Mitchell Shaun Parker
This weekend past I decided that I wasn’t going to wear my overalls to one of the most important events in the Rhodes University social calendar: Boat Race Festival. For the uninitiated, overalls are a sign of Rhodent (the RU moniker) spirit. Where large groups of us gather, there too shall be the overall – covered in purple paint and an assortment of stains. It’s part of a long-standing tradition of gees at this University.
However, I now feel uncomfortable in mine. Having worn them consistently to Great Field Parties and Intervarsities anon, I now can’t bring myself to don the very uniform I was so proud of not even a few months ago.
Rhodes University’s main headlines this year have been dominated by issues of transformation (read more here, here and here). Many black students have found the space of Rhodes University difficult to self-actualise in. There is discomfort. There is institutionalized racism. There is pain.
Symbols are important in this kind of emotive politics. As much as one can quote Fanon or Mbembe and engage with it intellectually, there is also a strong personal element to these feelings. There are real people who are feeling real feelings of oppression. (One has only to watch something like the viral Luister video to see how genuine this is.) Thus, symbolic actions like the falling of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT or the painting of Ellen Kuzwayo University in front of the Drostdy Arch are so powerful – they are a reaffirmation of self. They fight against the negativity of emotion felt by students.
Following on from this, the symbol of the overall has been problematized and I can’t ignore that. There are people in South Africa who are forced to wear overalls every day of their lives in order to barely survive. To wear overalls, paint them and transform them into a symbol of drunken revelry is arguably trivializing the very real lived experiences of students and their families at Rhodes. (This being something raised by the vocal Black Students Movement.)
Don’t get me wrong: I can understand the other perspective and to a large degree I can sympathise with it. I am arguably pro-overall. There is no intent to do harm. It’s promoting team spirit. It’s a unifying act wearing overalls that sees Rhodents from all walks of life brought together under the purple and white. Yes, it is practical too – keeping you warm, clothes clean etc etc…
However, and this is something that I think is increasingly important, is that there are people who are made to feel unwelcome because of those Rhodes overalls. There are people who are reminded of their own personal struggles of self-actualisation when they see their university endorsing such symbols.
I read a quote recently about feminism and men’s role in it that speaks to allyship. “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.” I’m white and thus am a part of the privilege that allows me to hear arguments that are pro-overall and feel like they are legitimate because my lived experience doesn’t make me feel my heart in my throat when I see people wearing overalls.
Like I said, it’s an emotive politics and those feelings can’t be ignored. While I might not be able to do much in terms of making active change with regards to transformation and it isn’t my place to be the voice of the people in this, I can be aware of those kinds of problematisations and what that means for people around me.
To the argument that accommodating people all the time is illogical, I personally think that the comfort of others is more important than something like overalls. Like I’ve said, it’s a symbolic thing and much in the same way I am making a symbolic gesture by wearing them.
As a result, I didn’t wear my overalls. Despite being called anti-gees the whole weekend, I stand by my decision. As much as I’ve put a lot of effort into my overalls – getting a good combination of obscene language and crafty paintwork – I now know more and, as such, I probably won’t be wearing them again.