, of honouring, and remembrance as insincere, I believe that on the occasion of such a death, we must also honour and remember the difficult things, the things that we do not necessarily wish to commemorate.

Photograph by David Turnley.Let us not forget that for all the years of freedom Mandela had, and for all of the years of political change he was able to enact in South Africa, the government of his own country had, with the support of other nations, sought to absolutely destroy the anti-apartheid movement. Let us not forget that politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, labeled him as a terrorist.

Let us not forget that Mandela spent 27 years in prison, forced to undertake hard labour. It is far too easy to forget, perhaps because most of us cannot ever really imagine, nor will ever be forced to experience, what 27 years in prison was like.

Let us not forget that until 2008, when Mandela was 90 years old, he was still on the U.S terrorism watch list.

Like many other social justice activists and freedom fighters, Mandela’s actions, words, and legacy have often been co-opted and folded back into the very systems that continue to oppress racialized communities. Whether spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, by bell hooks or by Maya Angelou, the words of racialized anti-oppression activists are often stripped of their context, and of the historical and political specificity of their struggle. Their quotes now circulate the internet in numerous memes, deployed, understandably, for inspiration, but it is crucial not to forget under which circumstance words have been spoken. The words of anti-apartheid or anti-racist freedom fighters have been used to inspire workouts at the gym as much as they have been used to sell products and to uphold the greed of capitalism. Forgive my bluntness in saying that the fight against cellulite is not equivalent to the fight against white supremacy, and that for the words of anti-poverty activists to be used as a capitalist selling-point is absolutely reprehensible. And while it may be nice (pleasant, even) to use these words, including those spoken by Nelson Mandela, to sell the illusion of a multicultural society that simply needs to love each other, we often do so in order to turn a blind eye to the violence that continues to rage around us, or to elide our own complicity in systems of racist oppression. The words of anti-apartheid struggle do not belong to us all equally (if they do at all), and we must be mindful of how they are appropriated. Some words may not be ours to use.

Confronting death is difficult, especially when it comes to the deaths of those figures who seemed to embody a nearly superhuman sort of dedication, resolve, commitment, and leadership (though of course, Mandela was a human being, and not a saint). Confronting a legacy is difficult enough without having to look critically at the social, political, and economic problems that still persist, without having to acknowledge that we do not by any means live in a post-racial society, that we do not live in a world where “peace” and “love” can simply transcend or erase racial boundaries, because there are active forms of oppression, apartheid, and genocide in our world today.

images-1For me, confronting Mandela’s legacy means continuing to acknowledge the various privileges that I have in my life, and in the community where I live. It means acknowledging that while I am of mixed race, I still have a large measure of white privilege. As a citizen of Canada, living on the West Coast, it means being critical of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and violence towards Indigenous communities, about recognizing that the country I call home has attempted to wipe out entire Indigenous nations. It means listening to the testimonies of survivors from residential schools. It means acknowledging my status as a settler on unceded Indigenous lands. It means knowing that this violence was no mere accident, and that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian politician and poet, actively called for Canadian policies to “kill the Indian in the child.” This is the work to be done in my country and community: others have their own geographically and socio-politically specific legacies to confront.

To honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy is a difficult task. To do so, we must look around, in our own lives, in our own communities, and know that his work is not finished. Indeed, it is the time to remember that Nelson Mandela cannot be, and never could be, the sole source of courage, of action, and of protest, neither in South Africa, nor in the world at large. We must look at the leaders we have in our respective communities, and we must support those who are fighting for freedom, for equality, for environmental protection, for economic justice. These great tasks are our collective responsibility, one that he has now, in no uncertain terms, left to all of us. We must fight for equality and justice in this lifetime, on this earth, as Mandela did.

Madiba, rest in power. We are grateful for your fight.


People as Pixels, Daughters as Data: Thoughts on the Tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons’ Suicide

It’s been five days since Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old girl from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support following a suicide attempt that left her in a coma. As her family grieves her death, and outrage spreads throughout the global community, many are left wondering how we managed to fail – yet again – a young girl who experienced sexual violence and harassment at the hands of her peers, and who was so tormented by them that she took her own life.

