Saturday, April 25, 2020

#WeSeeYou and #Sawubona (Part 2)

Image source:

In Part 1 we saw how the Twitter hashtag #WeSeeYou has evolved since it first appeared on Black Twitter in 2009. Initially, #WeSeeYou was mostly a somewhat playful way of calling out another person's pretentious, hypocritical, or evasive behavior, such as sneaking a look at someone or denying a personal failing that was obvious to others. A decade later the hashtag is still used in that way, especially on Black Twitter, but by now has been taken up by a wide range of Twitter users to express different, sometimes contradictory meanings including condemnation, contempt, recognition, solidarity, gratitude, and sympathy.

Searching online for connections between #WeSeeYou and African American culture, I found that the phrase "we see you" (not just the hashtag) does seem to have some cultural resonance in fields ranging from popular music to religion. One connection that turned up and seemed especially promising as a potential source of cultural insight was sawubona--a Zulu (Southern African) social greeting term that translates as "we see you."

I've found very little about sawubona in English academic literature. The word appears in Google Books searches from the 1960s on, in Zulu language textbooks, tourist guides, and some ethnographic writings. Its occurrence in English has grown rapidly since the end of the South African apartheid regime in in the 1990s, as the following chart illustrates.

Lately, sawubona seems to have become something of a buzzword in commercial contexts, where it can serve as a branding device to associate an enterprise with authentic indigenous roots of Southern African culture. For example, the South African Airways in-flight magazine is Sawubona.

The image at the top of this post was taken from the blog of Roche Mamabolo, "an author, blogger, entrepreneur, mentor and most of all, a teacher" who runs an entrepreneurship consultancy in South Africa and Botswana. Mamabolo introduced the concept sawubono in a 2018 blog post:
Sawubona, is an ancient isiZulu greeting which means: We see you. It is equivalent to Hello and Namaste. 
So when we meet and greet I would say “sawubona” [we see you], and you will respond by saying “yebo, sawubona” [yes, we see you too]. 
Why do we say “We” see you even when it is just me, a single individual person greeting you and why do you respond by the same when it is just you, a single individual person greeting me? 
In Zulu tradition, the “I” is connection to an ancient lineage of ancestors which my ancestors are always with me. 
So when I meet you, not only is myself meeting you, but my ancestors whom I’m representing meet you too. 
So sawubona [we see you] means me and my ancestors see you, and your response means you and your ancestors sees me too.
Mamabolo goes on to explain that sawubona "is more than just a greeting, it also means: we see each other, we acknowledge each other, we recognize each other ... a deep witnessing and presence [that] invites us to communicate." Drawing a business lesson, he concludes: "as entrepreneurs, we need to not only greet our customers, but we need to acknowledge them, to recognise them, to witness them, their feelings, their aspirations."

Bridget Edwards, a South African psychological consultant and author, offers a similar explanation of sawubona, except she translates it as "I see you" (rather than "we see you") and derives a more self-focused lesson: "it is only when we actually ‘see’ ourselves and acknowledge our own inner greatness that we have the capacity to recognise this in another."

In the United States, sawubona has appeared in discussions of multicultural education and ethics of artificial intelligence as well as organizational leadership. Although some sources link sawubona to the larger theme of African Ubuntu philosophy, none that I have found explores that connection in any depth.

#Sawubona is also used as a Twitter hashtag, but (interestingly) almost never in conjunction with #WeSeeYou. I've found only four tweets with both hashtags, one of which is my own tweet announcing Part 1 of this article. The others relate to transgender rights (a movement that has understandably embraced #WeSeeYou) and to the "Sawubona Award" given by the Pan African Network, an organization that supports Pan African multicultural education. Here they are:

These tweets use #WeSeeYou in positive senses of recognition, celebration and solidarity. A larger number of tweets, but still only a few dozen, many of them from that same Pan African Network, combine #Sawubona with the phrase (not hashtag) "we see you." Most of those tweets are celebratory in a Black cultural context. Many more tweets use #Sawubona without #WeSeeYou or "we see you." They are quite various and hard to generalize about, but many of them come from South Africa and have a commercial reference, including popular music. Quite a few others come from a religious context of African or African American Christianity.


