‘Racism is a refuge for the ignorant. It seeks to divide and to destroy. Its the enemy of freedom, and deserves to be met head-on and stamped out.’ – Pierre Berton
Racism. It’s a very topical issue in South Africa at the moment. There is no denying that it’s a huge problem. What concerns me is the fact that most people seem to wholeheartedly believe that the only form of racism that requires attention and push-back is white on black racism.
My personal experiences with racism tell a different story. I have experienced white on black racism but it is spectacularly matched and, in some instances dwarfed, by the racist vitriol I have heard some black people utter against white people. Even greater than black/white racism in my eyes, is black on black racism. I can count my encounters with black/white racism on my ten fingers and toes. I have lost count of the number of times I have personally experienced or witnessed black on black racism.
It’s the black people who think that when a white person does something out of the ordinary, that particular person is quirky and when a black person does it, it’s the ignorance of the race. Like that waiter who couldn’t understand that I came into the restaurant with a hankering for something sweet so I wanted dessert wine before I had my meal. It’s his repeated attempt to tell me I shouldn’t have it because I’m not supposed to. According to who? Because I am the paying customer and I know what I want to drink right now. It’s my fiance’s friend who subsequently told me with genuine concern, “You shouldn’t do such things. You give black people a bad name.” Why does my dining choice impact an entire race of people who are each unique in their own way. Is a quirky white/Indian/Chinese person a representation of all white/Indian/Chinese people?
It’s that moment when the car guard lets go of my trolley mid-push and rushes off to help the white shopper who has just exited the store behind me.
It’s the new tea lady at my previous place of work who, finding herself without clean drinking glasses soon after I had walked out with the last one full of water for myself, chose to follow me to my desk and ask if she can have the glass back because another manager (at the same level as me but white) wants water. I was the only black manager on her floor. “Sorry neh Chuwe? I will bring you another one when I get more.” By this she meant when the other managers had finished and returned the ones they had and she could wash them. What was amusing was how genuinely apologetic she was.
It’s that moment when I stuck my hand out to tip the car guard for his assistance and I looked in the rearview mirror to see that he had rushed off mid-assist to assist a white gentleman who had just walked into the parking lot. He wasn’t even at his car yet.
It’s that moment when a friend of mine stood in a queue at Midas behind 2 white gentlemen and a black man. The black shop assistant behind the counter greeted the 2 white gentlemen with “Good morning sir. How can I help you?” As soon as they stated what they wanted, he went off to get it and completed the transaction. As one should. The black gentleman customer was met with a stony straight face and no greeting of any sort. Obviously not phased, he asked “do you have xxx?” Without moving a muscle to go anywhere, the shop assistant responded with a blunt “it’s R350. Do you still want it?”
It’s that moment when I picked up strawberries with no price tag at my local Food Lover’s Market. The teller who was ringing up my groceries picked them up and said “These are R49. Should I put them back?” I wonder why she thought I couldn’t or maybe, shouldn’t, afford them.
It’s that moment when I asked a new manicurist to make my nails shorter because I play hockey and longer ones are more likely to break and damage my actual nail. Her response was, “This is the problem with black people. You make a little money and you want to run around doing things white people do. Why don’t you leave it to the white people who know how to do it? It’s like black people who play golf. Kutitambisira nguva.” Tiger Woods are you listening?
It’s the black director who asked me to take his lunch tray to the kitchen halfway during a meeting.
It’s the black colleague (junior to me) who asks me to make him tea in the morning. Fear not, I refused.
These last two are a mix of our subject here and sexism, though I couldn’t tell you in what proportions.
In any event, I could go on and on. The examples are endless.
How odd all this is. Yet, in the same breath, how normal it all is. Perhaps in the midst of pointing accusing fingers at “other” racists, each of us needs to interrogate our own perception of our own race first. After all, don’t they say you teach people how to treat you. Just a thought.