Of course I knew race is an acerbic topic in South Africa. It’s obvious in ever dimension of this country’s social sphere. But when Chris told me that people still hate to see a mixing of races, I thought he was exaggerating a bit. He told me if he and I were to walk along the road, we would get looks and some might even say something.

Probably not, I thought. That would just be going way overboard with the racial integration thing. I mean I know there’s some tension between black and white South Africans, but that’s just because things have been made awkward between them because of the history.

Awkward is somewhat of an understatement.

Francis, from the carwash, and I always have great conversation. He’s intelligent, and we always talk about our perspectives on South Africa’s state – socially, economically, culturally, etc. – and about our perspectives on the world at large. I love hearing from his Zambian point of view and he too loves hearing from my American point of view. We have grown up in two different worlds; and we share a mutual fascination because of it. He asks me questions about life in America; I ask him questions about life here. We learn from each other, and we always find something new to discuss – every day that I see him.

Zambians like to talk, and Francis is indeed a Zambian.

The gate to my residence is a 30 step walk away from the carwash at which Francis works. On slow days he likes to walk with me to my gate, especially if we’re having a conversation. Yesterday was one of those days.

My residence and Francis’s carwash are situated right alongside a main road. So as he and I are walking on the sidewalk, cars are passing or are stopped at the intersection. Yesterday we began heading back at around 5 p.m., so traffic was heavier than usual. The cars were stopped at the intersection. As we’re walking I heard yelling from one of the cars, and I turned to look and saw a man yelling at me. He was white, gray-haired and angry. His face was screwed up, and he was yelling in Afrikaans. I looked at Francis and asked him what the man was saying, but Francis doesn’t speak Afrikaans either. It dawned on me, though, that this man was yelling at me because I was walking with a black man. His yelling was relentless, and he continued to yell even after we walked past his car. Francis said, “Don’t worry about him. Just don’t look at him. Ignore it.”

Francis has been here for only 3 months, and already such racism is cavalier to him. He was completely unaffected by this man’s hatred of him. But I was affected. I was shocked – stupidly so – at the audacity of a white man to do such a thing. That man could have been verbally degrading me but it was only because I was associating myself with someone that man had already deemed unworthy and filthy. In that moment, I was thrown back in time to the era of racism and hatred. It was horrible. I only tasted a tiny spoonful of it, but it made me sick.

“That’s so sad…” I said to Francis, and that’s all I could say. He just shrugged and kept smiling his big, relentless smile.

The next day he kindly asked me if I was okay from yesterday. He thought it had scared me or something. It didn’t scare me, I assured him. I just feel sad that that is the reality of this country – still. I wanted it to hurt Francis because it isn’t something he – or any other black South African – should ever be desensitized too. It should never be something so cavalier and unimportant. But it is. That treatment of blacks was and still is accepted as something to be expected. That is sad. I could never take that lightly. It disgusts me – no matter how widespread it once was or still is. It disgusts me. And it will always disgust me when people see the world in black and white. It will always disgust me when they defend the separation of those races. It will always disgust me when they think color is indicative of superiority or inferiority. Sometimes I feel like being white in this country is shameful.

Because until they hear me speak, I’m automatically associated with that horrible history – as the villain.


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