“I am 69 years old. I will never not be a racist.”: Reflections from a South African Expatriate

I am a racist.

I grew up white in apartheid South Africa. My neighborhood, buses, trains, movie theaters, restaurants, schools, beaches were all strictly segregated. Even park benches were marked “Whites Only.” People of color were known as “Non-Europeans.”

Non-Europeans built and cleaned and maintained my buses, trains, movie theaters, restaurants, schools, beaches, park benches. I was a clerk, or a secretary, or a typist—much higher-paying jobs reserved for whites.

“Apartheid is evil,” my father grumbled from his Marxist armchair. I believed him, and I thought that made me better and smarter and kinder than my classmates and teachers. I would never call a Black person a “kaffir” (the South African equivalent of “nigger”), or forget that my friends’ Black nannies only got to see their children once a year, over the four-day Easter weekend, when they could take the long train ride to the godforsaken chunk of eroded dirt designated as their tribal homeland. Their children weren’t allowed to live in the white city, and they couldn’t leave at Christmas—there was too much work to do, cooking and cleaning for all those white family reunions.

I knew all of this was wrong. When I grew up, I planned to fight apartheid with all my might. That meant I wasn’t a racist, right?

Wrong.

My proudly working-class Cockney father insisted that South Africa’s problems all came down to class. “It’s not about race, my girl,” he would mutter, over his British-style warm beer. Dad kept a thermometer by his beer mug, and wouldn’t drink it until it was at 52 degrees. He was always writing to the breweries to complain about their ads for “ice cold beer.” It’s as though he hadn’t noticed that we lived in a Mediterranean climate, not in the dank, gray, sodden chill of his idealized English homeland.

I thought my father’s insistence on a standard Marxist class analysis was equally misplaced. Not about race? In apartheid South Africa? I rolled my eyes and held my tongue.

Katie was our maid, and my nanny. Katie was Colored—a brown descendant of Malaysian slaves or Black/white liaisons. When she took me into town, she rode in a second-class train carriage. I rode in a first-class carriage. We met on the platform downtown, where she once again took my hand. Third class was for Blacks.

As a white, I was an upper-class South African citizen. But I was ashamed to bring my classmates home. Until I was three, my parents and I crowded into a small room in someone else’s apartment above a jumbled appliance repair store. Then we moved to a larger room in a boarding house, sharing a bathroom with three other families. I was in first grade before we had our own apartment. And still, those “Whites Only” signs meant I lived in brick and mortar instead of cardboard and corrugated iron. I had access to public bathrooms, unlike the old Black man I once saw hugging a tree on a busy downtown sidewalk, pretending that he wasn’t peeing. There was nowhere else for him to pee. My friends lived in palatial houses on the coast or mountainside, had bicycles, and opened their Monday lunchboxes to reveal leftover roast chicken. I took the bus and ate dry white-bread sandwiches. My friends went to university, while I got a job right out of high school as an insurance clerk.

What are my class origins? Beats me.

I got out of South Africa as soon as I could.

I hitchhiked across Europe.

At every youth hostel, young white American men demanded to know just exactly how I had the nerve to be a white South African.

Then they wanted to fuck me.

I started telling them I was from New Zealand.

It made the fucking feel less like rape.

At 22, I boarded my first London bus.

A Black man sat next to me.

Every cell in my body shrieked ALIEN! DIRTY! DANGEROUS!

Surprise! I’m a racist, after all.

Today, nearly 50 years later, I’m still blindsided by buried assumptions about the inferiority, lesser intelligence, and questionable hygiene of people of color.

I still shrink involuntarily from their perceived Otherness.

Apartheid ended in 1994. People danced in the streets. The Group Areas Act—the law forcing Black people in white areas to show passes confirming that they were employed there—was lifted with immediate effect. Desperate shack-dwellers from the townships surrounding the city poured into white neighborhoods and took everything they could lay their hands on.

I’d have done the same.

A newly liberated Black middle class clawed its way up the social ladder—immediately, with ferocious determination.

I’d have done the same.

Today, most South Africans still live in grinding poverty. Most members of the tiny Black elite now running the country don’t give a flying fuck about that. They’re too busy looting the national treasury and blaming apartheid and colonialism.

I have a friend who teaches in the African Studies Department at the University of Cape Town. Recently, in an undergraduate class, she mentioned Nelson Mandela. Young Black men spat on the floor. “He sold us out,” they told her.

Interactive art by Karma, based on a drawing by Jennifer Woodhull

Are these the same young Black men who routinely rape and murder lesbians in the townships? We’ll never know, because the rapists and murderers somehow never get caught. It’s called “corrective rape,” as though being a lesbian were a distortion of some kind, like myopia, that needs only a different lens in the form of violent sexual abuse to set things—literally—straight. I guess the murder must seem necessary because the perpetrators have so little faith in their corrective strategy.

Not long ago, a college student was stabbed to death in Maryland—apparently, just for the crime of being Black. That death is not my fault—and I bear responsibility for it. According to the FBI, nearly 60 percent of hate crimes are currently motivated by race, ethnicity, or ancestry. That’s not my fault. And I bear responsibility for it. Nearly one in five hate crimes is about sexual orientation. I’m a lesbian. I get it. And that doesn’t let me off the hook for my racism, any more than a man’s Blackness lets him off the hook for “corrective rape.” We’re all in this together, dawg.

These days, Cape Town has only two kinds of train carriages: first and third class. You travel in the one you can afford—or the safer one, the solidly populated third class. Whatever your race or class, don’t ever enter a nearly empty first-class carriage. Just saying.

Where did the second-class carriages go? The Colored people I know wax nostalgic about the good old days of apartheid. Back then, they weren’t white enough; now they’re not Black enough—plus, they’re hated for their previous second-class privilege.

In apartheid South Africa, sure, class was racialized. But my father was right. It really was about class, all along.

Here in Colorado, I live on stolen land.

The spoils of slavery support my white privilege.

I am 69 years old. I will never not be a racist.

Wherever I go, however often I move, racism lives right next door, grinning grotesquely over the fence and extending a steaming plate of shit pie.

Remember that old Safeway advertising slogan? “Since we’re neighbors, let’s be friends”?

Making friends with my racism doesn’t mean condoning it.

It doesn’t mean supporting

or justifying

or minimizing

or deconstructing it.

Making friends with my racism means

training to meet it on the ground of sanity.

It means not grasping at some idea or belief or resolution or assurance or affirmation or strategy to make its stickiness and stench and shamefulness go away.

It doesn’t mean hating or judging or rejecting or disapproving of it.

It doesn’t mean denying or ignoring or forgetting or pretending it’s something less ugly than it is.

Racism is violent, and I perpetrate racist violence every day of my life.

And. Making friends with my racism doesn’t mean choking down the shit pie.

“Suppression is unkind. Accept.” Tsoknyi Rinpoche said that.

In other words, beating myself up about my racism is a self-defeating act of senseless cruelty.

“You will find your wisdom in the heart of your neurosis and nowhere else.” Pema Chödrön said that.

In other words, to turn away from my racism is to turn away from its antidote.

“I am basically good.” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said that.

In other words, I’m a self-correcting mechanism. Awareness is all that’s required.

So here is how I make a relationship with the racist violence in me:

by paying attention.

That’s it.

Paying attention.

Paying attention.

That’s it.

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