Overcoming the challenge of growing up in South Africa during apartheid as a black woman has been the foundation of Nontombi Naomi Tutu’s involvement with human rights activism.
Last Thursday, Tutu, human rights and gender activist, came to FSU to speak about how often the truth gets buried under what we choose to ignore in her talk, “Black Truths Matter: Lessons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the U.S. Today.”
Tutu is the daughter of South African civil rights leader and Nobel Peace prize winner Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town. Today, in the United States, she follows in her father’s legacy of revealing the realities of a racist culture.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, was created as a result of the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. It offered victims of apartheid a space to give statements and hold trials on their experiences as well as liberty for perpetrators who request amnesty.
“The easy response is that these [perpetrators] are some deranged, crazy human beings,” she said. “The easy response for us listening to their stories is to say, ‘There is no way that somebody like me would have done something like that.’”
Yet, in looking at the reality of the situation, the men who were committing such “crimes against human rights,” as Tutu described them, were just everyday people.
“They were given a justification of dehumanizing, of torturing, of murdering, by a system that told them black people were not human beings,” Tutu said.
Tutu described a TRC meeting that stands out to her to this day, during which a letter was read aloud sent from a white man living in South Africa at the time.
“I apologize for not knowing what was going on in our country. … But most importantly, I apologize for choosing not to know,” the letter read.
Tutu asked, “What is it that we choose not to hear?”
Tutu expressed how racism is still present in our world today. Specifically, she talked about the day she heard about the case of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012.
Tutu said when the story first broke, her son was the same age as Martin.
“I was frozen,” she said. “I was terrified as the mother of a black boy.”
She remained hopeful throughout the jurying of the case when she knew that the majority of the jury was female. She thought they would identify with the fact that he was just a young boy, a son, trying to get home in peace.
Tutu asked herself once more, “What is it that we are choosing not to see?”
The jurors did not see a teenage boy, Tutu said. They saw “the narrative of that scary black man who is simply looking for an occasion to rob, to kill, to rape. And it doesn’t matter that that scary black man is just a 17-year-old boy because we have chosen the story that makes sense for us.”
It is only by facing the truth and accepting it that healing can happen.
“I don’t want us to pretend that our differences do not exist,” she said. “That is not the choice. The choice is to say, ‘We are different, but our differences are not the things that determine our worth and who we are in the world.’ Our differences are an opportunity to make the world an interesting place.”
She said, “I ask you here at Framingham State, here in this community, in this state, in this country, in our world – have the courage, say what it is we are choosing not to know.
Once we have that courage … then we start on the path to healing.”