5 June 2021
Cape Town, South Africa
Amidst a flurry of panic and mini pandemonium that surrounded a racist incident at my daughter’s high school, I found myself participating in a parent’s diversity task team that was established to address an evolving culture in a predominantly white school in the heart of the southern suburbs. I have always been an advocate for social change but this time I felt a rumbling of discomfort and a defensiveness that crept through my consciousness, insidiously threatening to spread through me like a stealthy toxin. Was I going to be subjected to a group of white people who were going to tell me and other black people (African, coloured and Indian) how NOT to be racist? Was I going to face a rhetoric of white superiority dressed in platitudes of white liberal progressiveness? With a pounding heart and nervous energy, I entered the arena and held my breath.
My fears were not realised as I encountered a mix of academic, professional, passionate ordinary people who all seemed committed to creating a better world, each in their own way, and willing to bring their truths to this new colourful melting pot of mixed talents, personalities and cultures. Having met some of these beautiful people I still felt an unease and decided to do a deep dive into my own troubled mind. At every turn, I feel compelled to stand out, to have my voice heard, to let these white people who created and dominate the group know that they dare not stereotype me as less intelligent or less anything. I realised that this baggage I had invisibly dragged around with me had suddenly surfaced. I am a product of the eighties and having been in the middle of the anti-apartheid struggle as a youth, I had undoubtedly been indoctrinated by the systemic poison of Apartheid. Having grown up in an Indian township in Gauteng under the Group areas Act, as a ‘half caste’ Cape Malay/ Indian, my narrative was defined by the systemic racism and segregation that permeated my existence at every level.
Whites were supreme and untouchable, like demi-gods, who were revered by the system and by some “non-whites” – a term seemingly denoting the state of not being something which one “ought to be”. No-one used the term non-Indian, non-coloured, or non-African. These were obviously undesired sates of being under the Apartheid system. Ironically, being non-Indian was in fact frowned upon amongst the Indians, so I guess being Indian was a desirable classification, if only to the Indians themselves.
The Group Areas Act dictated that no-one was permitted to live in an area designated for another racial group, nor travel on the same bus or use the same toilets. There was not much fuss about intermarriage between any of the “non-white” groups, but it was illegal for a white person to marry anyone of “non-white” persuasion. The government was nonetheless concerned about buying property and attending schools across the “non-white” racial lines. In Lenasia, South of Johannesburg in the old Transvaal, our little council house had to be put on my mother’s name, who was classified as Indian, because my father was classified as Cape Malay. My siblings and I were allowed in the schools because our birth certificates indicated both racial classifications.
Of course, being of mixed Indian/Malay heritage, in this milieu, I fitted in nowhere. As if the Apartheid system was not bad enough, the Indian culture was particularly snobbish and exclusive. I was regarded as a half caste and being recognised as Indian was not a particular goal I aspired to.
I was an institutional and social outsider. I watched black people being treated like they were sub-human by the Indian folk – exploited, belittled and dehumanised.
As a child, this injustice troubled me deeply and I was drawn to the liberation struggle when I grew older.
Fast-forward to 2021, after living in Cape Town for 17 years, I entered the terrain of anti-racism again. Having left the tear gas, rubber bullets and Casspirs behind me almost 3 decades ago, I felt a jolt of unrest as the buried mistrust and suspicion I had of white people started creeping up on me. Had I unwittingly become a reverse racist? Or was my institutionalised conditioning resurfacing? I realised with startling horror that I was projecting my own victimhood. All human life is sacred and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Was I living up to this?
My purpose of serving humanity meant that I had to break all the moulds of bias, prejudice and bigotry that I had grown up with. I thought about the lived reality of African people in our country. People clutching their handbags if they pass an African person in the street, the look of disdain and scorn when a previously privileged people associates every middle-class African person with affirmative action, corruption and malfeasance. I see the look of mistrust from the African people that I pass often in Pinelands, a suburb renowned for intolerance and sometimes overt racism, where animals are afforded better “human rights” than human beings. An ex-colleague of mine, a burly African man, with a doctorate in the sciences, would often relate his experiences in this ex-colonial town of British settlers. Not even his James Earl Jones like baritone voice and appearance made his experience any easier. He was patronised, marginalised and made to feel unwelcome. If he reacted he was scorned as being arrogant and entitled. He eventually moved back to Gauteng for a better job, and maintained that African people experience less racism in Johannesburg.
