An interview with Naomi Tutu

Photo courtesy of apbspeakers.com

Michael B. Murphy: How would you describe your work? Would you refer to yourself as a civil rights activist? You’ve also been referred to as a gender justice advocate.

Naomi Tutu: I would say a human rights activist. Yes, I think that, no matter what the issue, they are all connected.

What is it that helped transform you into a human rights activist? Do you believe your father’s work was the key reason as to why you became an activist or were there other factors that influenced you?

Clearly, I think coming from the family that I do and having my parents as activists, obviously played a role, but obviously, just my own life experiences – being raised as a black child in Apartheid South Africa and recognizing how inhumanity is inseparable. When you dehumanize one group of human beings, you literally dehumanize yourself. So for me, it was just about recognizing how much we all, as a world, lose in allowing dehumanization and oppression to continue. Knowing that there were people who sacrificed so that I would have a better life than my parents and grandparents, and wanting to be a part of that continuing process of trying to make the world slightly better than the world that I received.

Do you believe the world is improving in terms of race and misogyny?

You can look around the world and see places where things are improving. You can look around the world and see issues where things are changing and conversations about human rights are accepted and that there is something that needs to be questioned about the way we do things. So we look around and see there are more women in political leadership around the world. We see more people of color in positions of leadership. So we can see positive things happening, but I think right now, my concern is we are seeing many more of the negative things happening. Look at the refugee crisis in Syria and the response of the world to that refugee crisis. Given that the world has been a part of the conflict in Syria, surely we at least owe … safety to people fleeing those places.

Recently in the United States, we have had the events of Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement and many incidences of police officers committing acts of violence towards people of color. These events have received a tremendous amount of media coverage, and they have sparked a debate in our nation concerning race and racism in America. Are race relations worse in America or are these issues just finally receiving the attention they deserve?

Again, I think it’s a little bit of both. … First of all, we have the technology that we now have people with cellphones taking film of a police officer shooting somebody in the back, so when the police officer says, “He went for my gun,” there is actual video evidence that shows that this was not so. You know, in the past, I’m sure there have been police officers who have murdered and have gotten away with it. So I think that’s one – we are having more people speaking about it and so more access to the events happening. I think the second thing is there is a way that things are getting worse. There is a way in which this country – I think this country is in a place of crisis. When we experience a time of crisis, a time of struggle, we as human beings basically have two options. One is to find ways of building alliances to find out what are the root causes of what is going on. What can we do together to make things better? Or, we can find people to blame for what is going wrong. To find some other group that is the problem – those immigrants, those black people, whatever. “Feminazis.” That second option is often easier. You know, it’s a gut reaction. You can just say, “Well it’s their fault, so obviously there’s nothing that I need to do to change the way that I’m living in the world.” That is an easier option. It’s a more destructive option, and I think we are seeing that in our communities.

You’re known for saying how the truth can help heal the wounds of racism. Would you care to elaborate on that? I know it’s an idea that stems from South Africa’s response to the aftermath of Apartheid.

Right, [South Africa] had a truth and reconciliation commission. Basically, for me, it does come out of that process. That idea that when you bring to light what is truthfully happening, then we can choose to say, “Oh that didn’t really happen,” or we can choose to say, “Wait a minute. This is what was going on? This is what is going on in our community?” But I think first thing is to find people willing to tell the truth. So that ties back to the videos. Seeing police abuse. Seeing the latest one in South Carolina of the resource officer in the high school. But there is also a human condition that wants to say things about our community, say that everything is fine. “Don’t be coming up with these uncomfortable truths that put us in a bad light.” … That’s what we heard in South Africa. That’s what we hear here. “If you love our country why do you need to highlight the bad things?” The reality is that to highlight bad things is so we can correct them. Unless we admit that they happened, then there is no way to correct them, right? If it’s not happening, what is there to correct? But if we are willing to speak the truth and hear the truth about what is indeed happening and what it stems from … I think it’s really easy to say that there are some bad police officers. And I think that is true … but where are the good police officers who are saying, “This is wrong?” So clearly it’s bigger than simply some bad police officers. There is a structural something going on that we need to ask questions about to change that culture.

As a young American, it’s so easy to become pessimistic. There just seems as though there’s so much work that needs to get done. What would you say to young Americans who want to see change, to see America truly acknowledge racism and misogyny as very real problems? How do you encourage them not to give up?

I would say to them what I say to my children, which is that my grandfathers and one grandmother never saw a free South Africa. Yet, throughout their lives, they prepared us for a free South Africa. They kept telling us, “We know this is going to happen. We know that our country is going to become more just. We are going to struggle for that to happen.” For us, part of the … prize is being a part of the struggle for justice. Knowing that we are struggling for something that is just. And my grandmother who did live to vote in our first democratic election told me on the day she voted that she had always believed this day would come in her grandchildren’s lifetime. For her, it was just an extra prize that she got to see it. And even though she only voted once and she voted at 92 years old, and never actually saw President Mandela because she was blind by that time, that for her that was way beyond what she had expected. So I think, yes, there is a way we all want to see what it is we are struggling for, but there is a glory almost … in just knowing that you are standing for the truth, standing for justice and working to make it a reality.

How has your faith and belief in God helped form you as a person, as someone who advocates for human rights? It must play a pivotal part, I’d imagine.

Oh, I think it is. It’s always been an important part of … who I am. My belief in God. It’s really been a faith journey for me. There have been times that I’ve railed against God and questioned God. It has been in fact the strength of knowing that I belong to a God who is not made insecure when I question Her. It is part of the strength of my faith. I think so very often that the God that we talk about seems to have all of our insecurities and all our prejudices and all of our wants. Because of my family background, the people that I was exposed to growing up, I realize that God is so much bigger than anything that we can try and put in a box and delineate. That has been the thing that has kept my faith strong, in fact.

Would you mind telling our readers about Nozizwe Consulting?

It’s basically my company for the work that I do, which includes the speaking that I do. But also, part of the work is – “nozizwe” means “mother of many lands or many countries” and it was the name my maternal grandmother gave me when I was born – it feels to me that part of the work that I’m called to do in the world is to bring people together, to bring people of great differences together to celebrate and be amazed at their differences and to recognize their shared humanity. So I lead groups in South Africa, from this country, different high schools, college groups, church groups, to meet South Africans who are doing similar work and then I do truth and reconciliation workshops to bring people together when there has been conflict or where there is ongoing conflict.

Is there any part of the South African model that the United States should adopt in an attempt to deal with our ongoing issues with racism? How do we deal with this issue? It’s hard to watch the news every day and not walk away feeling discouraged.

I know. I hear you. There are days when I go into my room and I basically sob. I don’t think that it’s likely that the U.S. will have a national truth and reconciliation commission the way that South Africa did – but I don’t think it’s too much to imagine. … Let’s say as a community we want to … whether this community is a town or a college campus … to say, “There are issues facing us as a community and we as a community want to put together a truth and reconciliation commission.” It has been done in Greensborough, North Carolina. They did a truth and reconciliation commission over the Klan shootings that happened. I think that is my hope – that communities around the U.S. will find the courage to say, “Well, maybe the nation isn’t ready do it, but we as a community are ready to have real healing, really dealing with the issues that divide us.”

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