Conversation with Dzifa Afonu – part two

Here we continued our conversation, and talked about building relationships, whiteness and trauma. I’d recommend listening to part one first but it’s not essential.

This conversation was recorded in late 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Lani: welcome to Sideways Times; a UK-based podcast in which we talk about the politics of disability and disability justice. Through this podcast I hope to have many conversations which broaden, deepen and challenge our understanding of how to work against ableism and how this connects to other struggles. I’m Lani parker and this podcast is a follow up to my interview with Dzifa and is a much more free-flowing conversation. We use that interview as a jumping off point and discuss many things including the politics of relationships, power dynamics and like I said, much, much more. I hope you enjoy.

Dzifa: I’m thinking about – I’m thinking about how our – how our ideas about relationships and the politics that we bring to them is evolving or….

Lani: yeah…. and I guess like we wanna talk about politics and oppression, ableism, racism. I suppose like the things – one of the things that made me think about when you were talking was about – I don’t know if this is a good place to start the conversation but – was about [inaudible] brown saying about we need relationships that are like a mile deep and an inch wide kind of thing. So relationships are really the core of changing things.

Dzifa: yeah, yeah. I think I relate to that and just like at this point in time, especially after becoming a parent I’ve been going inwards when I think before – before I became a parent I was always like reaching outwards, like I always had a sense of like more people, more things, bigger things, events, reaching out, finding people, wanting to kind of meet new people and have new experiences.

Lani: aha.

Dzifa: or going after friends that were like not that close, where I had like friends that I’d spent a long time – like I’ve known people for a really long time but I don’t necessarily know them in a deep way, in a like if I was in need I would call them kind of way, more in a way like I think we have deep connection but we don’t – but yeah and I felt like I was always reaching out. I think about like when I have my birthday parties and I’m always aware of who doesn’t come, who I invite and who never comes rather than like who’s there. I remember that experience starting to kind of decrease over my last couple of birthdays. I don’t really think about who wasn’t there, I think about who’s there. I think that’s kind of – your life is a birthday party [laughs] and you’ve got no – you’ve got birthday party anxiety! That’s kind of like what I feel right now, like I don’t have to reach out so much. I’m trying to reach in and have deeper relationships with the people I already have in my life and also like – which means like looking for – instead of being driven by – to reach out to people also being driven to like reach out to like experiences that allow me to have connections to people. Like it makes sense, I feel like when you go to like a workshop or a lecture about something that’s like some subject that’s political or whatever, what I always leave with is this like emptiness because there’s something missing from it like the depth of – like I’m in a room full of people that who look amazing, like I can tell they’ve got amazing lives and lots of interesting things to bring but there’s no space for us to have that connection, that resonance, instead it’s like you might catch a little conversation between workshops with somebody or at the end of the workshop. And I don’t think we structure things in a way that allows like that kind of depth of relating with each other.

Lani: yeah I was thinking of that in terms of like – I went to a thing the other day – I went because I think it was really important and I wanted to learn about the subject, I don’t really know much about the subject and also I know people who are running it so for me it’s like I always try and go to things where I think I’m gonna have some kind of connection, either somebody who I know’s gonna be there or I know people who can relate to the experience or something like that. Like I don’t go completely off – but it’s kind of strange cause I – there was this – cause it was about like….

Dzifa: I don’t know what we were talking about.

Lani: so we were talking about like going to events and how you don’t have –

Dzifa: oh right. You went to an event recently.

Lani: yeah and I was thinking afterwards like how do you make relationships with people and like something about like working – there are some relationships which I have which I’ve had for a long time which I don’t know how I got them really but then mostly [laughs] any other kind of relationships tend to be like you’re working with people or you have some kind of common goal or something like that. So it’s like – so it’s – I don’t know. I was just thinking about like unless you’re doing the work, you’re not actually making relationships with just meeting people…if you get what I mean. I don’t know if that’s – if that’s – if that’s the case for you or not. That’s kind of how I felt when I –

Dzifa: I think I can relate. Yeah I suppose I’m in that space of I think there’s two things happening, the way we organise doesn’t prioritise relationship building –

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: – and then on the other side of it also the way I orientate myself in the world sometimes is not towards building relationships.

