HABITUS: Race, performance and ambiguity in post-Apartheid South Africa

In her article, Anthea Moys, an artist, PhD student and Saari Residence alumna, reflects on the significance of race, play, racism and anti-racism in the context of her own performance work and her doctoral thesis as a white South African artist.
Photos: A photo from Anthea Moys' family album (left) and Hillary Adrienne Sanctuary (right).

Hey wit voete!” the older boys jeer at me from the side of the school pool. It translates to “Hey white-feet!” They then add, “Are you swimming or what?”

At least the boys say it out aloud. I much prefer this to the whispering girls who fall silent when my strange-skinned body enters the changing room.

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease of the skin wherein the white blood cells attack the melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), which then die or stop producing melanin. It started on my feet when I turned four, and from there the white, patchy map spread all over my body. In our family it has been passed down from my grandparents to my mother and then to my brother and me. So, skin has never been easy for me to talk about. It’s therefore not surprising that when I started making performance art in my mid-20s, I sought to shift the focus from my body to action.

Even now, in my current PhD research, I didn’t want to write about my skin. I am wary of centring whiteness: I don’t think we need more naval-gazing stories by a privileged white woman. Additionally, and here I would like to be explicit, the problems I face because of my skin condition do not in any way compare to the past and continued violence perpetrated onto Black bodies. However, this practice-as-research PhD has forced me to examine the inner workings of my performance practice. And because my body as a performance artist is embedded in this practice, like paint to a painter, my body and all it represents – namely power and privilege (but also trickster tactics and play) – are inseparable from this story.

An examination of my relationship to my own body, my own skin has helped me understand how and why I saw and didn’t or refused to see skin, race and identity and how this shaped my racist and antiracist worldview. I am sharing this examination, this story of my skin, performance and ambiguity, with a request: not to focus on me, i.e., the individual, but to see how this story of skin functions in perpetuating both racist and antiracist practice to learn from this going forward. I want to do this without creating a “good white person manifesto” or a didactic anti-racism DIY kit. This is a continuous journey, and I am still learning.

It is important to acknowledge the power of the storyteller. My practice-research is embedded within an autoethnographic approach, and its main purpose is to contextualize and position the project and the project’s storyteller and, in so doing, “bring to light power relations” (Foucault, 1982, p. 780). The act of using autoethnography to tell my story is itself an act of privilege and thus of power. Cultural historian Harvey Young refers to Hortense Spillers in Black, White and in Color who writes about the subjectivity of the author: ‘the danger of making the Self, as an embodied abstraction speak for all, Spillers suggests that ‘the ‘body’ should be specified as a discursive and particular instance that belongs, always to a context, and we must look for its import there’ (2010, p.9). The context I am speaking within is the context of South Africa and within this, whiteness in South Africa. I have white settler roots, and this practice cannot be divorced from colonial practices. Even though I am writing in English, my first language – a colonial tool – is an act of power and privilege.

However, the practice is a practice in relation to and with other people. I am not alone. However, I do not feel I can speak for the Black bodies in this writing. Instead, I focus on an experience I can speak about: whiteness, and within this, experiencing “othering” because of the vitiligo that influences my worldview, my habitus and how this functioned in my past performance practice.[1]

French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to habitus as something everyone has. It refers to our likes and dislikes, our temperament and how we see the social world around us (1990, p. 53). Young likens it to an “intentionless” performance; he writes that sooner or later, “she inhabits this performance” and that “what makes habitus so interesting is that we forget that we are performing” (2010, p. 20). If I do not examine my habitus more closely, I risk unintentionally repeating this action, resulting in hurting or excluding others and perpetuating violence.

To explain my habitus, I share two particular threads that shaped my antiracist and racist world views growing up. The first was that I had a privileged upbringing – I am white. I was brought up in a middle-class community where I was often surrounded by many different playmates of all ages and races. At the same time, I grew up in an antiapartheid activist environment, where people in danger could seek refuge from the police.

Many, many people lost their dignity, body parts, loved ones and their lives during these horrific times. In 1988 Father John, a friend of my mother, lost his hand to a bomb hidden in a parcel of Sechaba ANC magazines sent by the security police. (And those are the stories that were close to home. What of the stories on the periphery that were much more disturbing?) This thread of my habitus instilled within me a deep activist and antiracist world view.

