OPINION: Daring to be visible
"I had no idea 900 words could cause such utter outrage. I received over 800 hate e-mails. I received phone calls to my home at night. All kinds of threats."
These are the words of Dr Siona O'Connell, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The 900 words in question take the form of a column titled _ What UCT is not telling their first years, _which details the lack of transformation at the institution, particularly highlighting the struggles of black academics, who numbered just 48 out of 1,405 in 2013. For drawing attention to this, and raising questions, she has faced personal attack.
Echoing this experience, after a column titled _ Black in Cape Town? Brace Yourself _was published online, the Independent Media Group commissioned an investigative panel to take seriously the role and function of comment sections, given the incredible vitriol and hate speech aimed at its 16-year-old writer Kine Dineo Mokwena-Kessi.
Meanwhile, a piece was recently published in _ The Washington Post _about the online abuse aimed at feminist writers, ranging from hate-fuelled personal attacks and rape threats to publishing where they live and work. Some of these women, as a direct result, have chosen to retire or retreat into silence for the sake of self-care and self-preservation.
All of these instances highlight how daring to make your lived experience visible and present, or claiming the right to be heard, is a radical act in our digital age - in the sense that to do so has a real, personal cost.
Making the personal public is an incredibly necessary act, particularly for those whose experience is so often relegated to the margins, who are not believed about their lived experience or simply ignored when they speak about their reality.
Many find themselves asked 'show me your receipts', as there is a demand for oppressed people to prove that they are not lying, exaggerating or making things up when they speak about their lives. Even when the facts or figures are provided, or are clear and self-evident, it is a relentless endgame that can never be won because, as Toni Morrison argues, "there will always be one more thing" that you are asked for. It demands an infinite and unachievable "burden of proof" from people who dare to say that they experience the world in a way that differs from the "norm".
It is also built on the idea that all kinds of oppression, but particularly racism, will appear in a neatly packaged form that will allow us to say "that is racism, full stop, no questions asked", which disregards its covert and insidious forms. At its heart is the disregard for someone's humanity, and a refusal to engage with the idea that some people inhabit a world and reality that is radically different from the one that we are familiar with.
However, oppression, because it is structural, is sophisticated. It invades everything. It permeates our spaces, institutions, homes, personal relationships and even ourselves. As a result, ridding ourselves of it is no simple task, but requires daily personal disinvestment and self-reflexive scrutiny - an acknowledgement that we are often part of the problem. We cannot magically rid ourselves of the ways of being that are structurally embedded in us. It is an incredibly difficult and constant process of daily looking at ourselves in a mirror and challenging the stains on our consciousness that remain.
This is why the issue of transformation at a liberal institution is about more than the aesthetics of admission, and why a Constitution or policy document does not solve our lingering national issues that cut across race, class, gender, sexuality, physical ability and other sites of oppression. The absence and invisibility embedded in these sites of unrest is a complex issue, built and compounded over centuries, and it permeates every aspect of what it means to be human.
The award-winning American writer Jacqueline Woodson, an advocate for diversity in books, says: " I didn't know my absence until I saw myself". Her writing is a deliberate attempt to puncture the space of dominant narratives. The purpose of this is radical visibility, as she says: "I don't want anyone to walk through the world feeling invisible ever again."
For many of the people who Woodson writes about, life is a constant reminder that you are in what the Martiniquan thinker Franz Fanon calls a "zone of nonbeing". That some aspect of who you are causes some people to think of you as less than human.
Writers of all kinds, whether of columns, personal essays, books or poetry, are often vital for oppressed groups. In the words of Ralph Ellison, writing "can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now". It affirms both the humanity of marginalised lives, and echoes the right to exist that is so acutely breathed into Celie's lines in Alice Walker's The Color Purple: "I'm pore [sic], I'm black, I may be ugly, and can't cook. . . But I'm here". In this way, the kinds of writing that is under attack - because it speaks an unwelcome truth - is the art of making visible. It shines a light on experiences that are disregarded, underrepresented, not acknowledged and ignored, and often under attack. It affirms the humanity of those subjects whose humanity is still a question, and a site of struggle in the 21st century.
Sometimes that visibility is hearing your experience articulated in a friend's story, seeing someone like you in the same room or lecturing you, reading a book with a protagonist whose journey mirrors some aspect of your life, or simply finding yourself, your reality and your world reflected in an article online. Because, increasingly, we find that in a world where the language of freedom is pervasive but marginalised groups face multiple kinds of attack, Morrison's words ring exceptionally true: "Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another". And when writing in today's online environment, you often have to remind yourself: "I write so people feel less alone. I write so people feel less alone, I write so people feel…".
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler