Taking the high road in the face of subtle racism

Sometimes it’s remarkable how much gaining a little distance can do to throw things into fresh perspective. In my case, it was a 1 400km flight as I relocated my life from Cape Town to Johannesburg earlier this year. Cape Town is home, the city of my heart. It is where I was born and raised and shaped. It is where some of the people I love most in the world live, and it’s where that glorious mountain perches above all of it.

But Jo’burg has been calling for a while now. There is just something about this city — the grit, the people, the pace, the energy — that had me hankering after an immersive experience. So when the chance to move came up, I leapt at the opportunity. For the most part, it’s been incredible. But leaving comes with returning. I’ve been back to Cape Town twice in the past few months and was surprised to find how the tiny things had become glaringly amplified.

It was like not realising just how much a shoe is pinching your toes until you take it off to wander around barefoot. Putting it on again feels almost impossible.

My most recent pinch came a few weeks ago, as I was waiting to catch a flight back to Jo’burg after a two-week stay in the Mother City. It was a Saturday morning and, lost in meandering thoughts about the displacement of feeling at home in two so different cities, I strolled to get myself a bowl of fruit in the airport lounge.

Distracted, hardly noticing anyone around me, I glanced up while reaching for a bowl and was quickly snapped back to my surroundings by a voice.

“Please bring us more cups.”

Wait, what?

Whirring back into the present, I caught the eye of the old Afrikaans woman who was clearly talking to me. Excuse me?

“Bring us more cups, please!” she said, agitated. “I don’t work here,” I said, making sure to keep my voice steady while I held her gaze.

“What?” she snapped.

Maintaining eye contact, speaking slowly and clearly, I repeated my sentence, staccato-style.

“I. Don’t. Work. Here.”

She delivered an unbothered “oh”, turning around to continue talking to her friends.

I was reeling. Did that really just happen?

Looking around, I realised that I was the only person of colour there (other than the people who actually worked there), and I’m the only person this woman thought to ask for cups. An “honest mistake” would have been to ask whether I worked there before dishing out instructions. But even then — I was dressed in a black sweater and black jeans; the uniform of the lounge was clearly a blue shirt and grey jersey.

Let me unpack this for you: this woman glanced around, saw the first brown face (there were about seven white people in her immediate space) and then made a service request. My objection has nothing to do with me feeling that a request like that is beneath me. It has everything to do with the fact that this woman could clearly not comprehend that a Brown Face could be equal to her in the access lounge.

Since telling this story to friends, I’ve heard all the should-haves: I should have asked her to bring me cups; I should have told her where to stick it; I should have yelled at her and caused a scene. In hindsight, perhaps they’re right, I probably should have. But I couldn’t. In the moment I was so shaken (shook, if you will) that I was thrown completely off balance. I was shaken because this is 2017, and I want to believe we’ve moved to greener grass.

I know, we haven’t, and racists thrive among us daily. There are constant reminders all around us (hello, #BlackMonday, is that you?). Back at the lounge, drenched in disdain — as much for this woman as for the state of the world — I made sure to catch her eye every time I passed her. I stared. I raised an eyebrow. I pursed my lips. I let her know that I knew what she thought of me and that I was unmoved. Even though I was.

Because the onus stays on us — on people of colour, on marginalised people in general — to take the high road. The burden remains on us to retain our dignity in the face of such racism, even after it has been yanked away from us.

Despite the intention behind this woman’s assumption, I wasn’t going to cower or play small; or rather, play smaller. I had already swallowed my voice. I checked my posture, took deliberate, weighted steps, kept a stony face, and stared. They weren’t going to forget I was there.

As luck would have it, we were on the same flight and touched down in Lanseria with its single baggage carousel and tiny terminal. Where I stared some more. Until she nervously twitched and fussed with her husband, trying to locate their luggage. Ultimately, I achieved nothing by this, other than a show of mock bravado.

It didn’t make me feel any better, and I knew it wasn’t going to change anything in the mind and heart of this old white woman who — whether she said anything or not — would have regarded me as a subordinate. Never an equal.

But I can only hope to have spared other people who look like me this kind of gross intrusion and invasion. That maybe, next time, she’ll remember my stony face and that squirmy feeling that chased her out into the terminal building, and check herself.

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