What Some White People Say About Us in Private
Their conversations may turn dark corners when Blacks aren’t around.
There are some conversations that are more likely to happen when a person of color isn’t within earshot. A prime example would be the conversation my friend Rob recounted one night while we were having dinner in Cape Town. Of course, being black, he hadn’t heard it firsthand. It was a conversation that was passed along to him by a white female friend who had been a part of it. Had Rob been there, the exchange probably wouldn’t have happened at all.
As terribly disturbing conversations go, I would have placed it at number one with a bullet, ahead of all the ones I’d heard or been part of in the previous year or two. I hadn’t cringed so hard over a statement that was made to someone else since several years earlier when Rob told me what his ex-girlfriend, who was white, said when he broke up with her: “I should have known this would happen if I dated a n****r.”
What could possibly be as bad as that? What could possibly begin to approach its vicinity of heinousness? Answer: what a stranger in London with a hard-to-place accent said to Rob’s white female friend one night. She knew he wasn’t a Brit, but she couldn’t pinpoint his home country just by listening to him speak. Let the guessing game begin!
I’ve actually been that guy, the one whose geographical origin nobody could quite figure out. “So where are you from?” people ask me all the time as they struggle to place the slight Caribbean accent that I have never lost completely, not even more than forty years after leaving the Virgin Islands at age four and moving with my family to Florida.
“I’m from the Virgin Islands,” I always answer, having outgrown my old impulse to come up with some unexpected place, like Sweden, just to mess with people’s heads. If only the leading man in Rob’s story had just stated his home country and left it at that. Instead …
“Let’s put it this way: I hate black people.”
This is the part of the story where I was so shocked I nearly choked on my lamb burger and failed to get all of the extraneous details that any decent journalist would demand. Did Rob’s friend guess he was from South Africa? Was it her first choice? Her second? Her third? What other countries did she offer?
Or did the stranger in London with the hard-to-place accent just follow his very inflammatory and offensive comment with the context of where he was from, because even he knew it wasn’t as obvious as he was making it out to be? Clearly he was alluding to South Africa’s history of apartheid and systemic racism, but it’s not like there aren’t other countries with a shameful racist legacy.
Even after living in South Africa for more than three months and witnessing the complicated racial politics here firsthand, “South Africa” would not necessarily have been my first guess. After hearing Rob’s story, the first thing that popped into my head was: He must be from Alabama. It had nothing to do with my own reality, as I had never spent any significant time in Alabama. Actually, that silly guy could have been from anywhere.
Once I got over the shock of his brutal honesty — in such a politically correct age, it was rare to find anyone so willing to proudly own his racism — I started thinking about the implications of it. I wasn’t sure which was worse: his suggestion that white South Africans are inclined to hate black people, or his suggestion that it should be a given around the world that South Africans hate black people.
Or maybe he was being ironic, like Eminem, using a politically incorrect statement to underscore the political incorrectness of others. Alas, irony is a tricky thing. It’s so hard to get it right when the subject is race or sexual orientation.
Even if I were willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to someone who would dare say “I hate black people” by accepting the irony explanation, who had given him the right to speak for the entire white population of a country? Despite South Africa’s relatively recent political history, to suggest that all white South Africans hate black people was as lazy as saying that all black people are lazy.
After I lost interest in trying to figure out his motivation, I wondered why he had chosen to live in London, a city with a significant black population, when he could have gone to some Scandinavian country and live out his days unsullied by the presence of black folks. I imagined he must have left South Africa to get away from them, after all.
I didn’t take what he said as being indicative of white South Africans’ collective view of black people. I would have hated to have been seen as a spokesperson for my entire race, and I definitely didn’t want anyone to presume that the ramblings of someone from the same country as me or the same color as me represented my feelings or the feelings of black Americans in general.
If nothing else, “Let’s put it this way: I hate black people” so casually offered by an average guy not unlike the one next door, or the one in the next cubicle or office, underscored how much we had yet to overcome, in South Africa, in London, everywhere. That racist guy in the London bar may not have been speaking for every white South African, but he was speaking for more people in more countries than most of us even realize.