August 9, 2008

Squashing my conscience

Someday soon I’m going to get around to writing about my recent trip to Lesotho but until I do, here’s a story I want to tell about my experience of being a white person in a black majority country.

On the way back to Mthatha, I had to hitchhike between two towns because there weren’t any taxis on that route. I went to the edge of town, held out my little sign with my destination on it, and began to wait. I had done all the usual preparatory steps that are advisable before hitchhiking - tuck in your shirt, neaten your hair, pick a spot where the driver can see you from far away, and so on - but as I was doing this I was thinking to myself that I would have no trouble getting picked up. After all, I was white, this was a white part of the country, and I could reasonably assume I’d have a much better chance of getting picked up quickly than a black person in my position would. I felt a bit guilty about thinking about the situation this way but I couldn’t exactly change my skin colour or how people relate to each other here. It turns out that this smidgen of guilt was nothing compared to what I was about to feel.

While waiting, I struck up a conversation with one of the handful of other people - all black - also trying to get a ride. She was pleasant and I learned we were going to the same place, though neither of us made any promises to help each other. (My Xhosa/Zulu isn’t good enough for that.) After about five minutes of waiting, a white truck, driven by a white man, pulled over and offered me a ride. He said he was on his way to my destination and would be glad to give me a lift. I was grateful for the ride but I felt more than a tinge of guilt for my new friend. The driver was making no effort to include her in the conversation and it was clear she was not being offered a ride, even though she came up to the car and began quietly asking for a ride. Thoughts began to race through my head - did I insist he give a ride to this woman? did I refuse to take the ride unless she could come as well? how was her hitchhiking my business anyway? All of this happened as I put my bag in his car, got in the front, and before I knew it, we had driven off, my conscience squashed and leaving me racked by a not inconsiderable amount of guilt at my inaction.

My driver was very friendly and soon was talking my ear off about this and that, including race relations in South Africa. He was of the opinion that 90-percent of people here are honest and safe but he would never give a black person a ride - “not even that woman moaning back there” - because you just never know. Plus, his truck model is apparently one of the most hijacked models in the country so he had to be extra careful. I was apparently a safe bet because I “looked foreign.” Later, though, he got talking about the state of the country and how it was imperative that everyone help out to address some of the problems facing South Africa. He kept saying, “you do what you can.” Like giving people lifts?

Sometimes I forget how much I stick out in Mthatha until I see another white person and realize how shocking it is to see them. But I still attract stares, often from children, particularly as my work day takes me lots of places where white people don’t generally go. But I’m comfortable in those places and have learned to ignore the stares or convince myself the children are staring at something else unusual about me, like my height and not my skin colour.

A woman who is always sitting at the information desk by the main door in the hospital pulled me aside a few weeks back and said, “I always see you with black people. What do you do?” She asked the question in such wonder and befuddlement, as if the thought of a white person pushing a black woman in a wheelchair or supporting a black man is completely unusual to her, which I guess it is.

As much as I want to do my best to live and work alongside the people here and experience their way of life as fully as possible, my skin colour will always prevent it. For the most part, being white means I am treated better than other people. No security guard makes me check my bag when I go into a store and I don’t get patted down on the way out. The history of race relations in this country is such that I think it would be unusual and possibly unthinkable for a black man, no matter what his position of authority, to challenge a white man to do something like check his bag. I remember asking my first South African friend, on my first cold, night in South Africa, why the members of a white motorcycle gang were allowed to hang around in the parking lot of the fast food restaurant we were in without buying anything. She said, “Oh, they’re white - no one will ask them to move.” In stores or the hospital, black people often have to interact with me in their second language because I don’t speak theirs well enough. That gives me a huge advantage, particularly when there is trouble (like they don’t want to take a patient) and I intimidate them just by throwing out big words and making them do what I want just to get me to shut up and go away.

People here are always apologizing to me even - and especially - when I am the one who has messed up. When I drop something or bang my head on a low door frame, there is always someone around who says, “Sorry,” even though they had nothing to do with it. At first, I tried to minimize this and say, “It’s my fault” or “Don’t worry about it” but it has done nothing and even people I’m close to in Itipini still fall over themselves to apologize for my mess-ups. And I’ve watched and they don’t do it for other Africans. This, along with numerous other interactions, has made me realize that one thing I’ll need to adjust to when I leave here is that people won’t always be deferring to me.

For the last three years - two in Nome, Alaska and now one here - I have lived in communities and regions where I am in a substantial racial minority. Don’t think, however, that I’m comparing myself to oppressed racial minorities throughout history. In both Nome and here, my situation is opposite to what African-Americans in the south experience. My skin colour overwhelmingly works in my favour here and brings with it vast amounts of power. I wish we could all just live happily together without regard for our skin colours. With most people and for much of my experience here, that has been more or less the case. But I can’t escape the fact that I say that from the a very privileged vantage point.

A final thought that just occurred to me - some of this power is probably linked to my perceived economic power. That’s hard to separate from my race in Itipini but is a separate factor at work. Another post, I guess.


Ferran said...

Hello. I just happened to find your blog and found this post especially interesting.

As a white European who's always lived in Europe, I sometimes ask myself how it would be to live in a place where whites are a minority. Just to try to understand how other races feel when they live in Europe.
But as you point out, it would never be the same exact thing: as white and "foreigner", I would probably be looked at with a respect that, too often and unfortunatelly, other races do not receive in our basicly white, rich countries. Yes, money has got a lot to do with it :-(

Greetings from Berlin, Germany.