A few years ago, a friend of mine recounted how, during a late-night walk back home after the end of his Friday shift as a waiter, he saw a couple nervously cross to the other side of a busy road upon his approach. About a minute later, he turned around to see the same couple cross back to the sidewalk. Yes, my friend is a black man and yes, the couple was white.
I remember gasping in response to this memory he felt inclined to share, after I had told him about a somewhat similar experience from a few years back. In my case, I was dressed in school uniform, walking to school in a suburban neighbourhood. A car pulled out of a driveway onto the pavement, and as I approached to pass it, I watched a white woman casually rolling up her driver’s window using it as a wall to – what I assumed – limit any likely interaction. I was puzzled at first. I wondered if I appeared threatening to her, this young, skinny black girl in an oversized blazer and heavy school bag. Or perhaps there was a sudden cold breeze that had hit her in those seconds, which had nothing to do with me. However I rationalised it, I couldn’t shrug the feeling of prejudice that I associated with that encounter. It was in an effort to extend his sympathy and relate his understanding of that moment, that my friend told his story.
Admittedly, however, my gasp in response to him was mechanical. It wasn’t aroused by a sense of shock and dismay at what took place that night. Instead, it was contrived. I knew that such an encounter deserved an expression of disbelief and that is what I delivered. But contrary to this, I thought, “I probably would have done the same as the white couple. Not only are men alone the biggest threat to women at any time of the day, but this was a black man after midnight.” The racial association alone turned him into a potentially dangerous predator. In the deep cogs of my primal brain, it seemingly didn’t matter that I’d known my friend for close to three years and that he’d been the most gentle, kind and considerate person I’d ever known, to me and everyone else he met.
Reflecting on our conversation a few days later, in the wake of the ‘white genocide’ videos and social media campaigns proliferating the online space, I recognised that I had internalised stereotypical fears about my own race. I could reconcile that both our experiences were prejudicial, and yet a part of me still found a smidge of reasoning behind the dehumanising actions of the perpetrators. I had unknowingly internalised the racist notions of black people being seen as dangerous, criminal and sub-human. Indeed, this trope has informed so much of our narratives and ideologies that even our thinking cannot be divorced from the reality of living in a world where whiteness is the norm, the paradigm, the personification of goodness and superiority.
W.E.B Du Bois described this psychological ill 1903 in his book, The Souls of Black Folk as, ‘double consciousness’ – the perpetual propensity of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. In this case, the eyes of others hardly fail to remind us of black inferiority and otherness (other than the white-norm). Historically, whiteness has come to be viewed as the good standard, the universal human body, while blackness is seen as deviant, degenerate and ‘ugly’. In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, Jesse Jackson said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage of my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” This is a man who has dedicated his life to fighting the inequality and unfair treatment of black people in America and he STILL fell susceptible to the prejudicial ideologies about black people.
It is fine and well to say we should all be colour blind since we live in a post-apartheid country 26 years into democracy, a melting pot of cultures, possessing the racial diversity of a rainbow often highlighted by the occasional international sporting matches. Sadly, this constructed illusion doesn’t hold very long for the daily realities of the racially marginalised. It’s easy to be colour-blind when you come from a place of privilege; where no one ever doubts, disregards or questions you. For everyone else, ‘talking about race’ – especially the discomforts of existing in a world that denies your humanity by virtue of the skin you’re in – is the only way to feel visible and affirmed. And yes, sometimes that affirmation is a gasp. Other times it’s a relational moment that says, “I see you. You matter.” We may not live to see the drastic transformation of our racialised society within our lifetimes, but until then, talking is dealing and dealing is healing. So come, let’s talk.
Tell us: How have you dealt with prejudice in your life?