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23 Sep 2009 15:09
I’ve never done this before. Never before have I been tempted to wander into that scary and blurred territory between what’s private and what’s public.
I’ve also never before written (publicly) about friends who sat on my hard, uncomfortable kitchen chairs eating my sommer-so food.
But sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.
One recent Friday night I cooked for two very close friends—I will call them the “unmarried couple”—and a couple that we have recently kind of befriended.
The second couple, a husband and wife, I will call the “married couple”.
We drank wine and G&Ts and laughed lots and within 10 minutes of the married couple’s arrival—they’d never been to our house before or met our other dinner quests—we were swearing like troopers and admitting to each other that we piss ourselves at Leon Schuster and Casper de Vries.
(The two English-speakers around the table did not feel the same compulsion to make this confession.)
The unmarried couple has two small children.
These two kids are adopted. And they are black. And it’s important that you know this because following on from a conversation about race and race-sensitivity and me once being reported to the press ombud for using the word “jinto” (meaning “slut” in Cape slang) the married woman said something like: “Is it a word for coolies or is it a Hotnot-thing?” In that same context and conversation she spoke about “Kaffirtjies”.
When looking at pictures of the unmarried couple’s two kids, the married woman said something like: “Ag, don’t you just want to kiss them?”
When the married woman said “Kaffirtjies” nobody at the dinner table said anything. But moments later I said: “You cannot speak like that.”
I didn’t shout this. I didn’t even say it angrily. In retrospect I said it a bit sheepishly, actually. Lightly. Conversationally. As one does with the candles gently throwing shadows across the walls and bouncing light off wine glasses. To which she replied: “Ag, man, you must really get over this.”
To which I replied: “You remind me of a caller on Radio Sonder Grense who said to Allan Boesak: ‘Ag, you people — Ag, you know man, I’m so sick and tired of you people telling my people that we must apologise. Now tell me, when are you people going to start apologising to us?’”
I told this story using that thick Boere-accent that only Boere and stand-up comics can imitate. Everybody, including her husband, laughed.
She simply said: “Exactly!”
The rest of the evening followed in very much the same tone.
She told us that they have a house in France. “A beautiful chateau right in the middle of France,” she said.
We were all a bit perplexed about why she raised the “chateau in France” until her husband said she likes telling everybody who doesn’t know.
We laughed. Francophiles obsessing about different breads and fresh vegetables in quaint markets are funny, generally.
Then the subject changed and we spoke about how one of the supper guests had pretended she was deaf to escape having a conversation on a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
But the married woman had another point she wanted to make.
“You know, I hate it when fat people sit next to me on a plane.” She herself weighs the same as a large eggplant. Excuse me, I mean aubergine.
“So I was flying back from our little place in France and I was very tired and was just getting comfortable in business class [!] when ‘this mama’ came and sat next to me. ‘Aaa, no, I thought’,” she said. And she flung out her thin arms to emphasise the point that the “mama” was FAT.
The way she—and other whites—pronounce the word is not “mama” but “maama”, maybe to put a bit of isiXhosa into the pronunciation. So now we all know that the mama was fat AND BLACK.
Of course she must be black because fat white women aren’t called mamas. Only black women are “mamas”.
Again, none of us said anything.
What made it worse was that this thin, Botoxed white woman was talking about KwaZulu-Natal’s former health minister, Peggy Nkonyeni, who happened to be on the same flight—in business class. She was calling a provincial health minister a “mama”. Not because she has given birth to children, but because she was black.
I reckon using the term “mama” is, to her, like saying “Kaffirtjies”: a term of endearment you use when talking about blacks whom you don’t know or have any interest in, yet you somehow feel compelled to soften your prejudice.
Diminutives or words such as “mama” are excellent tricks to hide the brutality of our fears and ignorance, I’ve always found.
But the married woman was still talking: “I thought: noooo, not a mama, but then this mama looked at me and said: my child you look so tired and she held my [small, white—my words] head against her [huge, black—my words] breasts and I slept all night long from Paris all the way to Africa and it was the most wonderful sleep and the smell of her was so evocative,” she said.
By now everybody was squirming on the hard wood of my kitchen chairs.
But again we said nothing.
On all levels, the story is ridiculous. Would Peggy Nkonyeni hold some thin mlungu’s head on her tits sitting in business class on an SAA transatlantic flight? I don’t think so.
Anyway, you can’t hold somebody’s head, or hand for that matter, across business class seats. Unless you’re an orangutang with very long arms.
So I’m writing this because this woman is friends with lots of my friends. And for many years she has frequently said and done things that are racist and have made people deeply uncomfortable, I’m told.
If she was an ordinary, middle-class woman with a job such as a schoolteacher, or journalist, a farmer or cop and we knew that she was racist, that her world view was offensive and at times, downright toxic, we would not have invited her, or her silent, lovely husband into our kitchens.
If these people were just your garden variety white-trash racists from Goodwood who call black people “Kaffirs”, they would have been “social outcasts” among the lefty, white, intellectual, self-aware and self-important group of people we socialise with.
But because they’re rich, glamorous, kind to their own, and beautiful, who live in houses featured in magazines and can pronounce “Provence and chateau”, people—like me—brush over this white racist toxicity.
This woman has social currency and therefore the rest of us keep silent because that’s the social contract among us whites, you see. We keep those Friday-evening kitchen conversations private.
But it’s wrong. It makes me lie awake at night. And fuck knows, I will no longer do it.
Pearlie Joubert is a journalist for the Mail & Guardian
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