Lani: what do you mean? Like I don’t know, I see you as very much orientated towards building relationships [she laughs] so I – yeah so –

Dzifa: I think not new ones though.

Lani: right.

Dzifa: I do spend a lot of time – I mean I do because like, for example, the relationships I’ve built with my like estate. Like I’ve lived here for seven years and we’ve built relationships over that time. Probably the first three years none of us talked to each other really; I think I spoke to a few people in the block. So it’s only been like three or four years where we’ve actually had friendships and it’s only this year we’ve moved into the realm of like actually spending time with people outside of the estate. That’s a really slow – there’s nothing – I think the way we interact with people isn’t – I mean I don’t know how we would do it really – meet someone and be like; can we have a relationship? Like why does it get beyond small talk into like a deeper level of like maybe we should like talk frequently about deeper topics [laughs]. Like how do you do that? It’s like; you look like a nice person, I’m looking to make relationships. Like it just wouldn’t – they would think you were coming on to them right?

Lani: yeah but I mean, I don’t know, why not? [Dzifa laughs] in a way it’s like – I don’t know. There’s – I was at this thing and I was like; I’m not talking to anyone. It’s like – we had this little ice-breaker thing when I talk to this person, then it’s like – then it’s like I don’t talk to anyone else, like I don’t say; like actually you know what, like could we have a coffee or something? [Dzifa laughs] I don’t know. But –

Dzifa: it’s hard.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: I think putting in the time like is part of it for me. I just think that it does take time. You can’t – you can move into ‘let’s have coffee’ but before you get there you would have to put in a bit of time –

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: – into – into a conversation. Like I wouldn’t mind if somebody came up to me and talked to me for five or so minutes and said; actually look I’m trying to like have like deeper conversations with new people, do you fancy like us going somewhere sometime and having a longer time to chat because I haven’t got the time now but I’d love to talk to you more? Like if someone said that to me I wouldn’t find it weird but if it’s like straight away, like if that’s the opening line [laughs].

Lani: I know [laughs] if it was the opening line. But it’s just – it’s just interesting like how you get – there’s something about when you get older and into this thing of like production. I don’t know. You have to do things, you have to do work and it’s that thing about what constitutes ‘work’ as well isn’t it? [inaudible 10:58] like you know that – so it kind of – it relates back to how you relate to people actually kind of thing. Cause, for example, I notice I talk over people loads. Like the other day I was like – I was in this like new meeting and I just noticed that I like finished someone’s sentence, like I don’t even know them [Dzifa laughs] why did I do that and I help –

Dzifa: I don’t know, I have a problem with – cause I do that a lot. See this is – I find this difficult, particularly when we talk about race –

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: – cause this a whole thing about like black people don’t have a space to talk but I always talk. [they laugh] in these big groups I’m really chatty even in a big room full of white people. There are times when I feel silenced, there are where it’s particularly like it’s not safe to speak or it feels like it’s not safe. But most of the time I just talk and I talk over people because I think it’s because of my dyslexia and I can’t hold on to the thought for long enough.

Lani: yeah that’s what it feels like to me as well.

Dzifa: if I don’t say it now I won’t remember it so I have to say it before someone – sometimes when someone’s talking my brain is going so fast they’ve finished their sentence and I can’t wait for them to finish it which is not good cause it’s not accessible. Some people take longer to talk so I do think – I don’t know – I’ve been thinking about this recently cause I’ve been thinking about work and whether there is like – I don’t know why I am able to talk despite being supposedly in an oppressed position. I’m like how and how then does the dynamics of oppression impact me in groups? I don’t know.

And then I was thinking –

Lani: groups is – I mean it’s not only about talking.