After the gang rape of a young woman in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, after the gang rape of a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, and after the suicide of Amanda Todd, a young woman who lived in my own community of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, I had hoped – perhaps somewhat naively – that we were all learning our lessons, youth and adults alike. I had hoped that the anti-bullying campaigns, the days of wearing pink shirts, and the insistence that such tragedies will never happen again would somehow materialize into a cultural shift in our attitudes towards both the teenage perpetrators of rape, other forms of sexualized violence/harassment, and their victims. While I am acutely aware that change takes time, I am increasingly doubtful that the current rhetoric of “bullying awareness” is at all a viable strategy. What I am convinced of, now more than ever, is that we need to teach our youth – and do this by modeling it ourselves – a deep form of empathy based on how we treat others’ experiences and stories.

It is strange, as someone who survived rape as a teenager, to say, with utmost confidence, that I am very grateful that my assaults took place more than a decade ago, when social media and cell phones were scarce, if not completely nonexistent. When I was raped at 15  (the same age as Rehtaeh was when she was raped) I was most certainly isolated and silenced in my experience, but at least I knew that my story, my awful secret, my most vulnerable moment, was mine to tell. The fear of having photographs of myself distributed amongst my classmates with a click of a mouse or the pressing of a button was not a fear that ever crossed my mind. The terror of being relentlessly pursued online – and knowing that the harassment against me could seemingly forever be preserved in the archive of the Internet – was also not a fear that ever crossed my mind. Despite the fact that when I finally chose to tell my story, I was met with an appalling lack of inaction, I at least had the option of being able to maintain my privacy.

The late media expert Marshall McLuhan told us, quite famously, that “the medium is the message.” As media that rapidly duplicate and publicize experiences, texting and the internet not only share victims’ rapes with the world, but suggest that as pieces of information that can be rapidly and casually shared, photographs and stories about rape, can be quick, casual things that we take as seriously as any of the number of memes that circulate online. But we all remember the ways in which the childhood game of “Telephone” taught us that messages and stories can be rapidly distorted as they are passed from person to person: the same principle applies to how a victim’s story, identity, and sense of security can be distorted, mangled, ripped apart, and destroyed.

This form of invalidation, casual indifference, or, at worst, malicious mocking, is not merely “bullying” or “harassment.” It is a form of secondary traumatization, and as any victim of rape will agree, can be as bad if not worse than the actual assault itself.

Rape is an experience in which control is taken away from a victim, often viciously, and by the people we expect it from the least. What I recognize now, as someone who researches trauma and storytelling every day, is that it is not only the opportunity to tell one’s story that matters, but the ability to reassert control by deciding how, where, when, why, and to whom we tell that story. For Rehtaeh, and other young women who experienced similar situations, I can painfully imagine that the culmination of several losses of control over her story – from the distribution of photographs, to the harassment, to the gossip, and to the lack of a day in court to speak out against her attackers – was simply too much to bear.

And lest we believe that we, as adults, must not be part of the problem of this culture of second-hand victimization, I would suggest that we think carefully about how we speak about others, and what kinds of information we casually pass around online. When I see others gleefully sharing allegedly-hilarious photographs of overweight individuals in Walmart, “slutty” girls in nightclubs, or not-so-witty advertisements that clearly promote rape culture, I realize how easy it is for many to start seeing people as pixels, and daughters as data.

We must not only teach our children media literacy, but recognize that it is profoundly connected to emotional literacy. Programs that teach empathy cannot stop before youth transition into high school, when relationships, sexuality, and issues of consent absolutely require ongoing reinforcement of emotional intelligence and moral and ethical action.

We must not shy away from including a frank discussion of sexual assault and violence alongside sex education in our schools.

We must empower our children to understand that photography is not merely a 2D representation of a person, but a powerful and life-altering medium, and that the schoolyard chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words can never hurt me” is nothing more than a lie that has been passed down from dysfunctional generation to dysfunctional generation.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had a curriculum to implement, or justice to serve. At the moment, however, all I have is a deep sense of sadness for Rehtaeh and her family. All I can do is keep speaking about my own experience, offering an ear to those who have survived sexual violence and harassment, and keep trying to advocate for change. Tomorrow I go back to work, writing with a heavy heart and reluctantly adding another name to add to the list of those to whom I dedicate my research:

For those whose names I will never know.
For the Jane Does of Pitt Meadows and Steubenville.
For Amanda Todd, November 27th, 1996 – October 10th, 2012.

For Rehtaeh Parsons, December 9th, 1995 – April 7th, 2013.