Some papers are in the review pipeline for longer than they ought to be and the travel-part of conference attendance is a good opportunity to read books. So, instead of writing more about research, here’s a blogpost with a book review instead, being Sorry, not sorry—Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa by South African journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee. It’s one of those books I bought out of curiosity, as the main title intrigued me on two aspects. First, it contradicts—if you’re not sorry, then don’t apologise for not doing so. Second, the subtitle, as it can be useful to read what people who don’t get much media coverage have to say. It turned out to have been published only last month, so let me break with the usual pattern and write a review now rather than wait until the usual January installments.
The book contains 20 essays of Dawjee’s experiences broadly and with many specific events, and reflections thereof, on growing up and working in South Africa. Depending on your background, you’ll find more or less recognisable points in it, or perhaps none at all and you’ll just eat the whole spiced dish served, but if you’re a woke South African white or think of yourself as a do-gooder white, you probably won’t like certain sections of it. As it is not my intention to write a very long review, I’ve picked a few essays to comment on, but there’s no clear single favourite among the essays. There are two essays that I think the book could have done without, but well, I suppose the author is asserting something with it that has something to do with the first essay and that I’m just missing the point. That first essay is entitled ‘We don’t really write what we like’ and relates back to Biko’s statement and essay collection I write what I like, not the Writing what we like essay collection of 2016. It describes the media landscape, the difficulties of people of colour to get published, and that their articles are always expected to have some relevance and insight—“having to be on the frontlines of critical thinking”—rather than some drivel that white guys can get away with, as “We too have nice experiences. We think about things and dream and have magic in us. We have fuzzy fables to share.”. Dawjee doesn’t consider such airy fairy stories by the white guys to be brave, but exhibiting opportunity an privilege, and she wants to have that opportunity and privilege, too. This book, however, is mainly of the not-drivel and making-a-point sort of writing rather than flowery language devoid of a message.
For instance, what it was like from the journalism side when Mandela died, and the magazine she was working for changing her story describing a successful black guy into one “more Tsotsi-like”, because “[t]he obvious reason for the editorial manipulation was that no-one wanted a story of a good black kid. Only white kids are intrinsically exceptional.” (discussed in the essay ‘The curious case of the old white architect’). Several essays describe unpleasant behind-the-scenes experiences in journalism, such as at YOU magazine, and provide a context to her article Maid in South Africa that had as blurb “White people can walk their dogs, but not their children”, which apparently had turned out to cause a shitstorm on social media. There was an opinion-piece response by one of Dawjee’s colleagues, “coming to my ‘rescue’” and who “needed to whitesplain my thoughts and sanitise them with her ‘wokeness’” (p190). It’s a prelude to finishing off with a high note (more about that further below), and illustrates one of the recurring topics—the major irritation with the do-gooders, woke whites, the ones who put themselves in the ‘good whites’ box and ‘liberal left’, but who nonetheless still contribute to systemic racism. This relates to Biko’s essay on the problems with white liberals and similar essays in his I write what I like, there described as category, and in Dawjee’s book illustrated with multiple examples.
In an essay quite different in style, ‘Why I’m down with Downtown Abbey’ (the TV series), Dawjee revels in the joys of seeing white servants doing the scurrying around, cooking, cleaning etc for the rich. On the one hand, knowing a little of South African society by now, understandable. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering just how much messed up the media is that people here still (this is not the first or second time I came across this topic) seem to think that up in Europe most or all families also have maids and gardeners. They don’t. As one Irish placard had put it, “clean up your own shite” is the standard, as is DIY gardening and cooking. Those chores, or joys, are done by the women, children, and men of the nuclear family, not hired helps.
Related to that latter point—who’s doing the chores—two essays have to do with feminism and Islam. The essay title ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ speaks for itself. And, yes, as Dawjee says, it cannot be repeated often enough that there were strong, successful, and intelligent women at the bedrock of Islam and women actually do have rights (unlike under Christianity); in case you want some references on women’s rights under Islam, have a look at the essay I wrote a while a go about it. ‘My mother, the true radical’ touches upon notions of feminism and who gets to decide who is feminist when and in what way.
I do not quite agree with Dawjee’s conclusion drawn from her Tinder experiences in ‘Tinder is a pocket full of rejection, in two parts’. On p129 she writes “Tinder in South Africa is nothing but fertile ground for race-based rejection.”. If it were a straightforward case of just race-based swiping, then, statistically, I should have had lots of matches with SA white guys, as I surely look white with my pale skin, blue eyes, and dark blonde hair (that I ended up in the 0.6% ‘other’ box in the SA census in 2011 is a separate story). But, nada. In my 1.5 years of Tinder experiment in Cape Town, I never ever got a match with a white guy from SA either, but plenty of matches with blacks, broad and narrow. I still hypothesise that the lack of matches with the white guys is because I list my employer, which scares away men who do not like women who’ve enjoyed some higher education, as it has scared away countless men in several other countries as well. Having educated oneself out of the marriage market, it is also called. There’s a realistic chance that a majority of those South African whites that swiped left on Dawjee are racist, but, sadly, their distorted views on humanity include insecurities on more than one front, and I’m willing to bet that Dawjee having an honours degree under her belt will have contributed to it. That said, two anecdotes doesn’t make data, and an OKCupid-type of analysis like Rudder’s Dataclysm (review) but then of Tinder data would be interesting so as to get to the bottom of that.
The two, imho, skippable essays are “Joining a cult is a terrible idea” (duh) and “Depression: A journal”. I’m not into too personal revelations, and would have preferred a general analysis on how society deals, or not, with mental illness, or, if something more concrete, to relate it to, say, the Life Esidimeni case from whichever angle.
Meandering around through the various serious subtopics and digressions, as a whole, the essays combine into chronicling the road taken by Dawjee to decolonise her mind, culminating in a fine series of statements in the last part of the last essay. She is not sorry for refusing to be a doormat, saying so, and the consequences that that will have for those who perpetuate and benefit from systemic racism, and she now lives from a position of strength rather than struggling and doubting as a receiver of it.
Overall, it was an interesting book and worthwhile to have read. The writing style is very accessible, so one can read the whole book in a day or so. In case you are still unsure whether you want to read it or not: there are free book extracts of ‘We don’t really write what we like’, ‘Begging to be white?’, and ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ and, at the time of writing this blog post, one written review on News24 and Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 interview with Dawjee (both also positive about the book).