The Racist Who Profiled Me and Invited Me to Breakfast in Nashville

Educating people into racism

Paulo da Silva
Mar 8 · 14 min read

He was a short, muscular dude, and he asked me, “Where you from?”

“I live in Germany,” I said. “But I was born in South Africa.”

Dude must’ve thought he had hit the jackpot. Germany and South Africa! He must’ve thought he had found his soulmate for the Aryan Brotherhood.

Little did he know.

I had made some money with my writing, and my wife and I took a three-month vacation to the states. On a whim, I flew to Nashville because I had heard it was the “music” capital of the world. As a dude who had little love for Country Music, imagine my horror when I landed in (1) the Country Music capital of the world and (2) on the very weekend of the CMA Music Festival!

I was in purgatory, I was sure. I had sinned and this was now my punishment. To make matters worse, I had booked at a hostel — it was the first and last time I ever did that, let me assure you.

It was at this hostel that I met Mr. Racist.

I was raised in a family opposed to Apartheid. I went to an integrated school (as much as was allowed within the law in those days). I was the only white kid in a group of five friends; we used to sing Boyz II Men together during recess. I wasn’t a bad singer, until my voice broke. My best friend growing up was a black kid.

Education. Keep that in mind while you read this piece.

We thought all these skin colors were the most awesome thing in the world.

The teacher said, “It doesn’t matter. Pink or blue or green, skin color doesn’t matter!”

Education. Keep that in mind while you read this piece.

This was all way before the end of Apartheid, back in the ’80s when South Africa was imploding.

We were taught about melanin, about how we’re “all the same on the inside.”

After Apartheid came down there were shows on TV which attempted to breach the gap between cultural differences. I remember watching a show which explained that certain African tribes look down from a superior’s eyes as a sign of respect. In the white culture we were taught to look directly at somebody as a sign of respect. Certain African tribes are taught to remain silent when spoken to by a superior, also a sign of respect. Whites were usually taught to “Speak up when I’m talking to you, damn it!”

Cultural differences. Nothing to do with skin color.

Our sole understanding of the 1992 referendum was that “the racists will vote No, and the good guys will vote Yes.”

In 1992, when I was eleven, we were on a week-long school trip into the veld when our bus made a stop at a voting station. We waited for an hour while our teachers went and voted in the 1992 referendum. My best friend was next to me. I said to him, “I wish I was old enough to vote. Of course I’d vote Yes.” And he said, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to vote even if I was old enough.” Either I or someone else said, “We’d vote for you, man!”

Kids. There is no hatred in a child’s heart until it is taught to hate.

Our sole understanding of the 1992 referendum was that “the racists will vote No, and the good guys will vote Yes.” We had no idea what our teachers were going to vote when they stepped off that bus.

After they were done, they walked back into a deathly silent bus. We must’ve been at least fifty or sixty kids in there. The teachers stared at us a long while. We looked at them with tense, expectant glares. And then my English teacher said resolutely, “If you must know, we voted YES.”

There is no hatred in a child’s heart until it is taught to hate.

That set the tone for the rest of the trip. We were elated. South Africa’s horrors were coming to an end.

South Africa was soon going to be like America where there was no racism at all!

That’s what we believed. We believed it to our core.

I spent all my nights in Nashville at the Blues Bar in Printer’s Alley, a much-needed reprieve from all that C&W. During the day, I picked random places to visit, looking for interesting facts which might fit well in a novel.

When I learned about the sit-in movement, when I saw the street named after Rosa Parks, when I saw the tribute to MLK at the local library, I actually freaking wept.

Growing up in a pre-1994 South Africa, I met my fair share of racists. The dude who invited me for breakfast did not fit the profile. He was so freaking sly about it. The racists I had known had been open about it. And maybe that’s the real problem with racism in America — it’s so hidden. Hell, at least in South Africa we knew we had a problem. Man, we still have one.

In all fairness to the dudebro, he himself was not from Nashville. I don’t remember where he was from. I don’t even remember his name.

“Wanna grab some breakfast, bro?” he said. It wouldn’t be until I was halfway through my meal that I learned he was not only a racist, but one of the real baduns.

He and I walked up Church Street toward Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant. He said, “Yeah, I hit the bars last night, then I brought a girl over to my room and we did it.” I thought that was way TMI but not enough to forego breakfast with a dude who clearly was about to give me material for my novel.

He told me he was a military man. He had just graduated from some or other military school and was going to “become an officer.” I didn’t know shit from shinola about the US Military back then. Thinking back to it, I assume he must’ve been talking about West Point.

He brought up Obama. But there were no red flags there. He didn’t like Obama, but he said nothing of his race. I didn’t know anything about Democrats and Republicans and the Electoral College or anything to do with American politics. I was an oblivious tourist, having breakfast in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

The dude’s daddy — a military man as well — also didn’t like Obama. Dude’s granddaddy was also a military man. “It runs in the family,” he said. “We’re all officers.”

