Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Shopping while black

A few days ago  I was shopping with my friend at Woolworth Palmyra Junction , when a black guy in business attire appears out of nowhere just as I am opening the fridge door to get to the pesto, and asks me:
"Are you two together?" pointing at my friend who is standing a little away from our trolley, rocking her baby.
"Yes." I say, and : "Why do you ask."
"Oh, ok." He smiles and makes to turn away.
"No, really," I stop him: "Why do you ask?".
He  seems embarrassed, mumbles something like "no reason" and hurries off. My friend and I  look question marks at each other and make our way to the till speculating that maybe he did a survey on race relations (hahaha) or was romantically interested in my friend ( but why approach me and not her) or maybe he was  just plain weird....

As we get to the till, it suddenly hits me: he must be working for the store  and has probably seen  us on camera, assuming that the black woman with her baby following me around, was bothering me by begging or even trying to steal from me. As I say these things, my friend looks at me, speechless.
"Do you have a store detective?" I ask the woman at the till.
She says something to the effect that yes, there is a guy, but he is not in yet. My friend is getting visibly upset.
 I ask her :" What do you want to do?"
She says, "lets call the manager".
The manager comes over, listens to our story with many "oh no's" and "so sorries", but, she says, if we can't show her the guy, she can't help us. Yes, they have security working around the shop, but the guy we are describing  is no one she recognizes.

My friend storms off and speaks to the ladies behind the Delhi Counter, who point her to a staff door, the only place somebody could  disappear, without going passed the tills. My friend takes up position in front of that door and says, she is not going anywhere until she has spoken to him. People are gathering, talking and speculating. Somebody eventually gets him out from behind the door.

A rapid exchange in IsiXhosa ensues between my friend and the  "detective".  She does most of the talking, he seems defensive and embarrassed. At some point the conversation switches to English and he starts apologizing profusely to me.

"Don't apologize to her," my friend says, "I am the one who is offended."
So he apologizes to her. The store manager apologizes to both of us. The on-looking staff call out to my friend that she should not let this spoil her day. People shake heads. Everybody is sympathetic. The manager apologizes some more. Eventually we leave.

Back in the car we are both grappling with our own thoughts and feelings. My friend has gone quiet. She looks out the window. I can not even imagine the things that go through her head. I feel inadequate and helpless. I am lost for words, scared to say the wrong things and scared not to say anything; because I can not even begin to relate to an experience where  my mere appearance would give people reason to  humiliate and criminalize me as a matter of routine. I am also scared not for the first time for our friendship in this world, where her predominant experience with the whiteness I represent remains abusive, shaped by labels and assumptions that automatically make her less than me.

There is also my seemingly pointless anger, directed at no one in particular, like hitting my head against a rubber wall. My first reactionary anger at the "store detective" now fills me with shame more than righteousness, as I recall the look he gave me, eyes wide with embarrassment and fear. The look that made me feel extra white and extra powerful, a power that I don't want and that  nobody deserves. With his eyes he says to me, whatever you accuse me of, I apologize for, even though I might not understand what my transgression is, I apologize unreservedly , because your anger might cost me my job and ultimately my life.

As we are driving towards town, my friend gets on her phone.

The moment her status hits Facebook, people respond with outrage and sympathy. "What is it with you two?", somebody jokingly asks. A journalist from the Cape Times wants to talk, a woman from Woolworth head-office offers apologies and promises another phone call from somebody even higher up.

None of this makes either one of us feel any better. Yet another social media hype about one more incident of Cape Town's racism, that will not change anything. Ever since the 12-Apostle storm in our social media tea cup, people home in quick and effect-less on further evidence of racist residue in our Mother City. Politicians react with swift, inconsequential statements and empty promises to "pursue the perpetrators", not unlike chasing their own shadows. And the people who own the offending businesses know better than to deny or ask for proof,  and simply do the next best thing: ignore and keep shtumm until it all goes away or apologize and apologize again.

Without ever acknowledging anything. So far there has been no talk of "misunderstanding" or "unfortunate set of circumstances" as was the stance the 12 Apostles management took, now we are apparently in the era of the "unreserved apology". But to what end?

The surface will be smoothed, the right statements released to the press or on Twitter or whatever platform shows an interest and we will all move on in our separateness as we have done ever since the TRC prescribed forgiveness to black people as the remedy to the sickness that was Apartheid.