Dzifa: no. I think for me, I suppose what I do notice is like sometimes I’ll say something in a group and there’ll be no response, it will be like dead silence, it will be uncomfortable silence and then move on to a different topic. Sometimes I say things in a group and it’s not heard and then a few seconds later somebody else says basically what I said and it seems to be heard. So I notice those dynamics definitely but I definitely think I find the space to speak. Sometimes I find it harder to interrupt if people are talking lots but again I’m not really sure whether it’s about race. I think those dynamics, those like little micro-agressions, they’re important but actually I was thinking about what you were talking about, about work and productivity and to me that’s like the way that whiteness and capitalism gets kind of inside us is like is more damaging really is this like – like all of it like the nuclear family is the only place where you could like really be yourself and you can be open and even then you can’t really be yourself especially if you’re a female-identified person or feminine within that relationship or whatever. And then the workplace is the other place that you have relationships – it’s like it’s like designed that way, the world is structured that way, like you can’t have – we don’t make relationships outside of that so the idea that we prioritise work, work, work that’s almost like a way to avoid being present with people. I feel like that kind of whiteness is more dangerous. I’m not saying it’s dangerous for people to like not listen to me. [they laugh] that’s obviously problematic but there’s something deeper that allows people to not hear what I’m saying and that’s also really sad cause I say some great stuff [laughs]. They miss out a lot.

Lani: hence why we’re having this conversation.

Dzifa: [laughs] I say some cool shit [inaudible] and re-saying it in really boring ways so what can I do?

Lani: [laughs] yeah but like….I Find it difficult like within myself to – to like – in the last three or four years, I suppose, I’ve really tried to like figure out – well first how to just be and like how to be not all about work all the time. I think I’ve done alright in getting better in that one but I think that is about – and yeah totally is the way that it – it sits with me as kind of need to be productive in a particular way, not be present and all of those things we were talking about but in order to be like valued. So it’s kind of – I don’t know, the shape of it’s so twisted up cause it’s like; yeah – and there’s habitual things in relationships really I find is a real struggle like to be like; actually like you know, we have time we can just like sit and do this and we can, I don’t know – I don’t even know what it looks like really. I suppose it feels very engrained to me which it would do of course…. But I guess like trying to work some of that out –

Dzifa: yeah.

Lani: – seems to be the work.

Dzifa: something about – I’ve been thinking a lot about – it’s funny, a conversation about relationships has taken me to the being myself place. [laughs] like it is part of it, like being able to be comfortable in myself helps me to be better with people and I think I’m getting better. I think I used to be like slightly socially-anxious and I would sometimes like disappear into my phone particularly, especially since I had these stupid addictive games which you have to like play on a regular basis. I finally like detached myself from that and social media.

Lani: I only just started that. [they laugh]

Dzifa: you’ve found a way out! And I think it can be like – it’s like you can’t play games and then like be present. I think you can but it’s like having time.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: I’m trying to like invite time for staring into space back into my life because I think that is about being able to be with myself in a non-productive way and then that also helps me be with other people in an unproductive way like and that gives the space for having depth in the relationship or in the conversation, being able to allow things to evolve rather than feel like – I feel like a lot of the time with my friendships, if I visit a friend I’m like; oh my god, we’ve got two minutes, we’ve got to like cook the food, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that and it feels like it kind of gets pulled into the same space of work. Like – it’s like we never stop that brain that’s like; must work, must be productive, only got one hour, got to go, got to go, got to go, got to think about the time, got to think about the time. It’s like we’re like constantly policing ourselves. I do miss it as well, I think it’s also an age thing cause I think when I was like younger and more student life type, we didn’t have so much a thing – like someone would come to your house and then they’d leave like four days later [laughs]. Like some of my friendships, you know, my forever friendships have been made in those circumstances. I think even when we first met like we met at a conference and then spent like the next day together –

