Saturday, October 23, 2010

The White Tribe of Africa

Apartheid -- the former political and social system in South Africa, in which only white people had full political rights and people of other races, especially black people, were forced to go to separate schools, live in separate areas, etc. –Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

This blog post is likely to offend you as a reader, as it is about racism. Racism, by its very nature, is offensive, so consider yourself warned; you’ve had your spoiler alert.

I knew when coming to South Africa that I would be living in a country that was still healing from the effects of apartheid and that race relations were still volatile. What I didn’t realize, however, that as a white American living in a black area of rural South Africa, that I would encounter racism, directed at me, on an almost daily basis.

The oppression black South Africans have experienced under the brutal and crushing restrictions of apartheid is not comparable to the harassment I experience living as a white woman in a predominately black area of rural South Africa. How can I complain, a white woman, an outsider, living temporarily in this country and who is taunted and teased when so many black South Africans were brutalized for half a century simply for having a darker skin than mine—in their own country!

I have no right to complain.

During our initial training with Peace Corps, we were given a crash-course in South African history. Like America, South Africa has had many different people come to her shores and South Africa has certainly resulted in a cultural “melting pot.” (I’ve made several attempts at over viewing South African history, but I botch it very badly each time. There are some wonderful and fascinating histories written about South Africa, and I particularly liked and recommend Alistair Spark’s the Mind of South Africa I and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart.) But the short of it is, people have been struggling here in South Africa, people of all races and cultures, trying to learn how to live peacefully together for a very long time. However, they’ve been struggling to overcome brutality in the last fifty years and have only recently begun to resolve some of the caustic hurts. Peace Corps came to South Africa to help the country in its attempts to restructure its educational system after the fall of apartheid. Under apartheid, black South Africans suffered gross inadequacies in education. South Africa struggles still today, trying to alleviate those inadequacies.

I live and work in a black area of rural South Africa.

In my primary school, I am the only white educator.

In my college, I am one of four white educators; I am the only white woman to live on my college’s campus. (There is another white man, an Afrikaner, who lives on campus, but we don’t ‘hang out’ together.) Everyone else, everywhere I go, is black.

I met a woman, a complete stranger, in Pretoria once. When she asked me where I was from and where I lived, and when I told her my village name, she remarked, “But, aren’t they cruel to you there?” I was caught off guard, because how did this woman know, a complete stranger, and a complete stranger so far away from the village I live in, that I, as a white woman, suffered cruelty in my village? How did she know?

On a taxi recently, a couple engaged me in a similar conversation: Why had I left a country like America to come to South Africa, a country that suffered with racism and xenophobia?

I didn’t say, “I wonder the same thing every single day of my life” but rather replied, “There is cruelty to be found everywhere in the world and not everyone in my village is cruel to me. Some people are wonderfully loving and kind.” And this is true.

However, I underestimated how emotionally draining it can be to live with racism, day in and day out. Since I work with students, the taunting often comes from young people, and I chastise myself, “Come on Karen, you’re an adult. You can understand that they are dealing with peer pressure, they’re right where they’re supposed to be developmentally, you’re an easy target, and they’re trying to impress their friends.”

And when the road workers taunt me in Afrikaans, because they assume I’m an Afrikaner, I try to reassure myself: “They, in their recent lifetimes have suffered horrible, brutal cruelty: they don’t know that I’m an American here to help.”

I continue to reassure myself on an ongoing basis and try to rise to the occasion. But it’s a losing battle: my gut clenches when I come upon a group of young black men working on the road and worry what kind of harassment I’ll endure; I drop my eyes as the young women on my college campus squeal in laughter and make noises indicating they’re laughing at my expense; I’ll back away from an aggressive black woman who is angry that I am not giving her money…

I try and I try… But it is a disheartening battle, and I worry that ultimately, and in the end, I will not overcome it. But I try and will continue to try, as long as I can.

I was biased against Afrikaners on coming to South Africa. In my mind, they were some of the worst “oppressors” in South African history, it was at their hands that black South Africans suffered the most. When we were in our initial training with Peace Corps, we were taught greetings in Setswana (the language of the black people I would be living with) and we were also taught greetings in Afrikaans (the language of the white people I would not be living with, but the language that all of the black people that I would be living with would assume that I would be speaking.)

I bristled at the thought of learning Afrikaans. I DID NOT WANT TO LEARN OR SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.

Mercifully, I was brought me to my senses rather quickly when I realized, “Wait. I SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.” (Having realized, of course, that the native language of the Americas is not English, and that my country was indeed, colonized by ‘an oppressor,’ and I spoke that very same language of that oppressor!)

We were also given two tours: one of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and one of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Again, I was much more sympathetic to the Apartheid Museum and was balking at touring the Voortrekker Monument. Again, some divine intervention and mental clarity was afforded me: all peoples of the world has their own history and we should learn about all peoples, their lives, their struggles, their histories, to better promote understanding of the human race. Level the playing field, for Pete’s sake! I walked about the Voortrekker Monument and I learned the history of its people: They are just like me and my people, and just like the black South Africans where we live: we’re all trying to make our way and find a peaceable existence in this world. We all honor and cherish our ancestors and the struggles they endured to make us all free.

A few months back a fellow PCV invited me and others to tour a school with a 100% pass rate. Since we all work in black schools and the pass rates average 50% or lower, I was greatly interested in seeing a school with a 100% pass rate and jumped at the chance to go: How were they managing such an impressive pass rate? What kinds of resources did the school have? Was there some kind of outside funding?

To travel to the school required a bit of planning and an overnight stay in a hotel I couldn’t really afford. But I was excited about seeing the school and made arrangements to go.

I was more than a bit chagrinned to learn, once I had already checked into the hotel room I couldn’t really afford, was that the school in question, the school we would be touring, was a white school.

A white school? Well, of course they had a 100% pass rate! Everyone knows that the whites here (much as in the States) have all of the privileges, all of the resources, and all of the benefits. Why waste my time seeing a white school? I thought of cancelling on my host and returning to my site—and in a huff at that!

Ah, racism you ask? Racism of another color—or lack of color? Of course!

But I went. I went to the white, Afrikaner school and I saw a wonderful school full of wonderful people doing wonderful things. The Afrikaner kids and teachers were thrilled to be meeting Americans, and we, as Americans, were treated to learning about another people of South Africa.

My hardened heart melted when a young, Afrikaner girl, bristling with excitement, approached me and gave me the warmest and excited hug I’d gotten in South Africa. She was so excited to be seeing an American and so excited that an American would take the time to come visit her school. She could barely contain herself. In her happiness, a tiny bit of my racist heart melted, just a bit.

And to think, in my contempt prior to investigation, I was almost prevented from coming to this white school in South Africa, this white school of a white tribe of South Africa.



  1. You are a very brave and wonderful this post.

  2. wonderful post! cheers and encouragements from Italy