South Africa is doing a doozy on me. As you might recall in my first #AntinAfrica post, Post-Apartheid Thought, I discussed how South Africa has made me feel some type of way. The best way to describe it has been Black Rage. I do not embody “The Angry Black Man” outwardly, but if you have talked to me recently you know that the injustices I learn about and experience myself have definitely made me both very introspective and outspoken (ask my “Race Class and Gender” classmates). Keep in mind that I pass a statue commemorating the infamous Cecil John Rhodes on my daily walk to campus. Why? Because he donated the [stolen] land to build the University of Cape Town. Keep in mind that this was a former Whites-only institution. But to be fair, UCT did admit POC during the 1920s before closing off admissions to new POC at a later date. Keep in mind that I’m in South Fucking Africa, the home of Wouter Basson and apartheid.
Today’s post was inspired by a discussion I had with two White South Africans, one male, one female, both around the same age as me. We had just met on the day of the discussion and quickly got into a friendly conversation. Another friend was involved, but his contributions were not what woke up the sleeping giant that is my Black Rage. My friend, a fellow American, wanted to know more from these two people just like I did. And to be clear, this has not been my experience with all of my White South African peers, just these two. I left out their names because they aren’t important and they were genuinely speaking their minds, but I took issue with some things that were said (and I made it clear to them). I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a representation of my whole experience here in South Africa. That being said…
While discussing the differences between South Africa and America we stumbled upon the topic of race relations and White privilege. I have to give it to everyone involved: our honesty created a great conversation, albeit uncomfortable at times. But back to race, as many of the conversations here eventually become. A few months ago I wrote a small piece about White privilege (Black at Cal) after the Tal Fortgang debacle. For reference, when I brought Fortgang’s article up, my male peer said that the article was really good. Alright. Now this was after we had been discussing privilege and I shed some new light on my female peers understanding of her privilege. She cited Black Economic Empowerment, the Black majority government, affirmative action, and UCT’s current–which is potentially changing soon–admissions policy as ways in which she is not privileged by her Whiteness. And she is correct, there has been a shift since apartheid toward Black empowerment in the largely Black South Africa. She is correct in that Whites are the minority and that they are discriminated against in many ways, much like Blacks are still discriminated against and disadvantaged. She is right in that for some students of color it is “easier” to get into UCT because of programs that exist. If one listens to Patricia Hill Collins, no one ever the only oppressed one, instead we must shift the axis because there are privileges within all groups. But what I did not hear in her assessment, was an acknowledgement of her privilege, instead I heard a lot of statements that essentially meant “it’s not my fault.” True. It isn’t her fault, especially since a majority of people of all races in South Africa opposed apartheid. But that does not change the fact that Whiteness is still a privilege, even in 2014 with institutional ‘Black empowerment.’
What really got me was not the discussion I just talked about, but two statements that stuck out to me. The first statement was in reference to my question about her domestic worker. After discussing White guilt, I asked if she felt guilty that she had a Black domestic worker who “was like a second mother” to her, in her own words. No, she replied. Her family has the economic means and it is normal here in South Africa. For her, her domestic worker was like a part of the family, she even lived in a room within their home. Cool, makes sense I guess. My issue, though, stemmed from the fact that her domestic worker still did not have ‘a place at the table.’ She would never and has never eaten dinner with them, despite the fact that she is ‘a part of the family.’ Because in my peer’s words, ‘it is still a job.’ In fact, her family did a lot, even paying for a portion of their domestic worker’s grandchild’s education. Chill, they pay her well, they treat her well, and they even help her out financially. They discuss politics and she is like a second mom. She’s one of the family members…who doesn’t eat at the table, even though they feed her. Alright. I’m not South African, I did not grow up with a domestic worker, but it still sounds a lot like how people talk(ed) about their slaves…hmm.
Let’s just leave that there to digest and move on to the next part, the statement that stuck with me: “She’d be dead if it wasn’t for us.” My peer said this statement to justify having a domestic worker, as there are high rates of unemployment. What I do understand is that domestic work is a legitimate thing out here in SA and almost all middle and upper class families have domestic workers. This includes the Black middle class employing other–often from different African countries–Blacks as domestic workers. Alright, whatever, employ people as long as you treat them with dignity, a fair wage, and everything that goes with that. But the idea that this particular domestic worker is indebted to this particular family because unemployment is so high? That’s a hard pill for me to swallow. Again, outside perspective; I am an American. I do acknowledge the huge unemployment rates here in South Africa. I do acknowledge how easy it is to replace a domestic worker because there are so many people, almost always women, willing to do the job. But does she really think that this woman could not have survived without the ‘patronage’ of her family? Hm.
Now if you’re reading this and not having the same reaction I am, I understand. But you probably will when I drop the second statement. While discussing how Black people can say derogatory things about Whites but Whites cannot do the same about Blacks I did not even have the chance to explain racism and reverse racism because I was stopped in my tracks by a word she used. We couldn’t really discuss how Blacks and Whites need to be able to critically discuss race without one side shooting down the other or making them afraid to speak their opinions. Why? I can’t think of any other way to phrase it but as profound ignorance spewing forth from her mouth:
“For example, if we call the government monkeys–” says my female peer very casually.
“–Wait, why would you call them monkeys?” I cut her off before she was able to finish. I’m not sure how my face looked at this moment, but I was definitely more than a little shocked. (The ANC runs the government, and they are Black, just for context).
“Well, they are monkeys,” chortles my male peer.
“Why are they monkeys?” I say as calmly as I can. Surely I am misunderstanding? I look over to my American peer to see if he is picking up on what I am, he is.
“Because they are,” relays my male peer, still laughing.
“But wait, explain to me why you use the word monkey.”
“That’s what they are, they’re retarded,” states my male peer, very confidently.
Monkeys, you say? I’ve heard criticism of the ANC and so I get using a term that isn’t so flattering. But monkeys? I proceed to have him break it down for me further, also explaining to him how retarded is derogatory, of which he was well aware, but I wasn’t cool with it. He says that he would use the word ‘monkeys’ whether they were Black or White. But I had to explain to him that you cannot always use the same words for different races when they have different weights. I had to then explain scientific racism, which was a new concept for them. I proceeded to explain why the word monkey is never okay in relation to a POC, despite the fact that “we live in a country with monkeys, so…” (female peer’s words).
So I looked it up, and she’s definitely not the first to use words all willy-nilly and most definitely will not be the last. But it is experiences like this that make my Cape Town experience…I’m not sure. On the one side I have an amazing backdrop in which to study. Cape Town and South Africa in general is gorgeous–except for when it’s not, like the extreme poverty of some of the townships–but then I also have the Black Exhaustion that comes with the Black Rage and the White Ignorance. I have to exert a lot of energy to explain these things back home, and as friend of mine once said, I have to be careful. It shouldn’t always be my duty to explain why what you said was wrong, as eventually I’m just going to get tired of it. I shouldn’t have to think about the fact that these two White students almost hold a grudge against some Black UCT students for getting in. Regardless, I’m glad that I had this conversation today because it gave me an honest look at two individuals (who grew up Johannesburg) that I hadn’t heard before. Up until this point I had only had a few extended conversations with White South Africans and they weren’t about race. I talk with many Black South Africans as well as other Black expats about race all the time, so hearing the one of the other sides is interesting. Next time, though, I’d like to be pleasantly surprised instead of dreadfully disappointed.
And since I no longer have a Facebook, I’d love to hear any thoughts, responses, questions, or corrections below or on Twitter @anthoknees