Q&A with Naomi Tutu
Teresa Rivas: Why did you come to the College to speak?
Naomi Tutu: I came here to take the opportunity to speak to college students, since you are the ones who are going to be taking over the leadership. I wanted to offer you the opportunity to hear my perspective, my story, that you might not normally hear. I want more to raise questions in your minds, not so much as present answers. I want young people to think in different ways.
TR: What message would you like to send those who attend your lecture today?
NT: Today, I present a program called “Truth and Reconciliation.” It is based on the committee set up in South Africa after apartheid to investigate human rights abuses. I use this as a jumping off point to get people to think about finding the greater truth in their own lives. Particularly in the United States, the conversation about racism is not at a level of truth – everyone has already assumed a position and rarely is concerned about speaking or listening to the truth. The truth heals. It may not be comfortable for us to hear – politically, socially and economically, but it gives us the opportunity to move forward.
TR: You have fought racism and sexism, helping women get educations and professional opportunities. What experience led you to do this?
NT: Obviously, I was born a black woman under apartheid in South Africa, so I was born into a racist country and have always been struggling against racism and sexism. As a woman, I’ve experienced sexism together with racism, and I believe it not only limits women of color, but the potential for the whole world. I struggle not just because I’m a woman and black, but also as a mother with a dream for her children to live in a better world, where my daughter can walk alone anywhere and not fear gender-based violence. I don’t want my children to experience preparing for battle every time they go to a bank or a meeting, because the energy it takes to do this takes away from energy they could use for creation.
TR: Many feminists of color think the fight against racism does little or is even counterproductive to their cause. How do you feel about this?
NT: I don’t see a conflict, because for me any struggle against oppression won is a victory for everyone oppressed. And the same mindset and system that puts in place racism institutes sexism, so as I see it, it is all the same struggle.
TR: What did you do when you worked at the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University?
NT: I worked to bring programming that focused on global race and racism to campus, to expose students to social activism. We were one of the Nongovernmental Organizations at the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa two years ago. We wanted to challenge students to think.
TR: How are you continuing this work as associate director of the Office of International Relations at Tennessee State University?
NT: It’s not quite the same – I am helping to establish the new office and expand international campus programs.
TR: You have won numerous awards from the California State Legislature, the Kentucky chapters of the NAACP and the Boston City Council, to name a few. Is there any that hold a special significance for you?
NT: The award I’m most attached to is from Fisk’s mini-college for elementary school children. During the summer, I gave a presentation there and it was very special for me to know that these young people voted to give me an award.
TR: Your father fought against apartheid, winning the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his boycott of International Investment in South Africa. What doors has this opened for you and how has he inspired you personally?
NT: The name, the daughter of, has actually literally opened doors into places where I would not normally be given the opportunity to speak. It has opened the doors to speak with young people and offer them my experience and perspective. My father has personally inspired me most strongly with his respect for all human beings. He always treated everyone with the utmost respect when in their company, and that is the core of any hope – to see one another as human beings deserving of respect and to be heard.
TR: How can people who hear your message today help?
NR: You can stay informed about what’s going on in the world and to ask questions of everyone, even me. Don’t accept what I say as gospel, always ask. Research history as well. I cannot say there is a formula. You should be doing this, because everyone has a gift or passion that we may not even know for most of our lives. In order to truthfully get involved in this world you must use this gift to help. I cannot say you should write letters or feed the homeless, because that may not be your gift. You must find your gift and use it to benefit the world.