That Racial Incident Was My “Aha” Moment…


I am tired of listening to stories of how South Africa has gone down the drain because of Zuma, Malema, the ANC, and the EFF while suffocating from the white gaze and the belittling of my race and gender. Worse still is, I am tired of cringing at subtle suggestions that the majority of the people in the country are suffocating because they keep voting for the ANC and structural racism is a ghost, writes BUHLEM

For as long as I can remember I have always been fascinated with the minds of racists, sexists, homophobes etc. It has always intrigued me how one can be so assured and comfortable in their ignorance and whopped sense of reality.

If I had as much energy and dedication as racists I probably would have written and published five bestselling books. If I listened to the musings in my head like racists do, I would be writing this from my mansion with minions, pink rabbits, rainbows and unicorns everywhere. Because racism in its nature is rooted in farfetched ideologies.

But as life would have it, I am musing about racists from my suburbia apartment in Cape Town. Having just come back from a chamomile tea and angel cake date with Tannie Almeria the next door neighbor who takes her cat on walks with a leash.

I like many of my generation have found ourselves navigating a world our parents didn’t prepare us for. We are products of two worlds that collided and in the aftermath, they just told us to live with no “how to” manual (in the elder’s defense they too had no idea what the future would bring, they didn’t even know if they would live to see us into our 30s).  We walk around carrying memories of a past, a past where our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters fought and died for the recognition of our humanity. In the same breath, we live in a time where we have freedom and the right to self-determination, yet we are constantly being asked or rather forced to prove our worth as humans.

Born in a politically heightened period in our history a short period of our lives is plagued with memories of the apartheid era. But before we could fully figure out things we transitioned into a state where unlike our parents and siblings we could go anywhere, attend white institutions, and study music, dance, the arts and travel. We are the ones who embody the freedom many died fighting for. We were also tasked with being the first ones to navigate the rainbow nation in close proximity and make sense of it.

A task that is daunting lately. So much is happening, all at the same time and no one seems to have an idea what to do except the racists.

These guys are in – formation ready to pounce at any moment. Tiki lights are organized in a flash. Paint is readily available to write hateful messages, they always know which vile words to use to hit the nerve and even pigs blood and coffins are made easily available to get messages across to blacks. On a side note, where and how do people even know where to find pigs’ blood?

These guys are on point and ready to remind you that regardless of who you think you are, where you are, remnants of our rich past will catch up you. Whether it be in the streets, the workplace, the library, the restaurants or malls these guys don’t slip up. If like me you like traumatizing yourself you switch on the news or scroll through your social media feed and are confronted with the gusto and dedication these guys have.

Recently I had a racial incident that turned into an “aha” moment.

The other Sunday I went to lunch with a friend and his parents. I just moved to Cape Town and it was decided that I deserved a treat in one of the fancy eateries after the stresses of moving house.

As a foodie one of my principles is to never say no to free food and as such, I have found myself in interesting situations. On many excursions, I am often the only black in the table, the restaurant, or house and in some cases, I am the only black in Town. Yep, you read that right. One December I visited friends in the Garden Route and I was the only black person in Natures Valley. And there was that time when myself and Debbie were the only black people camping in Wilderness (A story for another day). That coupled with dating a white man I am no stranger to race relations in this country and the world.

Anyway back to lunch, while Jacques parents went inside to get a table, we remained outside to share a smoke. When we entered the establishment the ever-present “white gaze” fell on us. This time around people actually shifted and mumbled while giving us the death stare. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa I am accustomed to the “white gaze” and have reached a point where it simply doesn’t bother me.

Somewhere during lunch and drinks, we went outside for another smoke, when we came back we saw a lady standing by our table. Getting closer to the table we caught the last part of her speech before she hurried off. Before leaving the woman was brazen enough to forcefully state that she is sorry that they were not going to get “normal grandchildren” while looking in my direction. In hindsight, I probably would have been offended if Jacques wasn’t identifying as a gay man.

The conversation got my whole lunch party in a frenzy. Faces turned red and anger was expressed in hushed tones around the table but no one actually addressed the lady directly.

