racial issues

Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.


The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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Africa, Culture

Post-Apartheid South Africa and “Post-Racism” America

A totally irrelevant picture of Clifton Beach at sundown—Camps Bay, sundown.
Yes, there is an analogy to be made here.
Excuse me friends, I’m going to digress from my usual steady word diet of adventure tales and travelogue to get just a little bit political…
I’ve had an unprecedented number of responses to my first (and, I thought, fairly innocuous) post about Cape Town, “High Security,” so much so that I feel the need to write a follow up. What I have to say is in no way a judgement of any individual reader or responder. I don’t know you, and I withhold any opinion about your life, social beliefs or general good-will as a person (in fact, I’m sure you’re all good people—most are).
However, this is a judgement on a system—two systems, in fact—and how we can talk about them.
In July of 2015, one of the best explanations I’ve seen made the internet rounds to clarify why exactly answering #AllLivesMatter to the rallying call of #BlackLivesMatter is, well, missing the point. Below is an excerpt from Reddit user Geek Aesthete’s answer:

“Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!
The problem is that the statement “I should get my fair share” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that “everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.
Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.”
(For great further discussion, check out this article on Fusion or this one in the guardian.)

That implicit “too” exists everywhere in critical discussion of racism—both in the U.S., and in South Africa, which I currently call home. I am hardly more enlightened on the racial, political and social complexities of South Africa than I was a week ago, at the time of writing “High Security,” but I think I still have have something valuable to offer by way of this analogy.
The implicit “too.”
It is there when activists in the U.S. say, “Black Lives Matter,” because up to now these lives have mattered less to our legal (and social and educational and economic) institutions.
When others answer, “but, All Lives Matter,” they, “willfully go back to ignoring the problem.” That is, they ignore all the conditions that have created the need for such a statement in the first place. Furthermore, they in turn implicitly erase centuries of racial violence, injustice, intolerance and bigotry, filing history away into that closed box conveniently labeled, “Not Anymore.”
The implicit “too” is there when I say, “there is a wealth gap in this country, much of which is divided along racial lines,” and a South African white responds, “but there are poor white South Africans, too.”
Indeed, there are, and they have certainly not benefitted from the post-Apartheid systems put in place to (attempt to) correct a long history of colonial oppression. Yet, to address real racial income inequality in South Africa* by saying that white South Africans suffer poverty too is to once again willfully avoid the unavoidable: racism and inequality are still massive problems, here, as in the U.S.
In much the same way, saying, “but there’s so much crime within those communities, too,” when we bring up the issue of police violence toward people of color, is a whole lot like saying, “but there is corruption amongst black South African politicians, too” when someone else decries past actions of Afrikaans leaders in this country. Indeed, it is true, but the former does not invalidate the latter. To answer in this way is, just maybe, to suggest that police violence (or Apartheid violence) is somehow less upsetting, less in need of remedying, less bad because that “black-on-black crime” (or that new corruption) also exists.
Let’s take this one step further.
The spirit of the implicit “too” similarly comes into play when we in the U.S. bring up the issue of institutional racism, that is, racism that exists at the institutional level—which is both greater and more subtle than any individual’s lack-of-racism. When someone says, “racism still exists in America,” those who would answer, “but I’m not a racist,” miss the point. The issue does not lie with them (and, by the by, neither does the fault, though that’s somewhat of a more complex question), but rather with the system to which they are inexorably tied.
Similarly, when the topic of racism in pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa arises, arguing, “but I had/have non-white friends,” or, “but some schools were already mixed,” or even, “but not everyone was racist, bigoted, intolerant, hateful, violent, fill-in-the-blank,” is the same as a white American today saying, “but I have black friends,” (and so there must not be racism), or, “but my neighborhood is so diverse,” (so there is no socioeconomic disparity), or, “but my family didn’t have slaves,” (and so, slavery didn’t exist?).
The individual experience of tolerance and friendship does not change the historical fact of the Apartheid system. The individual history of love does not change a national history of hate. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the reality that the majority of South Africans faced under the Apartheid system. 

It is to be complice to an unjust system, past or present. 
It is to ignore yesterday and sugar-coat today, in the hopes that tomorrow will be better.
But until we acknowledge yesterday for what it was, and see today as it is, tomorrow isn’t going to look any different.
In the U.S., and in South Africa.
And that, in my humble opinion, is what post-Apartheid South Africa and “post-racism” America have in common.


*Interesting tangential reading here, here and here.
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