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: – and then very soon we spent like loads of time, you know, like in a way that I can’t do anymore. If I make a new friend today I’ll probably speak to them – like these days the ways I make friends is over time. I’ve made – like the newest friends I’ve made, I’ve made for a period of four or five years. I just meet them at events again and again and again and eventually I realise that; oh you’re married, oh you have kids oh! [laughs] you know like you’ve known somebody for like four years and you don’t even know if they’re married, you know? But yeah so I feel like those moments of like small talk that give the illusion of intimacy – cause you’re always in a rush somewhere and you’re not with people. You don’t sit down with somebody at an event and go; I’m here to have a real conversation with you. Like yesterday I was at an event and I was talking to this guy and I was just thinking about how to end the conversation you know? [laughs] shall we stop this conversation rather than I want to go deeper into this conversation with you and find out more. But I don’t know, I find it – I find it difficult when it comes to….choosing those – how do we choose our relationships, the boundary between – I think that’s also what I find difficult. People mostly choose me, I don’t really go after the relationships. If I’m in a room at a workshop with like twenty people and there’s one person that I see and I think; god I really want to talk to you, you look really interesting. Instead of talking to that one person I always get stuck with somebody else [laughs].

Lani: because they come after you.

Dzifa: yeah.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: and usually it’s white people. I’m always like; oh the person of colour over their looks really cool and I really wanna go talk to them and then some white person will come talk to me cause I’m like the nice friendly brown one [laughs] I get stuck in the corner with the old white man.

Lani: just be like; excuse me –

Dzifa: [laughs] I know, yeah why don’t I do that?

Lani: – I’ve got someone else I need to talk to now.

Dzifa: yeah, I know. Why don’t I do that? I don’t know. Cause I want to be kind. I don’t want to be like; oh I’m not gonna talk to you cause you’re a white man. Maybe they’re an interesting white man but then you realise they’re not and [inaudible]

Lani: give them a little bit of a chance and then just be like –

Dzifa: ok this is actually going in exactly the direction I thought it would. I’m gonna leave now. But also I was listening to something about – I can’t remember. It was like a ted talk. I don’t know how – I don’t know where it goes to but it was about having kind of gatherings and like the importance of gathering as a human being and like we need to organise our gatherings to allow us to have deep conversations, to allow us to have controversy, to use kind of conflict resolutions, kind of tools for having conversations about things that we might disagree about where we can like do it in a caring way and that that’s like we don’t do that enough. We often like try to keep everything at surface level to avoid all of that really and it has made me think about what kind of questions we ask each other. [inaudible] when we meet somebody new why do we just allow the small talk to continue and continue forever. Like we need small talk a little bit but then why don’t we ask a deeper question?

Lani: yeah. Then I also have this thing where I like get to know someone and I don’t know loads of things about them like loads and loads of things. Like not just like, obviously everyone’s different with everybody and like you don’t give everybody everything –

Dzifa: yeah.

Lani: – but it’s like; oh I’ve known this person for nearly ten years and I didn’t know – I don’t know, they had a sister over there in that country. But I don’t know!

Dzifa: no it’s true. I think it is awkward to be like; so how much family – how many family do you have? It’s a bit – and it’s also because we have structured – it becomes more comfortable to structure our relationships within a context of not necessarily work with a big ‘w’ but work. There’s always like a bit of agenda or structure to it, like you’re having small talk with somebody at a workshop so the workshop structures it so therefore you’ve not got the space to have a deeper conversation. You go to visit a friend but you’re going there for two hours and you’ve got to do something within that two hours whether that’s babysit their child or whatever it is that somehow it still becomes work and somehow – yeah like the people that I work with at work, I spend all day with them, we talk about really deep conversations about gender and race and politics but I still don’t know which of them is in a relationship, who they live with, I don’t know if they have kids. Like I’ve been working with them for three years. But how do you ask that after three years also? [they laugh]

Lani: oh I’m sorry, I didn’t ask you some basic questions.

