Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The secret torment of Botswana’s invisible outcasts

Say discrimination and most Batswana immediately think of Basarwa or women. This social injustice is however is as close to home as your brother, your sister or even you.

Almost every Botswana family is responsible for the country’s growing horde of “black sheep”, invisible outcasts who have fallen through the cracks of the global campaign for social justice.

The black sheep is someone who is not only an outcast but also a disgrace to the fraternity or family they belong to.

Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist in Gaborone says, “being made the black sheep of the family forms a toxic family dynamic, which can result in complex trauma and an array of psychological impacts. When you have been made to be the black sheep of the family, it does not mean that your family do not love you, or that they intentionally try to harm you. Rather, their need to label you often comes from their own vulnerabilities. Although they may collectively orchestrate behaviours in order to keep you as the black sheep of the family, this is in a way their desperate effort to avoid facing up to their own inadequacies. As the family members ‘discharge’ their emotional accountability or suppressed resentment, the black sheep of the family naturally becomes the ‘carrier’ of all the angst in the family.”

Hundreds if not thousands of Botswana families have internalised a form of assigning value to their members, unspoken, unnamed and unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously. It sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify the dehumanisation of the black sheep.

The different treatment of the “black sheep” may come from being misunderstood by the rest of the group, due to differing beliefs or life experiences. In fact, black sheep often have different values, characteristics, beliefs, interests, etc. than their families, which induces the family to treat them unkindly, exclude them, or just make them feel that they don’t belong.

Labelling someone a black sheep of the family is not only a form of gaslighting, but also an unconscious injection of racism. The nature of exclusion and marginalisation faced by the black sheep has many parallels with racial discrimination and the Indian caste systems.

Just like Nigger, Kaffir or untouchable, the phrase “black sheep of the family” is often used by “privileged” members of the family as a word of abuse and derision.”

The psychological effects of this discrimination is however worse on the black sheep than niggers, kaffirs and untouchables.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana explained how difficult it can be when the people making us feel “othered” and excluded are our own family members. Folks who identify as “the black sheep” of the family understand this experience.

Dr Ntshwarang says, “deep inside, we all have a yearning for the caregivers who love, attend to and appreciate us for who we are. We hope for parents who protect us when we feel unsafe and free us up when we need to explore. We wish for parents who are responsive to our true needs, rather than imposing their own agenda. Unfortunately, sometimes due to their own limitations or environmental constraints, many parents have failed to fulfil their children’s basic needs for love, healthy attachment, safety and autonomy, leaving many adult children with a void in their hearts. Having to frame one of their children as the black sheep of the family likely results from the parents’ limited maturity or mental strength. Even they had not intentionally tried to harm their child, harm resulted.”

While the pain of living out “the black sheep” archetype looks different for all of us, what is likely universally true is that we all probably found ways to cope with the pain early on. Ways of coping which, at one point, probably served us extremely well just to survive and make it through that experience of being rejected, misunderstood, or feeling other. Anyone can be the black sheep for just about any reason. In families, there are one or two opinion leaders who define the values and culture of the family. Those values can be moral or ethical; they can rest on success in business or involvement in sports or the arts, anything. The black sheep is simply the person who deviates from the family rules. Those who embody “the black sheep” of the family may often have more psychological “scars” than other more accepted family members, but they may also have a greater sense of self than others in the family too.

The experience of being a black sheep in the family is very real and can be incredibly traumatic. The people you expect to know you don’t, the people who should want to understand your perspective don’t. This trauma often lasts a lifetime, even if contact with the family has been cut. For humans, power lies in numbers. As human beings, we are evolutionarily wired to seek community and companionship. The presence of a black sheep in a family has less to do with that individual, and more to do with the social context of the family, how the family approaches misunderstanding, difference, and conflict. There are many characteristics of families that produce black sheep, but the three most marginalizing traits are: unaccepting, inflexible, and dysfunctional families. Not only do they not accept people outside of their immediate circle, but they also exclude their own family member (the black sheep) based on differences they refuse to accept. They do not want to take into account another perspective that might cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. Instead, they may bully the black sheep in order to feel their lack of acceptance is acceptable.

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