LETTER HOME: ON “RACE” IN SOUTH AFRICA
Dear Family and Friends,
It’s been a week of visiting museums, chatting with locals and sipping the occasional glass of South African pinotage. But to be honest, I’ve found my week to be rather lackluster. When I’m not getting mugged everything just feels so sickeningly safe.
But then again, when I’m not wasting psychosomatic energy trying to curb the assaults of those who want to steal my money, I am given the opportunity and space to ponder complex topics. For example, how does J-Lo still remain relevant after a decade of puking out substandard electronic drivel? How can I secure the role of Osama Bin Ladden in FOX’s made-for-TV biopic? And, perhaps most relevant to my travels, what’s up with racism in South Africa?
Big questions, indeed.
I am actually deeply intrigued by the concept/construct of “race” and how it plays out across the world. I could talk about the subject for hours. For your sake, however, I’ll attempt to titillate you with a racial analysis of South Africa in a few easy-to-read paragraphs. Wish me luck.
* takes a deep breath *
Considering the history of deep racial injustice in South Africa, race is clearly a big and complex topic. One of my goals whilst here has been to try to obtain a better understanding of the key issues around the construct of “race,” and how this specifically relates to current social and economic realities in South Africa. As a basic introduction to history, oppression and the apartheid movement, I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The book has the approximate weight of a smallish hippopotamus, but reads fairly smoothly and provides insight into the explicit and systemic racism of apartheid. And it’s true what the say; the man is arguably the world’s greatest living legend.
To also augment my understanding, I’ve been jumping at every opportunity to chat about race-based issues with the locals. Most folks are surprisingly open to discuss their experiences and sentiments on race in this nation. My questions are varied. What does it mean to be “Afrikaans”? Who holds power in this nation? What are the differences between the various indigenous/tribal/Black groups of the nation? How the heck do I pronounce “Xhosa”? (Hint: you need to make a clicking sound.) What does the nation need to heal? My experience is that, because of the “freshness” of apartheid (ending in 1994) and because race is such an explicit large part of everyday living, the subject of “race” remains prevalent in the nation’s collective consciousness. And as such, the average South African has a more developed analysis of race than, for example, the average Canadian – who is, perhaps, less forced to address race issues on a regular basis. These conversations have been vital in expanding my comprehension.
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One of my key learnings over the past ten days is that in South Africa there is a difference that has been historically constructed between Black (African) and Brown (Coloured). I knew little of this difference. Unsurprisingly, this lack of awareness is symptomatic of my own “whiteness.” I believe, if I can make a generalization, white folks tend to see other races as… well… one homogenous group of “others” rather than complex groups of ethnicities that are culturally, historically and geographically unique. This becomes apparent, for example, in the white dude’s inability to differentiate between Asian folks. Please, be patient with white folks. We’re coming along, slowly.
I certainly knew (and was appropriately disheartened) that racism was a big part of South African history. But in my head it was “white people were the douchebag oppressors and anybody who happens to have been non-white were been forced to suffer.” This, to the best of my understanding, is historically accurate, but only to a certain degree. The various racial groups in South African have been multifaceted and unique in terms of geographic origin, lived experiences, vulnerability to governmental policy, ability for self-determination and approach to intra-racial relations. In other words, it’s a bit more complex than the dualism of “white versus non-white.”
Which was actually helpful in alleviating some unrelenting white guilt.
The ignorance to the complexities of racial diversity in South Africa was highlighted after I was mugged. The police officer that recorded my incident asked me if I could identify if my assailants were specifically “Black” or “Coloured.” I told him I didn’t really understand the question.
It was only when I had many conversations with my friend Moses about “race” in South Africa that I began to form a greater understanding of the constructed racial groupings. Moses has been generous enough to field all my questions with the utmost grace and patience. I learned that to be “Black” in South Africa means that your heritage comes solely from an African tribe/clan/group of people, such as Xhosa, Zulu or San for example. You probably speak an indigenous African language, as well as Afrikaans and/or English. To be “Coloured” is a bit more complex. It means that you could be of Indian or Malaysian origin, for example, or you could be a blend of “Black” or “Coloured” mixed with European ancestry. You probably speak Afrikaans and/or English, as well as an Asian language. To the untrained foreigner, this distinction might need a certain level of unpacking. It clearly did for me.
Moses tells me that prejudice thought and action still runs rampant across all racial groups of South Africa; Whites, Afrikaans, Blacks and Colours have antiquated, preconceived notions about each other. And I grew to realize that the police officer was requesting to know the racial details probably so that the government would have a deeper understanding of the behavioral tendencies of race-based social groups. (What exactly they do with this information is a whole ‘nother exploration.)
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As I’ve mentioned, there has been some solid learning over the past couple of weeks. I hesitate to make any grand conclusions, due to my fleeting position as a nomadic foreigner. But I can say that, if the goal of this nation is equal access for all peoples to social, political, professional and economic opportunities, there is still work to be done. I have observed – and this is a generalization – that white people are living in beautiful condos in Camps Bay and the black people are living in Shanty Towns. Could my mugging (two men of colour stealing from a white dude) be further evidence of economic inequity? I see the incident as a symptom of a system where, based on the color of one’s skin, some people have more and some people have less. South Africa, like every other nation across the world, is far from race-based equality.
It’s going to take some more time. And this need for more time reminds me of an Indigenous Canadian proverb, which states something along the lines of – “It takes the same amount of time to walk out of the woods as it did to walk in.” And if that’s true, then healing (and a shift towards equity) will need another couple of decades.
However, if I can extract a nugget of current good news, as I enjoy doing, I can say that I’ve arrived to South Africa and within a matter of days I was having meaningful conversations about race with people of all racial identities and backgrounds. And this willingness for dialogue about race is a major “win” in my books.
And although Mandela surprisingly doesn’t mention my sentiments on race – or really anything about me for that matter – in his book, I think he’d agree that a desire for open dialogue about “race” might just help us walk a bit quicker out of these woods.
With love and inescapable whiteness,
PS: One of the greatest retorts to “racism” that I’ve seen in recent memory is the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. It advocates the approach of “less heaviness” when dealing with the idea of race. And I think that’s just dandy.
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