The world would be a better place without people like this

I am disgusted and sickened and so ….. upset. I don’t know how to process the encounter I just had… so I’m going to share it, in the hopes that along the way I can start to figure out how to reconcile with myself how I managed to not punch this guy in the freaking face. And so you can get an idea of some of the attitudes and some of the depth of the racial tension that exists in South Africa.

I’ve been working on papers all week, and I needed out of my apartment. I went Nca’kos for lunch – a little store/food place we have at the entrance gate to Concordia/Academia (where most of the international students live). I got my food and sat down at a table outside to get some fresh air, enjoy one of the few days of sunshine I have left in this country. This guy sits down across from me. Tall, shaggy hair, red-rimmed eyes like he’s either been drinking all night or studying all night. He was friendly. Smiled and asked where in America I was from, knowing from just my “hello” that I’m not South African. We began to casually chat, covered the basics of our majors (he’s engineering – describes the red-rimmed eyes of long nights during finals) and general interests. We got onto film.

“What’s your favorite film?” he asked
“There are too many. That’s always a hard question.”
“How about Top 10?”

We began to go back and forth – film for film
“OH, that is a good one. I enjoyed it, too!”
“No, I haven’t seen it… I”ll have to see if I can find it on DC.” (downloading program here)

I thought about all the films I’ve watched recently for my South African film class, and realized I hadn’t asked this new South African acquaintance I had made the most obvious question: “Do you watch many South African films? Tsotsi or Hijack Stories?”

Both films are about gangster life in the townships here. Townships are poor city-like places. They tend to be black – becasue in this country, pretty much like in the US, blacks and coloureds tend to make up the lowest socio-economic group. They both focus on black masculinity in the townships – looking at how these characters ended up where they are — suffering family abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc. Both films are phenomenal – Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar in its year – sometime in the last five years – can’t remember the exact year.

He responds with, “No, I don’t watch that shit.”

And me, the perpetual student… immediately thinks that his insider knowledge as a South African is going to enlighten me. That he must consider the films “shit” due to some kind of inauthenticity… not portraying ENOUGH of the severity of the township situation…. etc

“Why do you think they’re shit? Do you not think they’re authentic enough… portray enough of the harshness of township reality?”

“No. They’re shit because they’re black.”

And my mind went absolutely blank for a moment. For one moment in time, I was suspended in space, confused and uncertain and forcibly trying to believe that i had misunderstood his statement.

“They’re shit because they’re BLACK?”

And the converation went from there. My immediate reaction was to tell him that the conversation was over, that I didnt approve of his comment and to leave. But then I thought – no, I’m going to engage in this conversation… without blowing up or PUNCHING the bastard (what i really wanted to do). i thought – you can’t shove information in someone’s face or ….physically harm them… to change a frikkin racist mindset. and also, i knew no matter what i said that it wouldn’t change his mind. he seemed pretty damn set in his bigot ways. but i thought at least if i had the convesation, maybe i could get more out of him as to HOW THE HELL he could have that kind of mindset.

“You foreigners,” he said, seeing the look of utter disgust and disbelievement on my face, “come here and go party and see all the pretty parts of this country, and then you leave. you dont know what it’s like here.”

I may not live here year round, I said, but I do live in America, where racism is still a huge issue. Where our country is STILL ravaged by the effects of centuries of slavery and institutionalized discrimination through the Jim Crow Laws of Reconstruction, “separate but equal” policies, and disenfranchisement until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I live in a country where crime rates are exponentially higher among blacks than whites. I DO KNOW what racial tension and racial divide looks like.

“Stay here longer. Come and live here and you will see why I think how I think. You live here [on campus] where it’s safer and nice. You don’t know.”

I’ve been here for four months, and I’ve lived my entire life in another country that has similar racial issues. And I’ve been to the townships here. I also know what the crime statistics are here, and it doesn’t matter what they are. Have you ever thought about why the situation is as it is today? The white colonists began the institutionalized oppression of black native people in this country when they arrived, and through Apartheid (“social and political policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by white minority governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1994” – africanencyclopedia.com)- kept it going until the end of apartheid in the early 90s. The statements you are making are narrow-minded in that context, or in any context.

