About race in South Africa … or day 1 of our trip.

I steer clear of writing on race issues in general, all the more so in South Africa – because I in general feel there are people much more qualified to comment on what is a very fiercely argued – and experienced – topic; and to be honest, I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts on what is such a complex subject.

The prelude to this post, is that the day before we left South Africa on our one month camping tour of Namibia and Botswana – which I promise my coming blog posts will largely focus on – I read this incredibly thought-provoking personal account of what the writer refers to as “casual racism”. It really got me thinking.

For anyone that doesn’t know me, I’ll add in here: I’m a fully white European. But I have an uncanny talent for tanning very well, very quick.

So far in my life, I’ve enjoyed my tanning for just that – the sun comes out, I get a smashing tan which my [white] girlfriends – and boyfriends – are generally jealous of.

It wasn’t before I first arrived in South Africa that I found out that what I thought was an awesome tan, is a “skin tone”, which often, makes me “coloured”. This is information that South Africans – white, black, coloured, strangers and friends, and everyone in between – feel compelled to tell me regularly.

My boyfriend, a blonde, blue-eyed white man, gets high-fived [by other white men] for “getting the coloured girl”. Friends often comment on my “skin tone”; strangers feel the need to [ask] tell me within the first 30 minutes of getting acquainted “So, you’re coloured…?”; and coloured people, well, they assume I’m one of them.

It’s odd. And it has also never bothered me personally, what difference does it make to me if people want to make a tan into something it’s not? I’ve experienced it more as a quirk of a heavily historically loaded culture.

Until day one of our trip. When for the first time ever, my “skin tone” put me in the most horrible situation I’ve ever been in.

We arrived in Hondeklip Bay – a fishing village in the Northern Cape of South Africa – just before sunset. We were welcomed at the camp we were staying at by a very friendly white lady, and her slightly less friendly white husband.

In English she asked us to wait, while she finished serving some other customers – all white people, staring unabashedly at the newbies.

Tom went out to smoke, and immediately the room started speaking to me in Afrikaans. (This happens often). I sometimes understand a few words, enough to nod, or smile in response. Tom came back, the room switches to English.

The evening passed in much the same vein. Our hosts cooked us up a lovely dinner, putting plates and drinks before Tom in English, then turning to me in an overly kind fashion and speaking Afrikaans. Much to our amusement, as I don’t actually speak the language, and even my constant responding in English didn’t seem to alert our hosts to the fact I had no idea what they’re saying.

At one point, we asked what the population of the village was. 52 whites, the lady told Tom, then turning to me, “and approximately 300 coloureds”, she said, smiling way too broadly. [Oh for goodness’ sake, woman.]

Next morning, we decided on a walk to the beach. Our hosts’ two very big dogs followed us out, and decided to accompany us on our stroll. We weren’t happy, but there was no getting them to go back.

Having turned a corner, we came face to face with a black man strolling down the road. Without any provocation, the dogs attacked. He was not scared of dogs and managed to put them in their place. I was terrified for him.

We carried on walking.

All of a sudden, two coloured ladies were walking towards us, one carrying a baby – 2, 3 years old?

One of the dogs sprinted towards them, and in a split second had bitten the baby in her mother’s arms.

We stood completely helpless in disbelief. Not even knowing the dogs’ names, completely unable to control them.

The two ladies turned to me in equal disbelief, what had I let my dogs do? At this point, Tom wasn’t even there to them, they wanted an explanation from me, they were talking to me in Afrikaans.

All I could manage was to desperately ask whether the baby was OK (the dog hadn’t drawn blood), and to wildly apologise that the dogs weren’t mine. They thought about it a while, and I could only restate over and over – the dogs are “wild”, they’re not mine, I’m so sorry. They let it go, with an “OK sissy, it’s OK”, and walked off.

Fuelled with rage, we stomped back towards the camp, swearing down that we would immediately demand an explanation and action from the hosts on their dog which attacks based on “skin tone”,  and attacks babies, at that.

I had never, ever felt so accused as by those women. My blood boiled at having been put in that position.

But as we got back to the camp, out ran our host lady, all in a bustle over us almost missing her special breakfast. Happily and house-proudly wittering on, trying to make us so comfortable (still making extra effort to speak to me only in Afrikaans). My anger dissipated. I was not going to say anything to this woman about her dogs, I was not going to make her feel awful. Which she genuinely would.

Because as much as her preconceptions are completely ingrained in her and her behaviour, I don’t believe this woman’s “casual racism” towards someone with a tan was malicious.  She opened her home so completely to me, and desperately wanted me to feel at home. Despite my awkward “skin tone”.

Which is why I never did make a point of saying “Oh for heavens sake woman, I’m as white as you are. Stop being so nice to the coloured person [black sheep] in the room”. It’s why I didn’t say “Your dogs [maybe you too?] are fucking racist”.

It made me think back to the article I read the day before, and made me realise that how victims of casual racism experience it, is so very much more complex than anything I’ve really thought about before. That it carries with it such a burden of decisions, and is a constant balancing act of emotions.

That’s just from a white person that occasionally gets mistaken. I’ll never understand the real depths. Which is also why this will probably be my only ever writing on race.


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