During the transition to democracy in 1993/4 I was visiting home in Durban, South Africa conducting ethnographic research on the intersections of gender, race, and class. Living in Los Angeles gave me the distance and space to reflect upon my experiences as a white woman growing up in a racially segregated state. As a member of a mixed-race South African women’s group in Los Angeles, I came to appreciate our commonalities that included shared cultural sensibilities and frustrations as women growing up in a sexist society. One of the more memorable moments of my research in Durban was an occasion when I met with a group of middle-class black women, members of a multi-racial women’s anti-apartheid group. After explaining what I was doing and why I wanted to talk with them, they challenged me.
“What good is your research going to do for us? So many white women and foreigners come here to build their careers on our life stories.”
I recall stumbling, trying to be honest, not just with them but with myself.
“You’re right. That has happened a lot. I wish I could tell you that my work will make a difference in your lives. My career is just starting, so I don’t have much influence yet. What I can say is that I hope to improve our understanding of the challenges women like you face and how you confront them. But I have no guarantee that my work will make any difference. I only hope that my work will contribute to collective efforts to address women’s needs during this critical time of change.”
The women listened attentively. In the end, they agreed to participate in my research, but their honest confrontation of the legacies of apartheid stayed with me long after I completed this research. Was my effort to shed light on women’s experiences going to be enough?
[Extract from “I am HIV: Ordinary daring to live and make change in South Africa” by Deborah Mindry]