Dzifa: [laughs] can I just ask you a set of basic questions and then we can have like a deeper conversation about real stuff that’s going on in your life? Another thing I think about whiteness is like how we tackle or how we think about whiteness or race particularly and capitalism I suppose, like how we – how do we….get past this thing of like british politeness and like certain types of social etiquette. Like we have to be willing to like go there I think, to be socially uncomfortable if we want to have real connections with people and that’s like…..asking personal questions but in a loving way not in a like – oh so you’re brown, did you come from somewhere really dangerous?! You know like it happens where it’s like voyeuristic kind of conversations but how do we have those like – how do we interact with people where we’re not like pulling information from them, like we actually want to be with somebody cause we care about them, we want to hear the things that they want to tell us about who they are. It would be good for them to tell us who they are. And even if it’s hard to hear how do we invite like someone to tell us something that we don’t agree with? Like how do we have those kind of conversations where we can say like; come talk to me, tell me about why you voted for brexit. [laughs]

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: you know I know that’s like a really silly example cause I actually probably – I probably could do that. It probably is easier to say that than to say other things like….

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: I was wanting to ask you – cause I was thinking a lot, mostly instigated by a conversation I had on social media with someone about kind of whiteness and trauma and I know like….we’ve all read the paper about the kind of white victimhood thing but – like the critique of like a wounded whiteness.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: like a problematic whiteness where it becomes; ok so this is just so that white people can have a space to like feel they’ve taken away from people of colour to be like; oh poor me, I’m so wounded and that’s why I am racist! But yeah, like I can’t understand anything other than some kind of trauma theory to explain why people are divided from their humanity often or even if we’re not talking about you have to have had something bad happen in your life but just to be white is some kind of traumatic situation. Like somehow it’s like it does something to the psyche, to our humanness to be in a world where you benefit from the suffering of other people.

Lani: yeah totally and like how you’re completely shut away from it in a way. Like well trained to not see it to the extent that you can’t see it until you really make an effort to start to see it, yeah.

Dzifa: even as like a person of colour, I feel that I was trained to not see racism in a way as well and it is a real painful process of realising – when you start to notice that there are things you didn’t see. I still see it as well, like I still see elements of white colonial, white thinking in my brain when I think about people of colour that I notice myself. But I suppose it’s a different – it’s still a different experience to feeling like….I Suppose it’s the feeling of not being ever able to feel like what it feels like to be a black person at the end of the day. Whenever – like I could be – I could have like stereotypes or negative ideas about of people of colour but I still know what it feels like for other people to have those about me. That kind of gives me a way of saying those things in a way that’s different. I don’t know. I don’t know if like actually trauma work – does that work for white people?

Lani: I don’t know but I think….I Think there’s something where, you know, there’s a – this really inhumane distancing thing. Like I find it difficult to talk to the closest people – my closest people about racism, like my closest people of colour – well not so much white people really, which is a good thing maybe. And there’s this thing like, you know….I Don’t know cause I think there is something in the trauma of separation, obviously different kinds of separation and I have to – but in order to oppress somebody or a group of people to such an extent for so long like there has to be trauma there. I don’t know how it works in terms of doing that trauma, whether it works to frame it that way or like how useful it is to frame it that way.

Dzifa: yeah you’d need like another word.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: it is like trauma but it’s –

Lani: but it’s not.

Dzifa: – not the same as like – ‘trauma’ was like first like a war thing like it’s moving away from that.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: we’re talking about inter-generational as well about an experience that’s all through the body, all over us, all the time. You know?

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: like even – I think it does make me think about – I was reading about something like this recently where the body shuts down when you hear somebody else’s trauma and I think somehow that’s a bit of like what has to happen for white people when they engage with racism because that’s the only way I can understand it, that people actually shut down when they hear the word ‘racism’ their bodies shut down like their body shuts down, it’s not just even to be like present in your body. It just like sucks it away, makes it really hard to be in the same way that trauma does I suppose, dissociation. But also to dissociate from other people’s trauma that’s like a different kind of thing when you could have had a really easy life or whatever but to still hear somebody else’s trauma could still make you like not wanna hear it.

