Racism in South Africa

I realize that this title alone will generate controversy, without me having written a single word. Not just in South Africa but everywhere around the world, this little word is enough to stir strong emotions, one way or another. I won’t even pretend to cover this topic comprehensively – a certain United States senator’s speech on race in 2008 would be a far better start – but ever since we’ve moved here my thoughts keep drifting back to the question of racism.

One of the reasons I think racism is such a controversial term is that it’s so hard to define. Or rather, that it covers such a wide spectrum. We all like to think that we are not racists. Looking back at history, it is easy to tell yourself that you would never have done or condoned what happened in the Civil Rights era in America or during apartheid here in South Africa. And most certainly, going back even farther, not what happened in Germany and beyond during the Holocaust. But it is so much more subtle than that. You really didn’t need to do anything. Your attitude towards blacks or Jews, most often bred by fear of the unknown, the “different,” was enough to steer entire societies on their terribly misguided path. Such attitudes lead to prejudices and then it’s a very fine line between prejudice and racism.

What, then, is racism?

Is it racism when I want to speak to the store manager and steer towards the first white person I see, assuming they must be the one in charge?

Is it racism when I’m pleasantly surprised when a black contractor does an excellent job and finishes the promised work on time?

Is it racism when I get annoyed at the lone white beggar at the intersection, thinking he has no right to beg, whereas black beggars seem to be perfectly “acceptable”?

I am guilty of all of the above. We all tend to classify people we meet into groups. In fact, we like to sort ourselves into groups as well. In and of itself this is not bad at all. Imagine how boring an event, say, the recent Indian comedy show Noisette and I watched at the Lyric Theatre would have been, if it hadn’t been about, well, Indians. But it’s very easy to fall into this trap of judging the world around us based on classifications. Our children are so much more immune to that, less “tainted” somehow.

But one of my observations here in South Africa has been that in some ways race relations seem less strained than in the United States. How can she say that, you will ask? In a country so recently desegregated? Where so many blacks still live in utter poverty while the white minority owns most of the country’s wealth? Well, like I said, I won’t claim to be comprehensive. This is just one of many observations, based on the facts around me. The fact that our kids have more black friends than they’ve ever had before. The fact that the term “black” is used quite freely, without all the trepidation I usually felt saying it in America.

I recently had a revealing conversation with a black friend over coffee. We were talking about cultural differences (like white women pushing their sunglasses up on their heads, whereas apparently blacks don’t, which was news to me), and I asked why it was that often black kids didn’t get picked up from playdates as promptly as white children. (I’ve had one child stay an entire weekend without so much as a contact number). Was it something to do with culture? In a “the village raises the child” sort of way? But my friend chastised me for thinking along those lines. “Not picking up a child is bad manners,” she told me, “regardless of color. And you mustn’t try and find excuses for people just because they are black.” Touche! She, in turn, admitted that she automatically addresses other blacks in her tribal language and not English, assuming they are more comfortable with that. Interestingly, she felt that was being condescending, whereas I sometimes feel speaking only English in a country with eleven official languages is outright lazy.

On the other hand, one thing that bothers me here is a certain condescension some whites exhibit towards black. It’s almost as if they are talking to children. Partly this can be attributed to the language barrier, i.e. you might have to speak slowly and in simple terms to make yourself understood, but in some instances I literally cringe when I overhear the way a white employer, for instance, might give instructions to a black worker.

I will close with one startling observation I’ve made: You always think of racism as something one race thinks of or does to another, but it is not exclusively so. Racism is judging others based on their race, even if they are the same race as you. Or maybe this is not so much racism as a form of snobbery. In any case, blacks are often treated very rudely by other blacks here in South Africa. I hear this time and again from black friends, South African and otherwise. They’ll go to the supermarket and wait in the checkout lane while the white shopper in front of them is politely greeted and having her groceries bagged by the black clerk, and when it is their turn, the clerk will pretty much ignore them, expecting them to bag their own groceries.

Even though I’ve worked on this post for quite some time, trying to carefully word my observations, I’m sure some of you might find something I’ve said  (or not said) offensive or at least insensitive. I tend to see the world through rose-colored glasses and am aware that I’ve left out the many ugly aspects of racism still prevalent here. In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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