Welcome to the new project of the Diversity Committee! We have started this blog, “The Melting Pot in the Rainbow Nation,” to highlight the unique challenges and experiences of the diverse body of Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa.
Every diversity training session begins with the question “What is Diversity?” The very good reason for this is that there is no clear answer, and every person interprets this sometimes-controversial, sometimes-tired topic differently. For the sake of inclusion, we will use the Peace Corps Diversity Training Kit definition of, “All the human characteristics that make us unique and valuable as individuals.” We hope that each new contribution to this site will make it further apparent how far-reaching the word “diversity” can be.
America likes to think of itself as a “melting pot,” a place where all cultures come together and learn from each other, blending into a unique flavor. PCVs are by no means an accurate demographic reflection of the United States, but our body is still a melting pot that pulls from all parts of the U.S.’s cultural, economic, and experiential spectrum. The ideal is obviously flawed (if we are a melting pot, why so much segregation? Why do racial and gender inequities persist? Why so much religious acrimony? And etc.), but it is an ideal that the Peace Corps envelops on a worldwide scale in its fundamental goals: Peace Corps volunteers strive to learn from those who are different from us, to understand a multitude of histories and cultures, and to experience a life unlike the ones we were living in America.
Looking outwards at our differences with South Africa and its citizens, we sometimes forget the differences within our own group. If most volunteers are a certain age, gender, race, sexuality, or religion, it is easy to speak of their experience as “the” typical Peace Corps experience as if no variation is possible or important. Asked to consider the plausibility of this, we know immediately that it is not so. Each volunteer’s experience is different. Sometimes this is caused by such inherently variable things as personality or school/NGO assignment. Sometimes this is caused by systematic social differences, whether amongst PCVs or within South Africa. To name a simple example rather than make an endless list ending with “etc.,” a white volunteer’s experience will be different from a black volunteer’s experience, and both will differ from an Asian-American volunteer’s experience. Moreover, the experience of a volunteer serving in a primarily black community will differ from a volunteer serving in a primarily colored community, and both will differ from the experiences of volunteers living in white communities. These differences impact the PCV’s anonymity, command of trust, relationships, safety, feeling of belonging, and feeling of support within the Peace Corps community. Our awareness and experience of these differences impact the way in which we relate American culture to our communities in South Africa, a Peace Corps goal just as important as community development. This blog is a forum for PCVs to share and reflect upon the relationship between American diversity and their own experiences in Peace Corps.
The “Rainbow Nation” element of this blog’s name is just as important as the “Melting Pot” part. South Africa has idealized its racially and culturally mixed population, not with the metaphor of a spicy blend, but that of a beautiful spectrum that appears after a devastating storm. We are sometimes more aware of the flaws in this idealization than in our own country’s, observing both xenophobic attacks we are helpless to stop and our own uneasiness that being spoken to in Afrikaans may undermine the good work we hope to do. Yet again, these generalizations elide the experiences of many volunteers; some volunteers will tell the listener that Afrikaans is a beautiful language, spoken in colored communities just as deserving of help and attention as the black communities many of us work in. Some volunteers will sing the praises of their calm, mono-ethnic villages and others will marvel at the beauty of their hectic, diverse townships. Navigating the different elements of South African race relations and cultural norms is another layer of complexity in a Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience. This blog is also a forum for volunteers to reflect upon South African diversity and how it has impacted their experiences here.
This blog is intended to have a friendly, open tone; it should invite comment and reflection rather than defensiveness. Though we encourage critical thought in entries and comments, it should be thoughtfulness without acrimony. In addition, we ask that all readers assume good intentions on the part of the writer. Entries can be submitted to Jade (firstname.lastname@example.org) and can deal with anything having to do with diversity and the experience of being a PCV, from the broad-based to an account of a single event. Comments are open to everyone, though they will be subject to screening by a moderator to ensure that the tone of this website remains productive and respectful. Please be sure to review the posting guidelines on the sidebar before writing anything.
That being said, please share your thoughts with us!