Lani: yeah and actually there is a thing – I don’t know how related this is to whiteness and trauma but there is a thing about watching people’s abuse of people and how that affects like not only the distancing thing you were talking about the kind of thing that like how it really affects you to watch somebody else. There’s been some stuff I think around sexual abuse where like watching something else happen….

Dzifa: yeah, yeah. We have a lot of musical noise in the background [laughs]. It’s going to be really interesting to see [inaudible] yeah I’m thinking you should probably like [inaudible] yeah there is that – I think in a way like because of like modern society we’re all in that state of how do we deal with the pain of watching other people suffering like even when it’s not across those lines. Like for me I just find, like at the moment thinking about the climate crisis and just – just it’s so painful for like my wasteful use of our rare resources; all the food I consume, the choices I’ve made, having such a massive impact. I know it’s not just me.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: I know it’s massive government systems but we’re all – it’s not – that’s what it would be – it’s just that hard thing of how do you – we are a collective and have a collective responsibility and like how do we own our personal responsibility and also understand that it’s not just about that because I think what’s happening at the moment is people become really anxious. Like I was talking about it the other day, I was like; I don’t even want to touch plastic, I just find it horrible, I don’t even want to see it around me when I see it and that’s like irrational anxiety! Like what I really need to be doing is changing – like fighting big business, like they need to be the ones that need to stop. Like we can’t just stop buying plastic, that helps a little bit but it’s so small, it’s such a drop in the ocean. Plastic is not even possibly the most urgent issue we need to deal with but it’s just so tangible and in your face. It’s a lot harder to think about the invisible gases that are released into the air. But I think we’re all facing it as human beings at the moment like – and particularly because of the internet and twenty-four hour news where any time of the day you can see how much suffering is being caused globally by things that we all have some thread in.

Lani: [inaudible] complication.

Dzifa: so complicated. We’re somehow implicated.

Lani: yeah. Some of us more than others. How can we like; yeah – I suppose it’s – the only way I can – I mean I find it really difficult to like think – sometimes I find it really difficult to think in big, collective terms. Like; oh we can do it, we can overturn this but it’s kind of – I think with something like – like this or something transformative, it has to be small obviously like in relationships and dealing with those things but it’s also got to be done on such a big scale it’s kind of like we really have to change the whole way we do stuff and it’s not surprising, I suppose, we find that difficult to do within the system that we live in. Like we can – I don’t know. Do you know what I mean? Like what do you do with all of it, where do you take it?

Dzifa: I think, a bit like whiteness and I think a bit like whiteness in a similar way that becomes like the move between it being this tiny little thing, it’s because you spoke overly and that’s where it is and that’s where your racism is or this massive, nebulous impossibility of how can we divide an institutional racist society, how do we even begin until all white people are going to just say that we’re willing to give up our power over people of colour. And both those are like distractions from what can really be done somehow. Like if we’re really, really going to get there we have to go deeper than that and that’s really hard, that’s not just about – in the analogy of climate change, it’s not just about how many plastic bottles you recycle, it’s about how you change your spiritual relationship to the planet and to everyone in it. The same with whiteness, it’s not just who speaks the most in a meeting, it’s about reconnecting spiritually to our humanity and to the people around us which is much more challenging.

Lani: yes it is!

Dzifa: [laughs] shall I just stick with talking about the nebulous stuff?!

Lani: might as well dzif! You know me. Just talk about it all, yeah.

Dzifa: like it’s a good place to stop.

Lani: yeah.

Dzifa: maybe we should. We haven’t tied it up.

Lani: I think that’s a good place to stop. There may be more from us at some point, it’s only taken us a couple of years to – [inaudible] I’m sure there’ll be others.

[interview ends at 43:07]

Lani: I hope you enjoyed this podcast. I would love to hear your thoughts on it. I would also just love to hear from you in general. This year sideways times will be focusing on the broad theme of care and solidarity and I would like to hear your thoughts of whether there is anyone we should be talking to. You can contact us on twitter at @sidewaystimes or email at I would like to thank Marlon Miranda from just to let you know for the music on this production.

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