On a walk through the woods outside Cape Town the other day, Sindiso and the kids and I happened upon a middle-aged Xhosa woman sitting outside a shed, presumably waiting to start work.
I say ‘presumably’ because although I have no idea why she was in that spot at that time, I have learned from experience that outdoor recreation is something of a “white luxury” in these parts. If you’re African and you’re in a nature reserve, chances are you’re there because you have to be, for work. As Sindiso once observed on this blog, quoting our beloved South African comedian Trevor Noah, “for black people, apartheid was our extreme sport.” No need for scaling cliffs or hurtling down mountain paths on two wheels in the woods.
Anyway, the bemused-if-bewildered lady wasted no time in calling out to Sindiso in isiXhosa something along the lines of “Is that your husband?” followed by “Are those your kids?”
With a good-natured laugh, Sindiso answered both questions in the affirmative in her home language of isiZulu, which the woman had little difficulty in understanding (isiXhosa and isiZulu are two of the most-widely spoken of South Africa’s nine official African languages – plus English and Afrikaans – and they’re considered mutually-intelligible as members of the common Nguni language group).
I could only pick up bits and pieces of the conversation that followed as the still-bewildered lady peppered Sindiso with questions about the peculiar mixed-race family standing before her, the likes of which she had never seen before. When we bid farewell and continued on our way (the kids mercifully unperturbed on our backs), Sindiso gave me the play-by-play translation.
We had a good laugh over one of the lady’s questions, “Does he treat you right?” While I’m glad to report Sindiso answered that one in the affirmative as well, it was a sobering reminder of just how inequitable relations between the races are in South Africa today. Indeed, I have found that white folks (men especially) are often deemed “boss” by the African majority, endowed with the (perceived) power to abuse and exploit that title implies.
I mention this little encounter because it illustrates a key distinction Sindiso and I have observed time and again between African and European-descended people in South Africa, and between South Africans and Americans more broadly: the readiness of different kinds of people to ask the question burning in their minds when encountering something new, and the opportunity they accept or deny thereby to work through that potentially-unsettling question and arrive at a more enlightened place.
More important for us than the particular questions the kindly Xhosa lady asked was the fact that she was willing to ask her questions at all. Allow me to explain.
It goes without saying that everyone makes snap judgments about everyone they meet pretty much all of the time. That’s just how our brain, with its ever-churning subconscious, works. No big deal.
But if you’ll allow us to plead “special,” Sindiso and I have observed that when we are together as a family (and previously just as a couple holding hands), there seems to be a particular amount of churning going on in the minds of folks around us. The lingering stares, the pointing and whispering to a companion, the smiles and occasional frowns… all give us the distinct impression that people are really taking notice. Positive or negative, inquisitive or allergic, they’re having a reaction to us.
That strangers on the street are reacting doesn’t bother us. Although we didn’t plan to fall in love with each other and settle down before we, well, fell in love and settled down, we have long since come to peace with the “price” we pay as an uncommon couple in the form of being noticed. After all, in spite of some unmistakable progress in race relations in both our countries, the fact remains that fifty years after the Loving Supreme Court decision that legalized inter-racial unions in the United States and some thirty years after the same occurred in South Africa, black-white couples with children represent one percent or less of all families. Unless you’re living in Brooklyn or the like, you just don’t see us around much in daily life.
What bothers us, instead, is when people simply point and stare. It’s those times (and they come ’round often enough) when we know beyond a doubt that the people behind us in line or at the table across the way are just boiling over with questions or opinions about the thing that is our family, but they can’t bring themselves to ask. Whether it’s a desire to respect our privacy, or embarrassment that they’re wondering about us at all, or the belief that they’ve got us figured out already, or some other blend of social inhibitions, the unintended result is we feel kind of like a pack of monkeys at the zoo.
More important than our own self-consciousness or discomfort is the sense of loss. Aware as we have become, through ample study and experience, of the persistence of implicit bias and systemic racism, those moments when (white) folk on either side of the Pond stare but do not speak their mind feel to us like a missed opportunity – a chance to help explain what “race” is all about, what it means to be a mixed-race family in these ever-changing times, how Sindiso is not in fact the nanny to her kids…
You get my drift.
Okay, let’s say you did decide to stop and ask the questions, should they arise on our encounter, but you’re not sure how to ask? Well politeness never hurts so instead of just blurting out “Are those your kids??” like the Xhosa woman did, perhaps you might begin with, “Is it okay if I ask you a personal question?” or “I’m kind of ignorant about race and would appreciate you helping me figure something out…” Unless the kids just had a diaper explosion or we’re running extra late, we’ll be happy to chat.
So next time you see us on the street (we won’t speak for other inter-racial couples, although we encourage you to post in the comments for yourself!) and you just can’t help wondering how our mixed-race twins could inherit this trait or that from so phenotypically-divergent parents, or how it came about that a Zulu-speaking Swati lady from Soweto could find herself hitched to Mr. WASP himself from New Hampshire, do like the Xhosa lady and just ask! We’ll be more than happy to put your questions to rest.
It’s our life, after all. We’re going to notice when you notice us, and chances are we’ll talk about you anyway the moment we get home just like you might find yourself talking about us. So why don’t we just get acquainted in the first place?!