You don’t have to look too hard to find racism in South Africa. Sometimes the race problems are like demons that crawl around in the shadows, hiding themselves very well. On other occasions, the racism is so obvious, it’s impossible not to see and feel. It spits venom at you when you get into a taxi, arrive at school, or even when you go shopping at the mall, and leaves you defenceless. It saddens me to say this, but in my experience, our country has some serious racism skeletons in its closet and they come out play too often for my liking.
My girlfriend and I found out the hard way about where racism can show up and just how shockingly venomous it can be. We never thought that going to the mall would involve possibly confronting people for their racist behaviour towards us. But that’s exactly what happened.
Some months ago we went to Promenade mall in Mitchell’s Plain. We walked in there happy, proudly holding each other’s hands, but knowing that some would look, stare, or even point at us, while others would stare, point, and whisper. We expected that. We expected people to have their usual reaction: Surprise at the fact that she, a coloured woman, is dating me, a Xhosa man.
But what we got when we went into one of the stores was a bit too much to take. I couldn’t believe how bold the group of four store assistants were with their racism. It was shocking. As my girlfriend and I walked around in the store, with her going crazy over the shoes in there, and me walking behind her and just mostly nodding and agreeing with whatever she said, I saw them pointing at her and intensely discussing something. My girlfriend moved away from me to the one side of the store, while I stayed behind in one of the aisles near the tellers. The four women were so deep in their discussion that they didn’t even notice me walking closer to the teller, where they were standing. As I got closer, I finally heard one of them say: “Don’t be mad, man! That girl’s not coloured!” Another one nodded in agreement, “Ya, she’s wearing a weave.”
Hearing them gossip like that nearly sent me over the edge with anger. I was pissed, honestly. Why the hell was her race an issue? What did her race or her hair for that matter have to do with her buying shoes at their store? Were they going on because they couldn’t accept the idea of a coloured woman being with a black man? I wanted to confront them, to make them call their manager. Something.
When my girlfriend went up to them at the counter to ask about shoes sizes (at the time, I hadn’t yet told her that they were talking about her), I went with her, coiled, ready to hear if they were going to say anything to her face this time. But, no, they hid their racism and smiled at her. While there, I saw that the store’s manager, whom I was hoping to report the whole incident to, was amongst the four women. When I found out that the manager was one of the women in the group, I felt disheartened. I lost all the courage I had to go and confront them for their racist gossip. All I could ask myself was: If even the manager was behaving like this, who was I going to report them to? What power did I have to fight for my girlfriend’s dignity?
I decided not to immediately tell my girlfriend about what had happened there. I was pretty sure if she knew while we were at the store she’d want to confront them right there and then. And I just didn’t have the strength to listen to them denying their racism, asking me what’s wrong with debating someone’s race or their weave. So, we walked out of the store, and when we were eventually done with the rest of our shopping we went home.
But in thinking about it now, I realise that maybe racism works that way. It makes you scared to confront and report it. It’s often hard to prove or notice. And it catches us off-guard. We innocently walk into places sometimes not expecting it, and it comes at us like a speeding bullet or a gust of wind even. When we do speak up about it, some look at us like we’re crazy, either because they’re in denial about it or they’re trying to hide their own guilt. They even say things like “I don’t see colour” or “There’s not a racist bone in my body” or even better “There’s no such thing as white privilege!” So, in the end, no one really says and does anything positive about it, and we end up pretending that racism no longer exists in this country.
Well, I say fuck that! Let’s talk about race honestly, smartly and with a lot of compassion. Let’s look at what we need to do to stop it from being a problem in malls, schools, trains, taxis, offices or anywhere else. Let’s understand that if we don’t do something meaningful, racism will keep happening in different and very scary ways. People like my girlfriend and I, school children, farmworkers, domestic workers, university students, garage employees and many others, will continue to suffer.
Importantly, though, I’m not saying let’s sit around and talk about race all the time. I’m not saying we should force people to talk about it, and nothing else. I also can’t talk about racism all the time, but I’m definitely willing to try certain things (not violence, though!) to fight it. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll make sure everyone who’s in my life knows how I feel and what I’m willing to do.
Tell us: Have you had experiences of everyday racism? How did you respond?