|By A.D. Freudenheim||
1 September 2001
I recently returned from a trip to South Africa, a fascinating and all-too-brief journey to a country that is, right now, very much at the center of the world's attention. Though the trip had nothing at all to do with the United Nations' conference on racism currently being held in Durban, while traveling around South Africa the subject of race was unavoidable.
From the instant I landed to the moment I left, every interaction with someone in a service position was a reminder of the racially divided Apartheid society that existed - formally, for the forty-six year period from 1948 to 1994, and informally for several hundred years before that - and which so severely subjugated Blacks and "Coloreds" solely because of the color of their skin. By and large, anyone in a servile position that required no authority or broad knowledge was either Black or Colored, while people with management responsibilities tended to be white: the hosts at restaurants were white, the waiters usually not; the hotel cleaning and catering staff was either Black or Colored, while the maitre d'hôtel was typically white. Patrons at these restaurants, hotels, or shops? White. Reinforcing the distinction - seemingly a reminder of an Apartheid system that was supposed to have been abolished - were signs over the entrances to many of these establishments, noting: "Right of Admission Reserved." Though these signs may well have been intended only to help keep out the "riff-raff," the message seemed clear nonetheless.
Initially, as I digested each day's activities into a diary of my trip, I thought that I had only one experience with which to compare what I saw around me. When else had I been so conscious of being white, of the possibility that I might be (negatively) identified as part of an elite and oppressive minority? Several years ago, I visited Mali, a poor and land-locked country of ten million people in north-west Africa that could not be more different from South Africa. A former French colony, it is significantly less "developed" (to use the white world's terminology); by comparison to South Africa it has only a minimal infrastructure, few paved roads or highways, sporadic delivery of telephone and electrical service, and an overall lack of mechanization or industry. However, there are few whites in Mali, which makes most distinctions between people not racial but either economic or tribal; in Mali, I felt only like a tourist, an outsider. By comparison, in South Africa I was mindful of being viewed as someone who could have been part of that country's ruling class, even though I am not.
Digging deeper, I realized that I was misleading myself, that I should not be looking to relate my experiences to Mali so much as to my life at home. In New York, there are racial divisions that exist everywhere: though the waiters here may come from any background, those clearing dishes or handling the trash are mostly Hispanic; the taxi drivers and the people selling food from sidewalk carts are almost never white, while the business-suited workers I see in the subway each day are almost exclusively white. Was my South African experience so much beyond the American norm?
More likely, I think, is that as a white American - even one living in the very mixed city of New York - it is much easier, to say nothing of desirable, to forget about the current and historical role that racial divisions play in the U.S., and to focus instead on similar issues through a lens of economics and class. Because white Americans still constitutes the largest single part of the population, we can fool ourselves into thinking that though some of our problems involve a bland kind of discrimination against a few minority groups, the economic issues are the dominant ones. Our problems are not supposed to be similar to those of the South Africans, where a white minority was engaged in the wholesale oppression of the black majority. We want to believe that for those who have the money, few other obstacles ultimately exist: in America, the right of admission may be reserved, but isn't that right for sale? That is as much a part of the American mythology as it is a component of real life.
My trip to South Africa was wonderful, and I look forward - eagerly! - to some opportunity to return for another visit. Part of what makes traveling to other places meaningful for me is the opportunity, at the end, to return home and reflect on the experience. From that perspective, the trip was also rewarding, since it reminded me all over again how complicated life can be - and not to take it for granted.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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