What are you doing about daily racism and sexism?

Why does it fall on the oppressed to make their struggles visible and known, asks Milisuthando Bongela. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Why does it fall on the oppressed to make their struggles visible and known, asks Milisuthando Bongela. (Paul Botes, M&G)

On my birthday this year, an Indian restaurant owner told me: “Tell your madam there is no rice’’ to go with the R350 paneer that I had ordered over the phone and had come to her shop to pay for and collect.

On another day, a dull-skied Thursday in October, two white women stopped their stairway descent to ask me whether I had finished cleaning the theatre as I got up from my seat after watching a movie at Cinema Nouveau.

One Sunday morning last summer, my boyfriend and I were walking our dog at Emmarentia in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. “Is this dog socialised? Do you ever walk this dog? He’s so frightened!’’ said a thin, greying woman who was walking her pack of four very big dogs.
The woman’s dogs had surrounded Petit, whose name suggests his build. “Hhhmmm?’’ my boyfriend asked her with his mouth shut.

“Hhhhmmmm? Hhhmmm Hhhmmm?’’ the woman mocked in response. As her purple legs walked away, she shouted: “You must socialise this dog.”

A traffic cop routinely stopped me on Snake Way one sunny September afternoon in Yeoville. He checked my car’s licence disc and asked for my driver’s licence and both were fine.

But instead of wishing me a safe journey, he asked me whether I had noticed that my car’s rear licence plate was missing. Confused about when this could have happened, I got out of the car to verify this and when I saw the licence plate firmly in its place, he laughed and said: “Don’t worry, I was joking. Bengifun’ubona uba umile njani [I just wanted to see the shape of your body].”

At least he is better than the traffic cop who kissed the top of my head while I stood in front of him on an escalator at the airport, and laughed when I retaliated with the foulest isiXhosa language I had in me.

My sister and I were afraid to tell our mother about the man who had chased us in his car one afternoon as we walked home alone from church. I was 15 and my sister was 14 and we were walking along a quiet main street in our suburb. In his defence, we did start running before he started his car. And, like a crazed dog, he probably chased us because we ran, not because we saw him sitting on the passenger side of his car, facing the street through a wide-open door, naked and masturbating.

Strangely, in situations like these, a tepid heat overcomes your ability to think of a response that would make you proud to relay these stories later.

“I don’t want to ruin my day,” says your outfit.

“This person won’t get it,” whispers experience.

“I’m scared,” mumbles reality.

“I’m tired,” your eyes say as they close without closing.

So you keep quiet while your mind becomes a mass of gummy mud from which words cannot escape.

You remember that six months ago, you sat and breathed the sweet rural morning air of your grandmother’s stoep and promised yourself that you would no longer write about racism and patriarchy. You remember that you had promised your writing that you would not contaminate it with such tiring subjects. That doing so would be using your gift to amplify ugly terms like white supremacy and patriarchy.

You remember how you tried to convince yourself that it’s pointless, because white people and men don’t care. You remember how you decided you would write only about your people, your ancestors, and how you would reimagine blackness in your writing.

And then one day when you come to the office and see the aftermath of a Zapiro cartoon, you realise that it might have been a mistake to think that you can adopt the postures of men and white people and make racism and sexism “not your problem”.

Because these daily humiliations –casually meted out by agents of white supremacy and patriarchy, humiliations that are much worse for many more people – happen to someone who is just trying to go about their day. Someone who is just watching a movie. Someone who is just driving to work. Someone who is just reading a newspaper. Someone who is just walking home.

Perhaps, in the same way that it is so difficult for white people to give up being racist, to stop white supremacy, to try to understand what racism is and to call white supremacy out, it is also difficult for you to let it go in seemingly innocuous exchanges and your writing.

It might be too early, you realise, to be bored of writing about everyday sexism because, like racism, it simply doesn’t go away. It is environmental.

And so the questions become: Why is racism a black people’s problem? And why is sexism a women’s issue?

It seems like the only people who feel the need to do anything about it are those who suffer these violences.

It seems like it would be too much to ask a white person: “So hey, what are you doing about white supremacy on a daily basis while it casually taps me on the shoulder while I’m buying my medicine at the chemist?

“Are you also trying to wrap your writing around the subject, or is it not your problem?”

Or: “My brother, what’s your take on Okmalumkoolkat’s music? Yes, I feel the same.

“Did you do anything about it?”

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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