The penny finally dropped for me when he asked me about Mandela. “What do you think of Nelson Mandela?”

“Greatest man who ever lived,” I said, meaning it. I thought that now we were going to have a real discussion about life and Freedom and the Struggle for Equality.

Let’s finally talk about the awesomeness I grew up hearing about America!

I had recently made it through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography on Audible (I wish they had gotten a South African to narrate it, though), and wept several times while listening to it. He was such an unbelievably humble man.

Because of Nelson Mandela I was able to continue living in a country I loved. I was able to stay in my home. I was not forced to become a refugee like my parents had been twenty years earlier.

Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail and came out preaching love. Nelson Mandela, whose single-handed efforts prevented our country from breaking out in Civil War like Angola did, like Mozambique did, like Zimbabwe did. Because of him I was able to continue living in a country I loved. I was able to stay in my home. I was not forced to become a refugee like my parents had been twenty years earlier.

This was the man that Mr. Racist was dissing.

And I’m talking vitriol here, man. This guy started talking about what the Bible says (I saw that version of the Bible at the Nashville Museum just the day before — it sickened me) and…other things I will not mention here.

All I could think was, What the fuck just went wrong here? How did I end up here? This was supposed to be breakfast, man, not a goddamn KKK recruitment meeting!

I asked for the check, paid for my breakfast, and let the dude pay for his.

I left a little wiser, a little sadder, a lot less naive.

That was the last time I ever saw or heard from him.

But, hey, he’s probably an officer in the marines now.

Let me try give you some perspective on what kind of a shock it was for me to meet this dude. You must understand that, as kids, we lauded America. We lived in a racist country. “But there’s no racism in America!” we believed wholeheartedly. “They’ve dealt with it there!”

I had a poster of MLK on my wall. By Any Means Necessary: Trials And Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, by Spike Lee, was one the first full-length books I ever read.

In South Africa, we were given an ideal — the United States of America — and I held onto (and believed) in that ideal until I was in my thirties, until I took a vacation there. When Nelson Mandela became president, when Apartheid came down, when the violence rose up in the ’80s — we had always held America up as the model to follow.


Now when I read about American football players Taking a Knee, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed African American kid, I know that these are not isolated incidents.

I don’t live in the states. I can’t comment authoritatively on its politics. I’m commenting as a traveler, a tourist who felt something, observed something during his travels. I’m commenting as someone who, after this incident of the Racist Breakfast, started observing other tensions regarding race in the states.

These tensions had always been there, but I was only seeing them now for the first time.

Mr. Racist wasn’t the only guy who assumed I was raised a racist because I was white and born in South Africa.

Still in Nashville: I had bought too much food and didn’t want to throw it away. I stopped the first homeless guy I found and asked him if he wanted it. He happened to be black.

We got to talking while he ate. He asked me where I was from. I told him. He stopped chewing, looked at me with wide eyes, looked at his food, smiled at me with a look on his face which seemed to say, This can’t be real. He looked at his food again. Then he said, “Damn, You guys really came a long way. Shit must’ve really changed down there!”

I told him it had.

Or maybe it hasn’t. When Apartheid came down I’d be lying if I told you that all the racists suddenly dropped their prejudices and embraced the targets of their hatred.

No, they didn’t. The right-wing racists remained right-wing racists. The only difference was that they didn’t have the legal power to act out their racism.

I haven’t lived in South Africa for over ten years. I cannot comment accurately on its political scene today. What I can tell you is that, whenever I do meet someone who still lives there and we get to talking, I can see that the old hatreds still exist in those who were raised — who were educated — into harboring those hatreds.

Education, education, education. That’s the one thing which sticks in my mind when I think back to my childhood days in South Africa.

God help us.

Education, education, education. That’s the one thing which sticks in my mind when I think back to my childhood days in South Africa.

I was educated to understand that humans are humans, regardless of their skin color. I could’ve just as easily been educated into bigotry against certain cultures.

In fact, I was. I was taught that the Afrikaner — the white South African descended from the Dutch — was a country bumpkin. I was taught that he was a racist. I was taught that the English areas in South Africa were superior to the Afrikaner ones.

Racism was not only white versus black down there.

I was not taught these things at school. I was “taught” them by listening to conversations of family members, of friends.

Education begins at home.

Only in my twenties, when I met an Afrikaner couple who fought ferociously against the Apartheid regime did I come to understand that I had been lied to. There were racist Afrikaners, yes, and there were non-racist Afrikaners.

Education begins at home.

The illogic of it defies comprehension. But kids are sponges. Kids accept what adults feed them, day in and day out, until they don’t even know where their “knowledge” comes from. They know, only, that certain things are so, and other things are not so, because these things have been constantly drummed into their heads from an early age.

