As a teenager, I was naive enough to think that if I ignored racism, it would just go away. That if I refused to talk about it, if I refused to give any sort of weight to it, it would wither and die back and the world would eventually become a better place. I am an adult now (at least, that is what my official papers say) and as for the world becoming a better place, all I can say is that when I want one thousand and one miracles, I’ll just go right ahead and ask for them. About racism, well…it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry.
When it happens in a tube somewhere in Eastern Europe, you take it in your stride. When a middle-aged white dude stands up and relocates to the aisle as soon as you sit down next to him, you say to yourself, ‘It doesn’t matter…I’m on his turf…and he probably thinks I’m sponging on his tax money’. You are not justifying. You are not rationalising. You are just dealing with. When a bunch of KKK devotees roughs your roommate up, he says to you, ‘Hey, man, it could have been worse. At least I’m still alive, right?’ He, too, is just dealing with. You both acknowledge that you don’t have the home ground advantage. It’s an away match. If stuff like that had happened back home, you console each other, things would have ended quite differently. How differently, you can’t tell. You just know it would all end differently. Except it doesn’t. Even at home, especially at home, we take it lying down. Sometimes, we gloss over it—pencil it in as a misdemeanour.
A white woman wrote in to one of the papers about an ‘experiment’ she had recently conducted. She paid a brief and investigatory visit to a club she had been hearing rumours about. Persistent word of mouth claimed the management was racist. If it wasn’t the extravagant entrance fees blacks had to pay, it was the maze of complex and high-ceilinged standards to which they had to rise. No ‘BLACKS ARE NOT ALLOWED’ sign was up, but then again, it wasn’t like you could just get in. Long story short, the woman trucked in while her black friend (who showed up at the entrance a few seconds after she had entered, as planned) could not, for the life of him, get past the black bouncers. At first, it was that he was ‘very argumentative’. Then, it was that he had come late, JUST when they were about to call it a night (tsk tsk, such bad timing). Yet the dude was not having any of it. In the end, the bouncers decided to go with the tried, tested and true ‘MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT TO ENTRY’ routine (because it always works; because, apparently, words like ‘management’ have magical powers). She left soon afterwards, absolutely hopping mad, and will not ever be going back (or recommending the joint to any of her white friends, for that matter).
By the time I read that article, I had heard a few rumours myself, even though there are a handful of people that swear they aren’t treated ‘that much differently’ when they show up at the entrance. As for the entrance fee, they insist that it is simply a matter of paying it. So what if white people don’t have to pay to get in? There are ‘small injustices’ of that sort littered all over the place—are they now going to start losing sleep over every single one of them? Certainly not. ‘Think of it as a bribe,’ they like to say. ‘We pay bribes all the time, don’t we?’ Cos we do. It is, perhaps, this pervasive air of nonchalance the author couldn’t get over. How was it possible that we were just lolling around and letting stuff like that happen?—in our country?—on our turf? ‘For us we are used,’ was probably the answer she got. Because the worst bit about being an adult is getting used to stuff you had no business getting used to in the first place.
Never having been to the club myself, I needed some sort of confirmation. I turned to a rugger I know for about one quarter of each year (for some reason, neither of us can be bothered to keep in touch after April 1). The unspoken consensus holds that ‘joint-savvy’ is part of the contemporary rugger’s job description. Surely, he had been there. Surely, he would know what’s what. Turns out him and his posse of high-protein dieting teammates are regular-ish patrons—such regular-ish patrons, in fact, that they had just been to the said club over the weekend, fêting, after a hard-earned victory. I wanted to know what the deal was. He didn’t think there was much of a deal—his team sometimes liked to hang there, and he could not recall a single incident when management had reserved the right to let them in.
‘C’mon,’ said I. ‘Even a white chick thought something was amiss. That, right there, is admissible evidence.’
He was mostly non-committal. While he later acknowledged that there have been a few ‘smoky incidents’, even going as far as admitting that he, from time to time, gets the vibe that something is ‘off’, he insisted that he’d never seen any actual fire. I assured him he was never going to see any, and for good reason.
‘Hell, anyone who says no to a bunch of ruggers is just asking for it. They would let you into any club on the planet, no questions asked. Either that, or you’d thoroughly own them.’
‘Just so you know, ruggers are kind and sensitive souls.’
‘Waaah,’ said I.
‘I’m being serious.’
‘If you say so.’
Then he joked about having shares in the club before going on to say something about how rugby is actually a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, and that his teammates would never think to actually ‘own’ anyone, therefore.
Eventually, he suggested that perhaps the woman was just being ‘overly sensitive’. Perhaps she was part of that new breed of white people in Africa—also known as ‘naturalized Africans’—white people that, on principle, only hang with black people. White people that shun other white people, especially those that appear, at first blush, to be overly cliquish and incestuous in their interactions with other white people. White people that have a conscience about working for other white people.
What’s more, could it not simply be a case of mistaken identity?
I didn’t follow, and I said so.
‘Maybe it’s just classism,’ my part-time pal suggested.
‘How do you figure?’
‘Fact: most white people here earn a lot more than black people do. Fact: they belong to a different social class. Fact: not many blacks can afford to go to a place like that.’
‘Except posh corporates and intellectual sportsmen, of course.’
‘Don’t say it like that.’
‘Is there any other way to say it?’
‘Yes. Like it isn’t some sort of accusation.’
I promised that it wasn’t an accusation. Then I changed the topic. ‘I’m confused. Are you saying that the management is simply classist, and that that’s better, somehow?’
Then he changed the topic. ‘They should have shown up at the entrance together, holding hands. Or whatever. I’m sure he would have gotten in.’
‘It was an experiment. The point wasn’t to get in.’
‘I mean the point wasn’t to get in that way. The point was to get in fair-and-square.’
‘It’s always about getting in. Get in, however you need to. If you can’t, just leave it alone.’
I had a feeling we weren’t talking about the same thing anymore.
‘Sorry, I’m talking about racism. What ARE you talking about?’
‘But this is our country.’
‘So go put an announcement on the radio because, guess what, nobody really cares enough to do anything about it yet. That’s just the way it is.’