The second thread is more personal and deeply connected to notions of the body. Growing up with vitiligo, I was told by my loving parents, in an attempt to protect me, that what really mattered was on the inside and that skin colour is just one part of the story. Whilst this story functioned in protecting me and shielding, it also shaped an arguably racist and blind “I don’t see colour” worldview.

Whilst the explanation of my habitus functions in illuminating my actions, it at the same time centres whiteness through an acknowledgement of shame. In moving on from white shame and guilt, which usually results in inaction or apathy, sociologist Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility reminds us that “much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility” and “the failure to acknowledge white supremacy protects it from examination and holds it in place” (2018, p. 524). In revealing my habitus, which shaped both my racist and antiracist worldviews as I chose not to remain in a comfortable place of shameful inaction, I am attempting to make visible – and thus understand – my actions in my past performance practice in seeing how they interrupt and even uphold racism.

First, a description of the initial practice:

George’s boxing gym is not just a gym but a safe haven. The gym is located in Hillbrow, which during pre-1994 Apartheid was a wealthy, white, socialite area but which has since degenerated into one of the most dangerous areas in Johannesburg. An amateur boxer in South Africa, George Khosi “The Brick” has been in many fights, but he has also literally had to fight for his life. Growing up on the dangerous streets of Hillbrow, George discovered a natural affinity for boxing and has dedicated his life not only to training champion boxers but also to creating a safe space for children, where they can play as well as learn how to protect themselves.

In June 2007, out on a walk in Hillbrow with the other resident artists from the kin:be:jozi residency project, I met George in his gym and, after seeing one of his training sessions, asked if I could participate in learning how to box. We immediately connected and, after agreeing on how we would work together, we created the Boxing Games performance over the course of the next three weeks. The work emerged out of the specific non-competitive team training, and we took this training into the ring where instead of two boxers in the ring, there were now twelve. The rule of the game was to keep adding new rules. The game became a generative activity where ‘playing to keep on playing’ was more important than ‘playing to win’.

The performance was held at the gym; it was also included as one of my performances for my master’s thesis. My role here was that of practitioner: impulsive, spontaneous, hopeful, process-driven, action-oriented and also quite secure and certain in my own voice. For me the most important insight into this practice was that it was significant for both George and me, and this is one of the reasons I returned to it in my PhD research in 2019 and 2020. Since the 2007 project, George and I have worked together on several other projects and remain close friends. There is, as George would say “A lot of love” here.

In my master’s thesis in 2007, there was only one voice: my own. Thirteen years later, in November 2019, I returned to the gym armed with boxing gloves and a pile of ethically approved informed consent forms. We played the boxing game with three of George’s boxers and I interviewed George and three of the key participants from the initial practice back in 2007. The process of revisiting the gym, playing the game again and interviewing George and those key players was an attempt to undo the singular and certain self from 13 years ago, to break “the single story” (Adichie, 2009).[2] This revisiting of the practice was a destabilising experience that revealed to me new insights about my positionality in relation to notions of race, gender, status, privilege and power – things I had chosen, through my colour-blind worldview, to wilfully ignore in the first practice. It made me critically reflect on how I operated in 2007 and, in line with my own wilful blindness, I look to Sociologist Erving Goffman’s ideas around “play as encounter”.

Goffman sees games as “worldbuilding activities” and theorises that games often exhibit characteristics of “selective inattention or disregard” where for example, “the social status of players is not important once the game has started” (Henricks, 2006, p. 151). In much the same way, fearful of paying attention to my own imperfect vitiligo-patched body in practice one, I negated this powerful, loaded identity caused by my particular habitus of “I don’t see colour”. In interpreting this “selective inattention or disregard” through the “white lens” as played out in a game, I can see how this act or worldview of “I don’t see colour” shapes a racist worldview. As one of my friends says, it’s like you say: “I don’t see you,” thus rendering my friend and all her complexity invisible.

I too, especially when I was younger, have felt this skin-level reductionism, and it hurts. I am learning to accept and understand my vitiligo, my skin, in a new way. My “whiteness” is not blank or uniform, and perhaps it is a strange gift in that it has allowed me a unique position in understanding from a young age how it (whiteness) is a social construction aimed at holding onto power at the cost of others.

In Boxing Games 2007, this body of mine was both good and bad. It was ambiguous. It was a privileged, white, wilfully blind body with “wit voete” that performed a certain amount of power. And my body was also a female, trickster, “uneven”, white body that sought to reimagine the existing rules of the game with people similarly interested in indirectly fighting Apartheid through the generative activity of play, through doing.