You see it in Europe all the time. Damn. Ask your average German what his concept of “the Portuguese” is and he’ll insinuate that we don’t know our assholes from our noses, that we spend all our time on the beach, that we don’t take anything seriously.

I should introduce this dude to my aunt, who works in the Portuguese judiciary. She works more hours than anyone I know. Or to my mother, a successful career-woman who still found time to raise her pre-teen son after her divorce.

You can see that frothing, seething, jingoistic hatred coming out in Europe during the Soccer World Cup or the European Cup. It’s terrifying.

After Apartheid came down, South Africa went through something called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a cleansing of sorts. People came clean. People were made to account. They were offered the opportunity of amnesty.

As far as I know, nothing like this ever happened in the USA. George Wallace was never removed from office, never made to account for what he had done. Unsolved lynchings remained unsolved. The criminals walked free while black people were told, “Oh, okay, you have rights now, it’s all good. Sorry about your dead father / mother / brother. But let’s all hug and get along, no?”

Because of what was revealed in the TRC I know now that the South African Police fed ANC activists faulty grenades so that they’d blow their arms off after pulling the pin out. I can find out other things because all the hearings are available online.

No one can bullshit me about the police’s behavior during Apartheid. I can go read up on it myself!

There’s something cathartic about having access to that information. There are few secrets about the Apartheid era because so many of those secrets came out.

The TRC wasn’t perfect, and it has its criticizers. But it was something. It was a mammoth effort to bring out the truth, to bring people to account for what they had done. It opened the doors of communication.

And it was done sincerely, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Did the states ever do anything similar after the Civil Rights Movement? Was there a “cleansing,” a “coming clean” so as to gain closure? Were people made to account?

Is it even possible now, sixty years after the Civil Rights Movement, to achieve that closure or that reparation? Those who committed the crimes are dead and gone, and nothing stinks worse than an “apology” for crimes committed thirty or a hundred years earlier, with no financial recompense, like George Wallace did in 1995.

The Australian government apologized to its indigenous peoples for the “Stolen Generation.” But it appears that the apology has resulted in little effective done to address the damage caused by the Australian Government’s crimes.

Portugal apologized and erected a token monument to commemorate its injustices against the Jews whom it forced to leave the country 500 years earlier. It even went so far as to offer citizenship to descendants of those expelled Jews.

But is that enough? Portugal grew powerful enough to become the world’s supreme hegemony in the 16th century. It did this in no small part due to the work of its Royal Astronomer, Abraham Zacuto, a Jew who was forced to flee during Portugal’s coerced conversion of Jews to Christianity. Without Zacuto’s tables and charts it is highly doubtful that Vasco da Gama would’ve made it around the tip of Africa, thereby bringing Portugal sufficient wealth to completely crush Venice’s spice trade within a year. And then gold came. Endless tonnages of it raped from Brazil 200 years later. Enough of that gold was sent to Rome for Lisbon to be acknowledged as the next patriarchate — Lisbon would now be almost on par with Jerusalem itself.

And what did the Jews get? A monument.

And citizenship in a country which had long been Europe’s sore thumb for its lack of prosperity.

I have always loved America — or, should I say, I have always loved the idea of America. Freedom, Equality, Justice. As kids, we soaked these concepts up like dry sponges in our racist South Africa.

Apologies are weak, but apparently the USA hasn’t even done that on the subject of slavery.

I am not American. I am South African — Portuguese South African, to be precise. But I have always loved America — or, should I say, I have always loved the idea of America. Freedom, Equality, Justice. As kids, we soaked these concepts up like dry sponges in our racist South Africa. The idea of America, the idea that there was a place in the world where all men were equal under the law — this idea gave us kids a lot of hope. I’m sure it gave those directly involved in the struggle a light of hope as well, in a country beset by darkness.

Would South Africa have broken through its dark ages had there not been a beacon in the North to which its people could aspire?

It is only when we drop the idea of Freedom and Equality that the fact dies out completely. So long as the ideal is held high, the reality has some chance of finally catching up to it.

My experience with Mr. Racist opened my eyes to the fact that the road to equality is made more difficult when education on the subject is lacking—or faulty. Are American six-year-old schoolkids taught to love all people whether their skin is “blue or pink or green”? If not, they should be. That early education has had a profound effect on my life. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a home where my school education was not in conflict with my home education.

But if people cannot educate their kids correctly about racism at home, then the state needs to educate them. TV needs to educate them. The internet needs to educate them. Someone needs to educate them. Because so long as fundamental prejudices exist as a result of misinformation provided at an early age, the road to equality will always be blocked, and efforts at progress constantly thwarted.

Paulo da Silva

Written by

Loving Dad. Mostly mediocre. Totally not famous. Writes for a living.

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