“Spend time in Johannesburg or Durban. Then you’ll understand.”

I’ve been to both places. You’re a white male. Have you considered how you, yourself, and your generation and all the generations before you of white men are complicit in the situation that exists today? The inequality, the racial tension, the divide, the crime rates? Have you thought about your own place in that? And it’s not just about you – as a white American female, not even part of the historical dominant power structure of white men – I, too, am complicit in the violence and racism and oppression in my own country towards minority groups. I, too, benefit from a system that has, for centuries, discriminated against blacks and other racial minority groups. It’s not something to be proud of. It’s something to want to change.

“I hate this country. I plan to graduate and then move to Germany or Australia.”

Becuase i’ts mainly white?

(stares at me) “Where I don’t have to put up with them here.”

Yeah, well, Australia struggles dealing with past injustices against the aboriginals. Guess you’re going to have to knock that country off your list.

“But I don’t have a problem with them. I didn’t have to grow up with them. I just hate this country.”

So what, I said with a mounting need to just leave and never see his disgusting, hate-filled face. Would you rather return to the system of Apartheid? I asked this with disdain and sarcasm, my patience ending.

“Yes, actually,” he said.

…. and this – this is just… if the rest of it isn’t bad enough – THIS is the kicker. “Yes, actually,” he said…. pivoting on the bench and staring, STARING at the black man who sat behind us, listening to our entire conversation.

The man behind us didn’t flinch and he didn’t look away. He stared straight into the eyes of the piece of shit that had just said that, and said nothing. And in that silence, he held a dignity and a strength that took my anger and replaced it with raw rage and with heartache for him, for this country, and for the ignorant fool sitting across from me.

The guy, the… THING… looked back at me and said, “Apartheid worked for me,” he laughed, maniacally, as he stood up and headed back inside the store. “Why not?”

As he laughed and turned, I stood and said – It’s not funny – it’s sick. It’s really sick.

He kept walking. And laughing.

I threw my garbage away, shaking. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the man who had heard our conversation, that I hadn’t known was sitting there.

He looked at me calmly and simply said, “Don’t upset yourself, dear.”

All the tears of my confusion and anger and heartache started to slide down my cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking into his kind eyes.

“Don’t upset yourself, dear,” he said again.

His four words are the representation of all the internalized prejudice of the disempowered majority in this country. They, too, hurt. I wanted to tell him that I SHOULD upset myself, that he should, too. That accepting these statements and these viewpoints as simply the way of life isn’t acceptable. That change can and needs and someday WILL happen.

“I’m so sorry,” I said again, “I’m just really upset. I need to go.”

And I walked away.

**********

Racial tension is something I’ve become used to here – not in an ambivalent or apathetic way- but in a practical way. I know it exists, and I feel it every time I go out with friends, everytime we enter a “black” club and get stared at, felt out… until we are deemed safe. I feel it every time I go into a white bar and am ushered in without a second glance, but the coloured person behind me is stared at and questioned. I feel it every time I find out a club is owned by openly racist people and never return there.

I know it exists, but it wasn’t until today – until this conversation – that I felt its magnitude, actually felt the weight of nearly 50 years of apartheid and its ever-continuing effects on this country.

I just…. I want to change the world. I want to make the world full of peace and harmony. And sometimes I see something that gives me hope… but then something like this happens, and I’m blinded by the darkness – all the pain in the world, all the suffering, and sometimes, I can’t even fathom how it’s 2008 and the world is still such a racially divided, unsafe place.

I really do want to change the world. But if that’s too idealistic – how about we just gather all the idiots like the one I met today and subject them to half a century of the same treatment that they’re okay with doling out to other racial groups?

I think that could be okay with me, too. Idiots.

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Published in: on May 14, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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