So how, in all this movement forward to a more diverse society, can two people such as my friend and I be the focus of so much judgement, wrong assumptions and bafflement?

 Where people slowly got used to the interracial couple, usually recognizable by their  uniform middle class appearance and physical closeness in public spaces, or interracial families, easily identifiable by at least one white adult in the company of black or brown charges, my friend and I are not ticking any of the boxes: a white middle aged woman in the company of a black woman in her twenties can only makes sense in a relationship of servitude or charity or crime. Wherever we show up together, we are the cause of immediate confusion or discomfort, brains overheat and eventually crash in the futile attempt to re-frame the picture we are presenting  according to the good old world order, where white sticks to superior white and black remains in eternal servitude.

White people have learned to hide their bias and judgements behind politically correct  masks. The system of white privilege has taken precautions and  cushioned itself against possible attacks by installing a fall-guy, in this case the black store detective or  manager. The direct or indirect orders from within the system to persecute black people and protect the white clientele will never ever be openly acknowledged. The detective will have "misunderstood" an order or "acted unprofessionally" and "the matter will be dealt with". Another store detective - or hopefully the same one - will resume his job and nothing will change. Maybe a picture of  my friend and I will be put up in backrooms and staff quarters with big red letters reading:  Do. Not. Approach.

Even if today's  businesses strategically put black faces on their front lines, white supremacy still rules in the background, only now it suddenly seems untouchable, because the people visibly protecting and perpetuating the system are not even white anymore. And this is the real mind-twister: I can't possibly accuse the black manager or security guard of racism, so I might as well zip it and get on with moving forward. (And for the sake of clarity: the definition of racism that I adhere to, is the one that directly links racism to power, in other words, only people belonging to a historically dominant group can be racist towards the historically oppressed).

So far so sad.

What follows is the other incident I was referring to. This is what happened, when I accompanied my friend to the Community Health Centre to have her baby vaccinated:

While she signs in, I take the baby and sit down in the anteroom to the waiting corridor to the five or six consulting rooms, of which, incidentally only one seems in use. As I sit down, I get the stare from everybody, security guards, cleaners, and the two women, who are sitting opposite me, rocking their babies and trying to make sense of this apparition in their midst:  a white woman with an un-identifiable baby hidden in blue wrappings. I greet, hello, how are you. Heads nod in slow motion and eyes soon get diverted. Then my friend appears. As she sits down next to me, casually checking on the baby in my arms, heads whip around and eyes flick back and forth between her black braids, my short yellow crop and the blue bundle between us. The moment draws out until eventually the discomfort peaks and a decision has to be made: Either stop the staring or start a conversation.
"Nice hair." one of the woman opposite us eventually breathes out.
"Thank you " my friend says.
"Who did it?" she labours on.
"I had it done in a salon."
"Hmm." another slow nod.
"But sometimes she does it." my friends points a thumb at me, that would grin if it could. I smile and nod and rock the baby.
The woman looks at me,  smiling nervously, not sure if this is a joke.
We don't help her out.

The awkwardness gets interrupted by a bark from across the reception area. I am not even equating this noise to our presence, but my friend gets up and says: " I think that's us."
She goes to talk to the matron through the speaking holes in a glass window that separates those in power from the gathered clientele, patiently waiting for the next bark to promote them from anteroom to drafty corridor. As she crosses back to our waiting space, a shout from the other end of the hall intercepts my friend. She stops and replies something equally shouty, after which a short and noisy conversation ensues across a distance of about 15 meters, witnessed by the entire gathering of nurses, mothers, babies, security guards, cleaners and passer-byers. I look on, question marks on my forehead, obvious in my ignorance of the local lingo. Eventually my friend shakes her head, and with a humorless laugh resumes her seat next to me.

"What was this all about." I want to know.
"People." she sighs.
Then she relates the conversation to me as follows, starting with the shout from across the hall:

"Whose baby is that?" 
"It's hers."
"Don't lie to me."
"Ok it's mine, if you need to know."
"Why is she holding the baby?"
"Why not?"
"Are you working for her?"
"No, she's my friend."
"How can that be? - These people don't like to hold our babies!"

End of conversation.

Or is it?

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