Responding, Not Reacting to Racism

My internet connection has been erratic for the past two weeks… meaning I’ve had a lot of free time to frequent a favourite place: my solitude. On a side note, undertaking this six month passage alongside five other Canadians hasn’t been the most ideal context for digesting new surroundings. A lot of what I witness happens in a group setting, and is therefore interpreted in a group setting. The Randa many of you know may be expressive, assertive and sociable, but the Randa I know prefers to retreat to her mind palace for pondering. Having said this, my recent bouts of solitude have revealed a great lesson that I wish to share with you at the end of this post. What I’ve deduced along the way isn’t so pleasant, so if you’re someone who is easily irritated and/or has no tolerance for idiocy, you may want to skip this post.

– context –

I can totally pass as a local Indian (KwaZulu-Natal having the highest percentage of Indians on the continent), until I open my mouth. My Canadian accent makes me somewhat of a novelty here. I’ve experienced this phenomenon over and over again as a globetrotter… finding myself far more popular abroad than in Canada. I count this as a great advantage because often times locals feel the need to take care of me; creating bona fide experiences in foreign places. This has definitely been the case in South Africa, but being so approachable also has its downsides. In many cases, the more comfortable people are around me, the more my ears start [figuratively] bleeding. This comes with locals wanting to teach me something new, although often times what’s being taught is purely subjective. Subjective, racist, folly. 

folly |ˈfälē|
noun ( pl. follies )
lack of good sense; foolishness

The origins of the word are Old French, where folie once meant ‘madness’. I can’t think of a more true word to describe far too many incidents that have transpired since landing in South Africa with locals attempting to enlighten me with their racist bullshit. Is it something in the air? The water? I don’t wish to categorize all South Africans as lacking good sense, but I’ve had far too many ridiculous encounters to stay silent on the matter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the topic of race is inescapable in this country. Unfortunately for me, this means exercising caution on when I should bite my tongue and when I should retort.

Of the many indiscreet conversations that I’ve had [with locals] over the past two months, there are three that I continue to mentally revisit. I’m still uneasy about how I reacted versus how I should have responded to what was clearly a lack of good sense presented in the form of polite racism.

1. “Rhodesia” For my first five weeks in Martizburg, I attended a church around the corner from my house. At first I felt reassured because the church was mixed race, something that was important to me at the time because it reflected the landscape of the country and in theory, would help me reach cultural competency. By week 2, I realized that although Zulus and Indians worshipped alongside the Whites, the church only scratched the surface of amalgamating races. I don’t wish to criticize a house of worship, but registering that the leaders and elders were all White did vex me. Although this didn’t stop me from continuing to attend every Sunday, a conversation I had during fellowship after service one day did.

I was sitting alone, enjoying a coffee in the church cafe, when I was joined by the lead pastor’s wife (a White woman). She was kind, and chatty. The conversation was going well until I asked her if she grew up in KwaZulu-Natal. Her response was, “Oh no… I’m from Rhodesia.” She then proceeded to tell me the fates her people (White Rhodesians) had to suffer in the post-colonial period under Black rule, and how difficult it was adjusting to life in “Rhodesia” after independence. Something so burdensome that she eventually sought refuge in South Africa.

My reaction: A lot of eyebrow raising and quick head nodding. I wanted the conversation to end, not attempting to further engage this woman.

How I should’ve responded: I should’ve asked her why she still referred to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia. Without correcting her, I could’ve asked questions to understand why she said what she said, and maybe through dialogue she too could understand how the conversation could make others uneasy… and just maybe, this woman might rethink her choice of wording.

2. “Rotten Apples” Luckily for the meat eaters in my cohort, one of the girls is a devout Muslim. If it weren’t for Omara, we wouldn’t have discovered the amazing halal butcher in town that’s a go-to for all our carnivorous needs. The butcher is a local institution, run by an Indian family that has shown us nothing but kindness for the past two months. It’s quite a way from our home, so we make our trip bi-weekly, buying in bulk and splitting the cab fare. This past week, all the taxi’s we phoned were busy and the shop was closing up shortly. The owner’s son insisted that he drive us home, and since we’ve known the family to be kind and honest, we agreed.Two minutes into the ride, and I was regretting our decision to ride with him.