I think about my own experiences. I am reminded of the arrogance I experience from males of all colours as a mixed-race Muslim woman. My racial persuasion, mild attractiveness and gender sometimes militate against the idea that I am a thinking rational human being. I will never forget my experience in a white Cabinet Minister’s office one day. It was my first meeting with him and I felt like the proverbial ‘servant girl’ who was being eyed by the ‘baas’ for services other than cleaning the house. I often get told that I do not look like a lawyer, presumably because I don’t fit the stereotype ‘suit’. Many Muslim women lawyers also don’t ordinarily wear scarves, probably because the visuals don’t match the stereotype of good lawyers, who have to fit the image if they want to make a living. Being religious and a Muslim woman in particular, elicits the stereotype of being stupid, backward and repressed. I find that when my well-developed confidence is revealed, the stereotype changes, and I become that woman – “the bitch”, the “know-it-all”. It is accompanied by disdain that a Muslim woman of colour dares to know better than anyone. Male counter-parts, particularly white males are considered tough and assertive and never “bitchy”. I drag all the baggage around with me and it weighs heavily.
I began to examine my own misgivings about being in a liberal group with many white people who may think that they know better about racism and prejudice, and spout forth their knowledge with false modesty and disguised condescension. Is it fair to put them in that box? II realised that I had felt this way every time I attended a school meeting since 2012 when my sons were at the school. Were the other black people on our diversity group having to work as hard to be recognised as equal? Perhaps they are younger and carry less baggage. Perhaps they were crossing their own Rubicons in this quagmire of social iniquity.
To my chagrin I began to unpack all the fallacies in these disturbing self-revelations. Was I not projecting my own prejudice? Was I not the one creating, if not perpetuating these awful little boxes? Am I inadvertently saying that we must show the clever white people that we are also clever? How self-deprecating. By whose standards is the Cape housewife any less that the UCT professor? I took a step back. As I saw myself slipping into the ‘prejudice’ trap, I questioned why intelligence was my trigger. The repressed Muslim woman stereotype was part of it. The other part was steeped in South African racist culture. Other race groups are seen as infinitely less intelligent than white people, particularly African people and to a lesser extent Coloureds. Indians and Orientals (Far East) are regarded as stereotypically being clever and good at maths and IT, in a myopic technical way. They are still not regarded as being equal to white people in the general sense. By trying to display my intelligence, am I buying into the Eurocentric view of intelligence and IQ? Is intelligence a valid measure for the value of any human being? I realised that in a way I was doing exactly what I was accusing my white counter-parts of doing. By trying to defend myself against biased stereotyping, I was in fact entrenching that bias. As a parent was I passing this onto my own children? If I don’t take a reality check, the rumbling that was stirring in my soul will soon grow into an uncontrolled angry roar. What would I do then? I have to quell the beast. My fight is not just against racism, but against prejudice, bias, intolerance and violence against women and children. If I am to make the fight against social injustice a worthy one, my first battle has to be against my own inadvertent micro- aggressions, assumptions and apartheid baggage. The battle for social change lies not only in changing the narrative externally but identifying and correcting the internal narrative. I felt the need to open my heart and my mind to the acceptance of human beings (including myself) with our failings. Working together with patience instead of accusation or anger. Instead of pointing fingers, influence change around me by truly living and being what I want to see in the world. If I were to cut through all the rhetoric, postulation and theories around race and prejudice, simple practices of kindness, generosity, understanding and empathy can go a long way. If everyone treated every other human being with dignity and respect without judgement, change would be automatic. In addition to our struggle for institutional, systemic and cultural change, we cannot lose sight of the internal struggle to hone people-centred values of being considerate, respectful and kind to people, even if they reject or resist with unkindness and aggression. We should be conveying that message with equal fervour.
The most poignant message for me in my struggle in the post-Apartheid milieu, is that my approach must have a good dose of introspection, wisdom and patience, both with myself and others.
With love, Always