It happened in 1995. The awakening…
I was driving back from Cape Town to my home in Stellenbosch. Part of my regular commute. I was working at the Labour Research Service (LRS) in Salt River on the outskirt of Cape Town. The rougher outskirts of Cape Town. The LRS was one of those small nonprofits that supported the trade unions and the liberation organizations during the Apartheid years. Apartheid ended, but the work never stopped. Workers still needed us. Discrimination still happened. And I was working with and for a Pan-Africanist trade union federation – the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU). But I digress…
Driving this road was never a nice road. Just a week earlier my wallet got stolen by two guys. Some would call it stupidity on my behalf. You know, picking up hitch hikers. Or rather leaving my wallet open for them to take. I saw two guys hitch hiking and I decided to give them a lift. I used to hitch hike a lot myself. I knew how crap it was to stand in the road begging for a lift. Time running out. Cold winds. No sign of life outside those people sitting snug in their cars. Yeah, I gave them a lift. And they stole my wallet.
Oh, nothing happened to me. I had a habit of just throwing my wallet on the backseat whenever I drove anywhere. You know, just flip it on the backseat when I get in the car. Not thinking. Just a standard thing to do.
And I left it there without thinking. Like I always do. They took it without me even knowing. Or noticing. Oh they were nice guys. We had a good chat. Laughing and joking like all good South Africans do when they get close enough to poke fun at everyone and everything. I guess they saw my wallet as payment for the entertainment they provided. I don’t think they were that funny…
The money wasn’t much. I hardly ever have loads of cash on me. A minor inconvenience really. But it was a principle thing. You don’t steal. Full stop. So I decided to not pick up any more hitch hikers. Yes, unfortunately many people were going to stand a little bit longer because one dude in a car just got pulled off the assembly line of lift givers. I didn’t feel too crap about the decision. I made it and lived with it.
And now it was a week later. I was just driving me old car. Singing away to the Cat Steven tape that has been stuck in my radio since 1990. Yes. I know Cat Steven off by heart. Not because I wanted to or that I liked him that much, but because I couldn’t remove the bloody tape. It was stuck. And I just didn’t see spending the little money we had on fixing my car radio. Thank God the tape deck was one of those automatic switch-over gadgets. Or else I would have been stuck on the same side forever (Rewind-play, rewind-play…) So Cat Stevens it was.
The ride went smoothly. Like usual. Lost in my own little world. Not getting pissed off at anyone else on the road. Entertaining myself by singing out loud. Or making dancing moves in the car. Or pulling funny faces. Sometimes looking in the mirror to see if it was a good one or not. And sometimes just waving at people driving past me at a much faster speed.
And then I saw the guy. Hitch hiking. Just standing next to the road with his thumb sticking out. He looked like a typical hitch hiker. Normal clothes and a cap. No luggage. I didn’t pick him up. I didn’t even think of picking him up. The thought never crossed my mind. Not even for a minute.
So I drove on…
About a mile or two later I saw another guy with his thumb out. Hitch hiking. Just a normal guy. Normal clothes and a hat. No luggage. I looked at him as I approached and thought whether I should pick him up or not. Just for a split second. Nothing more than a split second. But I didn’t pick hm up. I drove past him without even looking. But for a split second… For a split second I thought about it…
I didn’t think about it for the next few miles. And then it hit me. Like a ton of bricks. Like someone just knocked me one hard one in the stomach. Cold water tipped over my head. Blood draining from my system…
Damn you! Damn me!
I am a racist…
And I didn’t even know it.
…The one guy was black… and the other guy was white…
I didn’t pick up either. But I did think of picking up the second guy. It never crossed my mind with the first on. Not even for a split second. Not even for a blink. Okay, it wasn’t a deep thought of picking the second guy up. It was only a flash for a split second. But still… That flash was a split second of thinking of picking the guy up. I rejected the idea immediately. But the point is that I did have a flash with the second guy and not the first guy.
So I am a racist.
Me. The guy who worked for the only pan-Africanist trade union federation in South Africa. The trade union federation who has never employed a white guy in their whole history up to then. A guy who fought the Apartheid system and all the discrimination that went with that. The guy who fought racism at each and every corner. The guy who saw Steve Biko as his man. I made no distinction between white or black. I hated racism. Banned it from even getting close to my kids. I had relationships that was never defined by race. I fought racism since I left my past behind. It has been the one thing that could get me going since my personal “liberation” started. I spoke out against it. Tackled people in the streets about it. I could look in the mirror and tell myself, “I am not a racist”. Hell, I even had a nickname given to me by NACTU – Umlungu (White bastard). I was drenched in anti-racism actions and fighting racism.
But here I was. A racist. And I didn’t even know it.
Which of the hitch hikers was white? Which one was black? What color was the guys I picked up and who stole my wallet? Does it matter? Is it relevant? Really? Isn’t that just justifying my racism? Isn’t that just shifting blame?
Racists. Easy to see. Racist are those people who are bigots. Or so we believe.
Racism. Easy to see. You’ll know it when you see it. Or so we believe.
No. Racists are not always that easy to see. It’s deeply rooted. It’s not something you just switch off. It hides in corners where you can’t see. It’s something you have to work on. You can overcome it. Racism is not part of the natural you. You weren’t born racist. But it is still deeply rooted like a weed when you grow up amongst racists and are taught the racist way when you are young. But it can be overcome. The more you open up. The more you talk about it. The more you look at yourself. The more you face the mirror.
It’s looking back each day and check on yourself. Looking in the mirror each day and ask yourself, “Was I just today?” And judging yourself not as a negative, but to look for those little hidden bigots inside you. And to fight them until they are out of your system. It’s something you should embrace.
Make no mistake. I am not hard on myself about this. I see this as a huge plus. Something I look forward to each day. To face that stupid bigot inside. And then laugh at him and to say, “Cheers, you are out of here”. Embrace it. And celebrate it. Because tomorrow I won’t do that. I won’t have that flash. Each day is about making it a little better.
I have managed to kill that racist inside. He is gone. No more. It feels good. But it’s not just race. It’s how we treat women. It’s how we treat the kids. How we look at the guy dressed in a hoodie, baseball cap and bling who looks like a gangster. How we stare at the women with the short skirt. It’s how we treat the guy begging in the streets. That gay couple down the road walking hand in hand. Or how we treat that person working behind the counter at Wal-Mart. It’s how we treat that worker in the factory. It’s how we treat the farmer in the fields. It’s everything we do. And it is in all of us. Black or white. Gay or straight. Men and women. We all have a little bigot or two inside us.
Bigotry is taught in different ways to us all. Those words our parent told us, “Study hard and you will get a good job. You don’t have to be caught in this life. You are better than this. You can do better than this.” That’s where it starts. When we start telling ourselves that somehow earning more money or having a bigger house make us better. Better than what?
Liberate yourself. Look at the mirror. Smile at the bigot. Because each day he is getting closer to extinction. Bye bye bigot. Death awaits you.
I like who I am. But I know I am going to like who I am tomorrow even more. And I can’t wait.
Are you? Because… I am because you are…
Why did I write this piece? Because of something I read in the NY Times. It’s not a perfect article, but it reminded me that blatant racism isn’t the problem. It’s the racism we don’t see. The hidden parts that people don’t even see. The bigotry we don’t see in ourselves. It just reminded me why I use the mirror every day.