He was a good driver, he didn’t go off course, and he didn’t hit on us… but the poison coming out of his mouth was hard to stomach. He was telling us about himself, how he grew up in Maritzburg, and we eventually landed on the topic of schooling. I asked him if he went to a mixed race school and he answered yes. I then asked, “Oh… so you must have many Black friends?”, to which he responded [laughing] saying, “Oh no! No… I don’t mix with that kind. Those are rotten apples you don’t want to get mixed up with that kind.” When we arrived home, he proceeded to commend us on how we chose a prime place to live since it was a predominantly White neighbourhood, and we’d have less interactions with Black people that way.

My reaction: I questioned what he was saying, by asking “what do you mean by that?” and I voiced that I didn’t think his assumptions were correct.

How I should’ve responded: I should’ve called him out on blatant racism, no matter how polite. His belief that all Black people possessed the same characteristics was racist. His distinguishing of Blacks as inferior to the other races in the city (Whites and Indians) was racist. Furthermore, since he was so interested in what we did for work and what we did on our free time, I should’ve actually invited him to my place of work (in a Township), a place he’s most likely never been to in his life. It would’ve been a great opportunity to educate this kind, very misinformed man.

3. “I cross the street” One of my more unpleasant run-ins with racism has unfortunately happened under my roof. I live in a mixed, but predominantly “White” part of town. The majority of houses have fences, barbed wire and large k-9’s. My next post discusses how gated communities and fences cause social division, dysfunctional cities, and lead to the further polarization of South African society. But until that post, this short tale can be your point of reference to the absurdity around bizarre security measures, and how they’re ultimately another form of racism. I know this to be true thanks to my bigoted landlords, a couple of White baby boomers who were very good natured and accommodating until they weren’t.

Everything seemed to go downhill after our visitors (all Zulu’s) became regulars. Our friends were being racially profiled and mistreated. We were angry, and our anger was met with bullying text messages from our landlords on how we’ve “compromised everyone’s safety” by having so many regular visitors, when really, it was because we were having so many black visitors. We asked for a formal meeting where we could discuss the contention, and it was very awkward indeed. One of them showed up defensive, dismissive, and uncomfortable as ever… ironic considering how confrontational she was via text message. When the issue of racial profiling was raised, it was met with denial, but not before we were told a cringeworthy anecdote about safety around black men. And I quote, “Racial profiling is unfortunate… but it happens because this is South Africa. Even I do it sometimes! When I’m walking to the shops and I see two black men walking toward me… I cross the street!”

My reaction: Silence. I was so dumbfounded by what was spoken I didn’t know what to say. At what point does a person stop caring about vocalizing their racist convictions? How deeply rooted is the racism that it’s so unapologetic? Keep in mind, this is someone who is fully aware of our positions as development practitioners working among the repercussions of a racist system.

How I should’ve responded: I wish I could rewind to that evening, and give my two cents. I wouldn’t have called her a racist, but I would explain how her comments were racist and uncalled for. I would’ve told her how I don’t cross the street when I see two Black men walking toward me, and how categorizing all Black men as dangerous is a racist notion that isn’t at all conducive to reconciling the dark history of this country catalyzed by colonization.

lesson learned 

These are just three of many shocking conversations I’ve had since being here, and I know many more are to come. Now that I’m aware of the normalcy of such dialogues in South Africa, I am far more prepared to answer accordingly. It’s important for me to live out my role as a conscious global custodian outside of work hours, therefore it’s more important for me to respond, and educate someone on why their comments are ignorant instead of reacting to what they’re saying. Folly can be combatted with good sense, ergo… my weapon moving forward.

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