Fast forward to the next spot we hit for drinks, Jacque unpacked the events of the day to his boyfriend Chris. Knowing the firebrand I am, Chris asked why I didn’t give the woman a piece of mind.

Good question I asked myself, why I didn’t say something. Why didn’t I school that lady? Why didn’t I assume my role as a black woman? Why didn’t I get in – formation like the racists? Why wasn’t I on point like my adversaries?

Then it struck me, like an epiphany my “aha” moment came.

I simply didn’t want to.

I might not have the command to change how the world is set up for those who look like me. Nor, do I have the power to change people’s mindset or even open them up to realities outside their everyday experiences. I do however have the power to halt distractions and as such I will extract myself from race conversations and confrontations.  Simply put, I am no longer having race conversations with white people!

To be clear, I don’t mean all white people, just the majority of South African whites who are oblivious to the everyday realities of the majority of the country.

Our encounter with that lady made me realize that I don’t want to have conversations with white people about race, structural racism and the legacies of apartheid.  I will no longer be distracted and drawn into dialogues that leave me frazzled while they leave the conversation in peace and still coddling their oblivion.

Before I am character assassinated and called all types of names let me break it down to you as I did to my friends. 

I am no longer having this conversation because we’re often coming at it from completely different places. I cannot have a conversation and confrontations with people about the facts of a problem if they don’t even recognize or acknowledge that a problem exists. Most importantly, I no longer want to carry the “enlightenment button”. As a person of color, it is not my responsibility to call out racism in a space filled with “Liberals”.

I am no longer explaining why I say places, behaviors or people are racist. I no longer have it in me to listen to excuses about how the places are not racist, excuses about how it’s not all of us. (Well what are you doing to school the “others” who are your brother, sisters, uncles, and grandmothers? I would like to think racists and their ideologies are not manufactured in a factory in Orania, they are part of families.) 

I will no longer be having these conversations as I no longer want to explain why it is problematic for them to express their rage to me and not confront the racists. Or why it is important for them to be consistent in being outraged; to stand up against racism and say we’re not going back there.

I no longer want to explain why it’s problematic for them to only take up causes they identify with while blatantly ignoring the plight and cries of the majority of the country.

For years I’ve written and spoken about white denialism, pacifying liberals and their oblivion being the omnipresent albatross around the neck. So I can’t talk or confront white people about it anymore.

I am tired of being gently pacified with sweeping statements about not all of us. I am no longer explaining why it is problematic to call yourself South African and to turn around and denounce Zuma as your president. Whose president is he? What are the implications of these statements? I am tired of listening to stories of how South Africa has gone down the drain because of Zuma, Malema, the ANC, and the EFF while suffocating from the white gaze and the belittling of my race and gender. Worse still is, I am tired of cringing at subtle suggestions that the majority of the people in the country are suffocating because they keep voting for the ANC and structural racism is a ghost.

I will no longer be talking to white people about race because I have been blessed twice over with blackness and womanhood. I go through the world differently compared to my closest friends and as such we simply do come to these conversations and confrontations with the same amount of power.  A point so many “good people” miss. 

Most importantly I am no longer explaining why the ANC and Zuma are only part of the problem for black South Africans. I can no longer deal with the perplexity and the defensiveness as people grapple the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way they do. The dis-connect is a result of living a life unmindful of the injustice and suffering of generations of people who don’t look like you.

A close friend, researcher, and activist, Mawethu Nkosana Nkolomba recently wrote an article in there he says that “navigating a world that is very much still white – as a black person – takes its toll on black people. Navigating between black and white spaces in a country that is still racialized is jarring. There is a disjuncture between the ways you are treated, the way you are seen in the two spaces.” 

And as such, I cannot continue to emotionally deplete myself trying to get messages across, while also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism, lest I get called an angry black woman.

It was Toni Morrison who said “The function, the very serious function of racism is the distraction. It keeps you from living your life. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

BuhleM is a Pan Africanist, Human Rights Activist, Social Advocate, Public Policy Scholar and Thinker. As an advocate she has worked for organisations like the Foundation for Human Rights, SAfAIDS, the African Alliance and consults for various state departments.