But is it racism?
Another year, another viral story about Cape Town’s insidious racism.
This time the story came from a young woman who was visiting the city with her family over the festive season. At some point, she and her family tried to make reservations at an upmarket Camps Bay restaurant, using (as you do) their own black name. They were told the restaurant could not accommodate their party. Suspecting that something was not quite right, they asked a white friend to try and make the same reservation, for a party of same size, on the same night, using her white name. She was accommodated without incident. But the saga didn’t end there: when the family arrived at the restaurant, they were seated, with clear reservations (pun intended), only to be unceremoniously unseated and told that their reservation could not be found. What followed was a series of insult after insult being heaped upon the initial appalling injury. Thankfully, the family did not take it lying down. Complaints were lodged at the time and they and their white friend who made the booking on their behalf have since spoken out on various media platforms.
Which has all reopened the very tired conversation about race and racism in Cape Town. And with that come the denials and the tiresome accusations of race card pulling. A particularly frustrating example can be found in the interview the manager of the offending restaurant gave to Cape Talk. The segment begins with an account of the event from the young woman. The manager is given a chance to respond. Not once does he apologise for the experience this family had. Instead, he proceeds to explain away each aspect of their story, essentially writing it all off as a series of unfortunate administrative errors. What’s worse is that the anchor – who interrupted the young woman’s account often to ask questions of clarity – gives this guy a full hearing and seems to concede that this was a series of ‘unfortunate events’.
I was confronted by another example of this denialism when I told the story to a group of mainly white colleagues over lunch. Cape Town, I told them, can be brutal in its quiet racism. One of my colleagues balked. “You always hear that,” she began, “but I have never experienced it”. Even faced with the absurdity of that statement – here is a young white woman telling me that it might not be racism because she has never experienced it – I felt I was on the back foot. Black people will know this feeling: you experienced something, it was racism, you know in your bones it was, but it wasn’t the kind of racism where you’re thrown in jail or beaten for the colour of your skin. Instead, it was the very quiet kind that when scrutinized can easily be explained away as a ‘misunderstanding’. You know what people will tell you: look for racism and you’ll find it anywhere. So, really, the fault is yours, you’re looking too hard. In such a situation, you are initially shocked. You thought it was blatantly obvious that this was about race. You try to explain this to your detractors, present evidence that will convince them to validate your experience. Which is what I did. I started with another anecdote, courtesy of my aunt. After our December wedding two years ago, my mother’s family (aunts, uncles, cousins) stayed for the rest of the holiday season. One of their stops on their tour of Cape Town included Table Mountain. When the group was in the process of joining the cable car queue, my aunt heard an obviously irritated white woman say “How many of them are there?!” “Lots”, my aunt told her, “so you need to just relax”. There. This, I thought, was inalienable evidence of the crazy-making now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t racism that permeates life in Cape Town. “Well, she could have easily said that about an Afrikaans family”, my white colleague countered. Right, okay. Seeing that she is a woman, I appealed to her status as a fellow member of a ‘designated group’. I pulled the sexism card, ya’ll. “But even though you don’t have proof, you know. It’s like when someone is condescending to you and you just know it’s because you’re a woman and there is no other reason”, I told her. She didn’t seem to buy it. Defeated, I walked away. And then I did that final thing we all do. I questioned myself. Do I see race too easily? Am I too quick to play the victim in situations like this? Maybe it was a series of administrative errors. Maybe that woman in the cable car queue would have said the same thing about a large group of white tourists. Perhaps, perchance.
But then, I realized the absurdity of it all. On the word of a white woman, who denies me my experience because she has never had it, I was denying myself my own narrative. It hit me: this is how whiteness operates. An experience that is echoed by several other black people is declared imaginary because this one white person has not experienced it. And what’s worse is the confidence with which my colleague felt she could dismiss the story. And how quickly her absolute certainty called my own into question.
That is one of the more infuriating parts about living in Cape Town. It’s not just the racism (not that the racism is fun). It’s that even when you experience these everyday slights which, when taken together can really start to gnaw away at your soul, you are still in the position of the defendant, having to justify your anger and despair. As the young woman who was on the Cape talk segment said, the word of this single white hotel employee trumps the shared experience of six black people. He was dismissive and unapologetic and failed to even entertain the possibility that some of his staff may have acted out of personal prejudice, even if this prejudice is not sanctioned by the restaurant.
So what’s a way out of this? What I want, as a black person living in this city, is not to win the argument and convince everyone that it is indeed racism. What I want is to be heard when I tell these stories and not have them immediately dismissed as figments of my overactive black imagination. I want it known that these are not stories I enjoy living or telling. I wanted my white colleague to say “That sounds awful”. That’s it. You don’t have to buy it. But you have to be open enough to the experience of the ‘others’ in this city to understand that there are things they live that you cannot know or comprehend. Trust the narrative of the other: it hurt us, and it felt like racism, and that’s all you need to know. Do not engage into a debate with us, and demand further evidence.
This morning, a friend of mine posted an article about racism in the accommodation industry in Cape Town. I have experienced a variation of this: some years ago, before I took my husband’s white last name, I was frantically trying to book accommodation for a surprise anniversary trip, in the middle of May (off-season). Of course, I filled out those enquiry forms using my own black name (as you do). I heard back from three who told me they were fully booked (in May, off season, by the way). The other guesthouses didn’t bother to respond. When I enquired once more using my husband’s very white name, I heard back from the silent guesthouses, and from at least one of the previously unfortunately ‘fully booked’ places that suddenly had room at the inn for us. I hadn’t shared this story but seeing people commenting on my friend’s post and sharing their own stories, I felt the need to share my own, briefly and hesitantly, nervous about the possible denialism to follow. There was no denialism. All of the comments agreed – this is awful and says terribly things about this city and this country. And I felt a little shift in the weight that’s been on my shoulders since last year’s banner year in Cape Town racism. It doesn’t fix the racism, but it takes away the added burden of having to constantly explain and justify one’s pain. If we can, as a city, as a country, agree to this – trust each other’s pain rather than adding to it – then we will have taken one step forward amidst all of the backward stepping that abounds.