Is it because I’m black?

Johannesburg–where things are a bit less black and white…

A black guy and his friend walk into a coffee bar in Cape Town and look around for a table. The bar host comes up to them and asks, “are you here for the barrista training?” Before they can answer, he tells them, “it’s out back”. A little taken aback, confused and (as the penny fully drops once they have exhausted all other possibilities in their minds) admittedly rather annoyed, the one answers, “no, actually, we’re looking for a table at which to hold our meeting”. These guys are wealthy but neither of them flashy. They can’t help but think, “is it because we’re black?”

A few months ago, I was at an Apple store after my laptop had crashed. I hadn’t backed up in 16 days. After a few hours with the technicians at the Fundi Bar (the Genuis Bar in the US), I was standing behind the desk, in the midst of gratefully transferring documents from my hard drive to a memory stick via firewire, when a white lady and her partner came up to the desk. They waited about 10 minutes seeing the coloured Fundi Bar technician moving between a couple of other people with their Macbook Pros (two middle aged white men, to be precise). She then asked me, “how long is the wait going to be?” She added, “I’m just wondering if we should rather come back later.”

I was unsure of the basis of her question so I asked, “are you asking me as someone who works here or are you asking for my opinion?” I did not mean it offensively. Rather, I wanted not to mislead her into thinking that whatever I said was spoken authoritatively, as a technician. Given that the actual technician (and the rest of the people who worked in the store who all happened to be people of colour) wore a t-shirt with the Apple logo on it that read “Fundi Bar”, I was a little unclear on why she would make that error. But I wanted to clarify whether she had indeed mistaken me for someone who worked there. My question was enough to cause her to ask, “oh, do you not work here?” And I quickly explained that I was here for the same reason that she was.

On reflection, the only people I had seen come in to make purchases or request assistance with their Macs, iPhones and iPads in the couple of hours that I had been there had all been white. So, it would have been an honest enough mistake, had she also been standing there as long as I had. But she had not; and that seemed to point in the direction that her question to me was asked to me because I’m black.

After their experience, one of the guys in the coffee bar remarked to his friend that this was much less likely to happen to them if they were in Johannesburg. Why? Because there are lots more people like them in Jo’burg and so white people don’t assume as often that they must either be lost or looking for employment when they walk into a public establishment. “In Cape Town, you’re made to feel black wherever you go.” Here, black people are overwhelmingly confined to “the Flats”. That is the flat, sand-swept part of the city, to which black and coloured people were relegated by the apartheid government when it enforced spacial segregation and preserved the prime property by the beautiful mountain and ocean for its own kind. A visit to Camps Bay – at all times except during Christmas week when thinly veiled warnings are issued by some local property managers to their residents that the influx of township people will be coming and so they must be extra vigilant – is a sobering reminder of just how few of us there are around who have access to such hallowed ground as this beach strip and its restaurants, and who dare enter them. While I love Cape Town with all my heart, the regularity with which I find myself the only black person in a restaurant (18 years into democracy and 12 years after I first moved here) remains alarming to me.

I recently was in a popular local restaurant for the first time, with Dan, and while we waited in the bar area for our table to be prepared, Dan went to the bar to get us a drink. Feeling a growing uneasiness after catching a few people’s awkward glances at me sitting alone, I pulled out my iPhone. I hate to admit it but I felt the need to show that, while I may be “out of place” as the only black person there who wasn’t service staff, I was not economically out of place. (In my case, this is not self-evident: I am rarely made up and seldom dress fancy.) Checking my email also allowed me to divert my gaze.

Dan has heard me say, if there’s one thing I often miss about not having married a black guy, it is that, at least, if I had, there would always be two of us in such a place. Dan is incredibly gracious in commiserating whether – in the words of Kenya, in the movie, “Something New” – “I need to [moan] about the white [stuff] that drives me mad or the black [stuff] that drives me mad”. And I am grateful for that. But we both know he can’t ever fully understand. In this regard, I appreciate the nuanced discussion of white privilege (sent to us by a friend)written by two people who, in their own words, “aren’t white just because [their] ancestors were mostly European [but] are white because [they] regularly experience being identified as such by individuals and institutions that systematically favor those who appear white over those who don’t.”

I have sometimes heard white people suggest that it is irrational or hypersensitive for black people to think that, when they are given slower service (often enough by black service staff), it is because of their skin colour, on the basis of which they are perceived not to belong and/or not to be as important and hence deserving of good service as fairer-skinned folk. I don’t want to be too quick to refute this claim. Truth is that it is often not easy to judge whether one is getting treated a certain way simply because the other person has negative associations with one’s skin colour. But, then again, unconscious bias is real. (If you haven’t already, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.) As black people, we find ourselves in a society and economic context that reinforces the idea that people of a different race than our own are the ones who can be educated enough and of sufficient means to attain to certain socio-economic positions. In such surroundings, and since it happens to us often enough that we are treated just that little bit differently and not always equally, I would hope that it is at least understandable that it is very difficult not to at least ask the question whether it is because of our race. Also, when you have worked really hard to get to your level of education and means (and a lot of people have fought very hard for you to have equal social opportunities to the dominant race) and yet the lady at the grocery store checkout looks at the platinum visa card with “Dr Sindiso M Weeks” embossed that you have just handed her then skeptically asks, “is this your card?” – ought that not to at least make you wonder?

Indeed, it is not always “because I’m black”, but often enough it probably is – at least in part.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Claudia says:

    Fantastic piece–thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences in dealing with the subtleties of racism and the not so subtle aspects of racism….

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