So, what can we conclude from all this? And so what ... why should we care?

Recall that this mini-investigation began out of curiosity about the hashtag #WeSeeYou, just because it seemed to have so many different meanings. A little sleuthing traced the hashtag to Black Twitter, where it was first used in 2009, and so I wondered how its origins might be connected to African American culture. The typically teasing, somewhat jocular tone of those earliest tweets might suggest some relation to traditions of verbal sparing in African American communities, but why "we see you?" Where did that phrase come from?

To that question I've found no definite answer. For a while I thought #Sawubona might be the key to a deep connection between #WeSeeYou and African traditions. That remains a possibility, and the connection (perhaps traceable through Ubuntu philosophy) may be obvious to cultural insiders or scholars better informed than I am, but I haven't found any academic literature on the question. In current usage, #Sawubona is closely related to positive senses of #WeSeeYou, such as recognition and solidarity, that have appeared on Twitter through the last decade, very unlike the unmasking of pretension and hypocrisy featured in the earliest uses of #WeSeeYou on Black Twitter. #Sawubona is a recent trend that partly has to do with South African national branding. Clearly, #WeSeeYou did not originate directly from #Sawubona.

My best guess at present is that the most direct cultural source of #WeSeeYou is African American Christianity or Christianity in general, traceable to the biblical passage (from Matthew 25) that I quoted earlier: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

This Christian sense of "we see you" as recognition and caring for others is pretty different from the early use of #WeSeeYou on Black Twitter, but it is quite possible for a culturally available expression to be taken up and used ironically in verbal play. Maybe that's where #WeSeeYou came from. That really is just a plausible guess, not a research finding, but I probably haven't emphasized enough how common the phrase "we see you" is in Christian discourses. The Christian connection is not a minor thread, and it also helps to explain other senses of #WeSeeYou that we observed on Twitter, senses like recognition, celebration, appreciation, solidarity, sympathy and support.

A search for the cultural origins of #WeSeeYou is not a search for its "true" or "correct" meaning in metadiscourse, because there is no such thing. Every common way of using #WeSeeYou is valid in the discourse communities that have adopted it for their own purposes, whether they be police supporters, right wing conspiracy theorists, or transgender activists. There is much more here to explore, if one is interested. For example, in the discourse of the #MeToo movement, #WeSeeYou is often paired with another hashtag, #WeBelieveYou, which adds another thread of meaning.

I think we should care about this, if only to better appreciate the creative richness of ordinary human culture and communication.

Monday, April 13, 2020

#WeSeeYou and #Sawubona (Part 1)


Research is not always about matters of urgent importance. Sometimes we just get curious about something that may turn out to be interesting. This and the following blog post (Part 2, coming soon) are about a Twitter hashtag that puzzled me and the progress I've made in understanding it. A hashtag is a form of metadiscourse that self-comments on a tweet, highlighting a theme that the tweet shares, or invites sharing, with other tweets. It tries to link a tweet to some larger conversation. These blog posts represent a certain way of analyzing Twitter and related discourse. They have nothing directly to do with the current global health crisis, though recent tweets that I'll quote refer to the pandemic. There's no escaping that for now, I guess.

This is research in the raw. If you can correct any errors or add something to what I say here, please comment!

So, my curiosity was sparked when I noticed that the Twitter hashtag #WeSeeYou is currently used with several different, even quite opposite meanings that can be negative or positive in tone. On the one hand, it can be affectionately teasing, sarcastically mocking, seriously accusatory, or downright paranoid. On the other hand, it can express praise, admiration, gratitude, solidarity, or compassion. It can also threaten or brag. In any of these uses, #WeSeeYou claims to represent the collective voice of an implied "we," not just an individual's opinion.