As George shared with me when I was there in 2019: “For me it was about peace and love and boxing and play. Black and white together doing something. We need stuff like this for peace. We need love, and we need peace. We need to be together.”

Both of these stories exist simultaneously and necessarily. It is both/and. However, can this position of ambiguity, as a chosen “silent” and comfortable position of privilege today, remain unexamined? How does remaining in the comfort of ambiguity uphold racist structures? And so the research continues!

In light of today’s racially tenuous socio-political context, without a deeper, critical examination and reflective understanding of my habitus, my past practice and the function of ambiguity inherent to it, I risk creating the same power structures that make people invisible and thus perpetuate forms of racism. Through this understanding I hope to add to the theory and practice of ambiguity: how I have both good and bad, racist and antiracist within me, revealing how this ambiguity functions in relation to notions of privilege, comfort and power in order to reimagine how we can reclaim ambiguity in more vulnerable, generative, embodied and playful ways. I hope to talk about this more. This text is unfinished. It is a practice of continuous return, and I am still learning.

 

 

[1] And perhaps this text is for white people, so they too may reflect on their own lives and habitus to see where they have been complicit, comfortable and blind. As Resmaa Menakem, an esteemed trauma therapist working in Minneapolis, says: “An embodied antiracist culture and practice doesn’t exist. And now you have to create it. Not for me, but so you don’t pass this infection down to your children.”

[2] An act that, I am aware, is in itself highly problematic in its inescapable connection to power, extraction, colonialism and whiteness, as explained above.

 

References:

Adichie, C.N (2009) The Danger of the Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Ted Talk. Accessed: June 8, 2020.

Bourdieu, P. (1980) translated by Nice, R (1990) The Logic of Practice Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Crampton, J W. and Elden, S. (eds) (2007) Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

DiAngelo, R (2018) White Fragility. United States: Beacon Press.

Henricks, T. (2006) Play Reconsidered Sociological Perspectives on Human Expression. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Fisher, J. (2004) “Embodied Subversion” in Heathfield, A. (ed) (2004) Live Art and Performance

New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1982) ‘The Subject and Power’ Critical Inquiry, Summer, 1982, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1982), pp. 777-795, The University of Chicago Press.

Prentki, T. (2012) The Fool in European Theatre Stages of Folly England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo: https://onbeing.org/programs/robin-diangelo-and-resmaa-menakem-in-conversation/. and https://onbeing.org/programs/resmaa-menakem-notice-the-rage-notice-the-silence/. Accessed July 16, 2020 and July 2020

Salinas, C. (2013) Ambiguous Trickster Liminality: Two Anti-Mythological Ideas, Review of Communication, 13:2, 143-159, DOI: 10.1080/15358593.2013.791716.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-°©‐40

Young, H. (2010). Embodying Black experience: stillness, critical memory, and the Black body. Retrieved from https://hdl.handles.net/2027/heb.33786.

About George Khosi: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-02-11-boxer-george-khosi-gives-his-heart-to-hillbrow/

Accessed December, 2020.

Interviews with George Khosi, November 2019.

 

Author

Anthea Moys

Anthea is an artist, an educator, a play facilitator, a lifelong learner, runner and a PhD candidate at Northumbria University. Anthea wears many hats, but her main interest lies in the diverse streams of playful practice as an artist/facilitator/researcher/educator in a variety of contexts. In 2008 she completed her Masters at Wits with a focus on play and performance in public space. In 2013 she won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art (inaugural) where she created her “Vs.” series, which embraced failure and reimagined winning as the act of learning itself. She has travelled widely as an artist and play facilitator. In May 2015 she participated in the Johannesburg Pavilion residency at the 56th Venice Biennale. In August 2018, Anthea was selected as one of the three performance artists from Africa in the travelling residency History Will Be Kind To Me For I Intend To Perform It where she was commissioned to create a new performance for three performance art festivals in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. In 2018 Anthea was a resident artist and researcher at The Capital of Children as part of the LEGO Foundation in Denmark and in February 2020 she facilitated a play session at the Wellcome Collection in London. Anthea is now in the 3rd year of her practice-as-research PhD with a focus on play, privilege and power within the performance studies domain. Anthea currently lives, learns, works and plays in Newcastle, U.K.
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