Sitting in a bar, on a Thursday night, is the closest that I have been to danger in years. Long were the days of my mumbled, incoherent prayers to ward off suffocation in my sleep due to injudicious shots and partying. I haven’t danced close to exit doors in make shift clubs in anticipation of a boorish crowd after Pastor Troy wrestled through speakers in nearly a decade. Yes, after a wedding, four babies, and a move 7,517 miles aways from home, this was my new version of walking with death.
I felt uneasy the night that I agreed to venture out with a girlfriend. She’d talked me into it. She had to. I don’t go out much anymore. My wardrobe told of this- my ill-fitted shirt, unflattering jeans, and wedges, that didn’t pair well with my outfit, all rose up together to tell my business. I, however, was too uneasy to be insecure. I was much too occupied with counting the amount of black people in the room and watching the behaviors of the drunk melting pot all around me.
I, just as James Baldwin had done, brought my race, and all of it’s complexities, across seas with me. I hadn’t had the privilege or luxury not to. So I move through my life abroad, regarding race, just has I did in America. In the eight years that I have been away nothing has rendered my baggage unnecessary. This night was no different.
So there I was, the only Black American woman at a table surrounded by a hodgepodge of cultures and races- a Guatemalan, an Indian, and three Afrikaners. We were living the international dream and had, seemingly, erased the constructs of racial inequalities and even cultural norms. Alcohol can have that effect and yet I was too uncomfortable to drink but also too tightly wound to be sober.
Race has an interesting way of hedging itself into social conversation, especially in international settings. Assuming that everyone is beyond racist constructs as they have ventured away from their cultural norms and into a society full of expatriates, it feels safe to discuss. I’m still always leery of these discussions, just the same. None of my experiences abroad, thus far, have forced me to jilt my concerns. So that night when I was introduced to the Afrikaner couple that sat across from me I was not surprised or hurt when the wife refused to make eye contact with me or when she half-way smiled while conspicuously turning her chair to put me outside of her central vision. I was un-bothered and actually, slightly relieved. Yet, when her husband immediately began to talk to me, I was perplexed. He didn’t seem to be put off my blackness. He spoke of his son, nurseries, and his job. I spoke with him hoping that race would not trickle into our conversation the way that it trickled in and out of my subconscious throughout our chat.
My girlfriend didn’t share my same sentiments. Just as she had pulled me out of my comfort zone and into that bar, she’d also pulled me out of pleasantries and into what I’d feared and known all alone- that in that bar, at that table, the race talk was inevitable.
“What are the race relations like in South Africa?,” she asked carelessly and yet, intently. I knew then, although I’d told myself to stay quiet, that this would not end well and that I would not walk out of that bar with an Afrikaner as a friend but instead, with my race clutched under my arm just as it was when I walked in.
He spoke, ostensibly, about the equality in his integrated classrooms back home. I envied his optimism. His melodic appeals of change and hope rang familiar. I had heard this song before and while I yearned for the lightness of this whimsical idea of racial equality, I was also bored by it. This song that played often and had been forced upon those to which the lyrics did not apply, continues to cause more angst than unity.
Yet, I listened. I listened until he was finished talking about the positive interactions in his classroom and the sense of community shared amongst all his students. The conversation about race relations should have ended there. I should have let it be. I knew this dance. The moves of the privileged controlling the narratives of the underprivileged. I’d danced this dance my entire life. I should have been tired of pushing but just as my gut had foreshadowed, I refused to exit the scene. The exchange that happened thereafter proved that I was still immature in my dealings with race talks and that I was far more concerned with putting others in their place than I was about attempting to bring about actual change. Though I am unsure if the latter is even possible. The idea of bringing about change was only brought to my attention after my husband questioned my intentions when I retraced that night for him.
I would be remiss in my attempts to gather all of the pieces of the conversation that night. It was weeks ago. However, I do remember that at one point he threw his hands up and stated, “I don’t want to fight here.”
Nor did I, but what else was there to do?
So, we tussled with the fabrics that made up our realties. He admitted to his privilege but only to gain more leverage in his fight towards rightness. I, having mastered this dance, met him at every turn. The disagreement, however, was not wrapped in ill intent. He deemed himself a good, well meaning person and I the same. We disagreed ideologically and we disagreed with our flesh and what our flesh had rendered to our ideological norms.
Neither of us flashed smiles. The air had become too thick and we’d both began to tire. It wasn’t until I called myself Black American that I could see a weight being lifted from his shoulders. He smiled for the first time in about half an hour. I knew then I had done something wrong, and that he had won some sort of victory.
“I’m so glad that you call yourself Black American. I just had a heated debate with a colleague that considers herself African American and I told her that she was wrong to call herself that,” he said with much relief.
The moments thereafter were consequences of my nonexistent social life. Though I have lived in a multicultural, international environment for years, marriage and motherhood had taking me out the contexts in which these sorts of conversation could happen. So there I sat, unprepared for this change in rhythm and tune. I was no longer in a routined torpor.
Rage and shock took over as I questioned his audacity to tell someone what they could or could not racially and ethnically identify with. I mocked his rashness in deeming himself more African than African Americans. Here is where I lost. Here is where I tossed in charged words like “colonizers, rapist, murders, and privileged.” I made him admit to his true Dutch ancestry in an attempt to take away his “Afrikaan-ist.”
The conversation ended with my attempts to salvage what was left of what I’d butchered, and more calmly explain to him why he was wrong. I explained the callousness of trying to control a narrative that had nothing to do with him. I attempted to illustrate the plight of African Americans having to identify with an entire continent due to the slave trade. I defined privilege. I’m not sure if he heard me or if his agreement was just his way to retreat from the war that I just called upon moments before. I am only confident that he will not say it again, even if his proclivity remains.
So, when a Black American woman and a Afrikaner man walk into a bar, the Black American woman leaves as an African American woman with traces of her American political nomenclatures left on a bar stool. The Afrikaner man remains, possibly, unchanged.