A little digging finds that this hashtag has some affinity with African American culture and that it specifically originated on #BlackTwitter, but now it is widely used and the range of meanings has shifted. Lately, #WeSeeYou is sometimes linked to the Zulu (Southern African) greeting sawubona, which translates as "we see you," has itself been used as a hashtag, and clearly resonates with some senses of #WeSeeYou. I was hoping that #Sawubona might be the key to unlock a deeper relationship between #WeSeeYou and African American communication culture, but (spoiler alert!) the link remains elusive to this culturally limited White researcher and this pair of posts will leave us with more questions than answers.

Evolution of #WeSeeYou on Twitter

Figure 1: Recognizing Health Care Workers (2020)
Figure 1 represents a Twitter genre that has become very common in recent years, using #WeSeeYou to express collective recognition, gratitude and support for an admired person or group, in this case health care workers during the current crisis.

Figure 2: Compassion and Help for Cancer Patients and Families (2020)
#WeSeeYou can also mean "we see your suffering or need and want to help and support you," as Figure 2 illustrates. This type of message has also become fairly common on Twitter. It hints at the possibility that one source of meaning for "we see you" might be the following biblical passage:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
(Matthew 25:37-40)

Figure 3: Negative Uses of #WeSeeYou (2020)

The tweets in Figure 3, which were grabbed from the same recent Twitter searches as Figures 1 and 2, illustrate some ways the hashtag is used to call out or criticize. Each tweet says of its target , "we see you for the failure (or liar, fake, hypocrite, etc.) that you really are." These include tweets by conspiracy theory fans like @bradphelps317 (third from top), in this case alluding to the theory that the Apollo moon missions were a hoax that the government continues to cover up.

The original uses of #WeSeeYou (illustrated in Figure 4) were interestingly different from the above examples.

Figure 4: First Uses of #WeSeeYou (2009)

Two things strike me about these earliest instances of #WeSeeYou I was able to find using the Twitter search function. One is that most if not all of these tweets from mid-2009 appear to be written by Black people. (Even the one from @Apollo13bot is actually a retweet from a since-deleted account called @soblackrates.) This was no longer quite so true a few years later, but scrolling through a sample of #WeSeeYou tweets from 2012, you'll find that many of them still closely resemble the ones in Figure 4. #WeSeeYou clearly originated on #BlackTwitter and spread from there. 

The other thing that strikes me about the tweets in Figure 4--and this quality also continued to be prominent for several years later--is that most if not all of them call out some contradiction between appearance and reality with more-or-less gentle irony. Targets include people caught looking at someone or farting in class, playing on words, denying some truth, or trying to look like something they aren't. #WeSeeYou means we see your pretense and who you really are, usually not as a harsh condemnation but more as a wry comment on some human foible. @DJJedi's tweet (bottom of Figure 4) seems not to fit this pattern but is ambiguous. The tweet is a shout out in praise of Keith Olbermann (a liberal TV commentator) but it's not clear to me if #WeSeeYou refers to Olbermann himself or to the hypocritical politicians Olbermann was criticizing in the linked story. 

Later on #BlackTwitter, some #WeSeeYou tweets of positive recognition, resembling those in Figures 1 and 2, expressed support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement of protest against police killings of Black people. There were not really a lot of such tweets, but Figure 5 shows a couple of examples.

Figure 5: #WeSeeYou and #BlackLivesMatter (2014)

Ironically, this positive genre of #WeSeeYou soon became very common in connection with the pro-police counter-movement of #BlueLivesMatter, as illustrated by Figure 6. 

Figure 6: #WeSeeYou and #BluelivesMatter (2015)

#Sawubona: The Missing Link?

No only did the hashtag #WeSeeYou originate on #BlackTwitter, the idea of "we see you" seems to resonate more broadly in African American popular culture. Before it showed up on Twitter, the theme appeared in rap music. The logo at the top of this post belongs to an Afropunk-themed Facebook currently presents "We See You, Sis," a video series "aimed at celebrating Black women who make an impact online."

Searching for a link between #WeSeeYou and African American culture, I soon came upon the concept of sawubona, which, as I mentioned earlier, is a Zulu greeting term that translates to English as "we see you." Could this be the cultural link I was looking for? We'll explore that possibility in Part 2 (coming soon).