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[OPINION] Uncomfortable conversations will free us

For so long we have bitten our tongues at the wrong times, and shot off that same tongue at the wrong times. It is usually mindlessly. Mostly not deliberate but always it creates an opportunity for clarity and debate. How do we know when to and when not to speak our minds, our truths and our curiosity?

One day I was walking behind a white homosexual couple and their two black toddlers. A white woman joined them and said: “This is very generous, do they speak English?” I felt their discomfort and my eyes rolled at the audacity. How dare she? Of course they speak an African language, they are born that way! My sarcasm spewed in my head. She continued engaging them and they generously and patiently answered all her questions. They did this while holding the hands and eye contact of their sons. I was really moved by this.

Most likely they face a lot of judgement, said and unsaid opinions and the same myriad of clumsy questions, every day. One of the boys reached out to me. I took his hand and said to his Dad, “Hey, your son is picking up strangers!” We shared a common giggle with the lady, the boys and the other dad. “I love that!” he laughed. So did I. It all felt right and ok as we walked off to our cars.

Realising I have to be aware of the things that trigger me and what I make them mean is something I have had to practice thousands of times since I was taught to. I continuously request that we talk to hear, not to reply, and that we hear what people are saying, not what we think they are saying. I am better at it than I used to be. Often people are saying what they are saying and we make it mean something different. This lady asked what she wanted to know.

There are millions of other uncomfortable conversations just as awkward as this one that we as South Africans should commit to having with one another.

We don’t know each other well enough, we know what we have been told about people like us and them, we know what we think about different cultures, races, genders, abled and disabled groups of people. Imagine how inconvenient it will be relearning all that now? It will interrupt almost everything we think we know! Or it could be a grand opportunity to get to know who we are, by looking at our aspirations, our objectives, our fears, our beliefs, our values, our predictable future and put that all up for inspection and possible expansion. It is an uncomfortable peeling back of the tints covering our outlook on our life, the lives of people around us and the future we want versus the future that is unfolding.

We get overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, cynical or resigned as we look around and see the doom and gloom in the news, the newspapers, social media, the dinner-time conversations and the input from armchair politicians who are mostly as ineffective as some actual politicians.

All of us can personally look at how we can be the change that can transform our circles of influence through inconvenient, uncomfortable conversations and, very importantly, by allowing people to have their opinions heard, their right to have those opinions respected even if we don’t agree. We cannot make people share our beliefs, but we can show up and role model what we believe. What is workable will always top what is unworkable.

The value for all of us is that we will find there are more possibilities that unite us than which keep us separated. I no longer take offence when people ask me about my disabled son, “What is wrong with him?” I explain what happened to him. That way they see for themselves that nothing is wrong, something happened.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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