“You’re really pretty for an Indian girl”
“I’m not racist, I just couldn’t date a black guy. It’s a preference ok?”
“I’d never waste my time with a white boy”
Be honest, you’ve heard these types of statements before. Maybe as your own words or shamefully echoing in the secrecy of your thoughts. Perhaps they were said in bold confidence by a friend or whispered in hushed conversation. Not long ago I would have thought these comments ridiculous and I still do today, albeit for different reasons. For a long time I proudly claimed to be colorblind. Not only did I not see race, I found the concept silly, a decayed and dangerous idea that should be locked in the past. Acknowledging the existence of race was as bad as racism itself. How did one stop discrimination and end prejudice? Don’t talk about it, silence it into non-existence.
See, I didn’t spend most of my childhood and high school years in South Africa. The country’s history and the baggage which is the collective burden of its people, were almost totally alien to me. Fortunately, innocence, and the ignorance which feeds it, cannot last forever. My non-racialism was corrupted, its foundations shook and pillars obliterated by an inevitable collision with the reality of race in South Africa. No it wasn’t the result of reading Biko or Fanon. I wasn’t rattled by a Spike Lee Joint or shook by a James Baldwin essay. Truth, or what one perceives to be truth, vividly reveals itself in the minor occurrences of daily life. The issue is how we deal with truth. Truth unravels but also distorts previous views of reality that we’d placed so much faith in. It is seldom comfortable and rarely functions for our convenience.
It was 2013, I was in grade 11 and crushing on a guy in grade 10. Let’s call this crush David. Tired of wasting affection on straight men who’d never return it, I hoped for something that would end the lonely purgatory that had been high school so far. Through what I thought was the alignment of the universe in my favor, David and I became good friends. Was he gay/bi/queer? – I didn’t know. His introversion, musical affinity and obsessions with Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse gave me hope. A few months later he came out to me. I was elated by the news and honored by his trust in me. One afternoon we’d been discussing “types”. Suddenly, with no inhibition or caution, he said,
“Ja but I couldn’t hook up with a black guy. Their features are just so…rough. I couldn’t see myself doing it”
Being 17, I was drunk on notions of him being “the one”, that exceptional person who’d remain mine forever and his confession left me emotionally devastated. More than his words implying rejection, they highlighted my blackness in a way that could not be ignored. I was disorientated. I felt caged by my body and constantly suffocated by my skin. Never before did my lips seem so big, my nose so flat and large, my hair so dirtily riddled by curls and coils. My skin and what it communicated to the world beyond it, had denied me love. For the first time in my life I was overtly aware of myself as black; black and everything that was the total opposite of beautiful. Moreover, David’s whiteness was birthed into my consciousness with a new and enraging significance. The brilliant blue of his eyes, the cotton hue his skin and the impeccable straightness of his blonde hair- it became something I both resented and envied in shame. I felt betrayed, but by whom I wasn’t totally sure. Nonetheless, a distrust and rage at white people was sown into my mind from that moment on.
During most of high school, my shallow non-racialism was accompanied and badly complimented by a distaste for feminism. I was one of those edgy New Atheist kids, praying at the alter Christopher Hitchens and fetishizing values like “reason” and “rationality”. The concerns of women were minor and blown out of proportion. The terrors of the patriarchy, in my mind back then, could be solved solely through enlightened debate and discussion. Concepts such as objectification seemed so abstract and again, exaggerations. Again, reality wasn’t willing to let my arrogant assumptions go unchallenged. An ex-girlfriend once told me of the reaction of her male Indian co-workers to the fact that she was dating a black guy.
“Why? Is it because he has a big dick?” they asked her, as though nothing else could motivate someone to be in a relationship with an African. Whether such comments were said jokingly or not, the point they attempt to make remains painfully clear. This a tame example of what black men who exist in predominantly non-black spaces experience all the time. Such experiences pumped disturbing vitality into the concept of objectification. Each joke, euphemism or comment reminds you that in the eyes of others, you still aren’t totally human. Instead of a loving boyfriend or a fun casual hook up, you’re Big Black Cock, an exotic instrument for others to live out their taboo fantasies. You –the Black Bull, the Mandingo- violate the innocence of white daughters and the honor of white wives, you taint the property of Indian men. You’re not a man, you’re a landscape that offers the opportunity, for those who’d never hesitate to call you boy or kaffir, to explore that dark continent, that savage and untamed land, that was subdued not so long ago.
What’s funny, and definitely sad, is how some black men take pride in these stereotypes.
My anger when I heard or endured racism in a sexual or romantic context was accompanied by confusion. A deep and persistent bewilderment urged me to ask certain questions: if desire is subjective, can it then be racist? Are interracial relationships overrated? Is the personal always political? These series of posts are my attempt to explore such questions, and maybe begin to answer them.
My experiences aren’t unique nor are they solely endured by black men. A friend once told me of how she’d cut ties with a white guy she’d been vibing with. After a week of texting, he asked for nudes. To him, the crude request was justified because “he’d never seen Indian pussy”. Private and former Model C schools have at least one Vanilla Killer in the student body. These are black men who pride themselves on their ability to date and sleep with white women. Acquiring white women like trophies to distinguish themselves above the status of their “brothers”. Going into university and the larger world beyond my former model C school, I began to realize racism hadn’t been relegated to the past. Racism has evolved, permeating so much beyond the sphere of governmental politics. Racism tinges and taints the delicate fabric of our personal lives in ways we’ve barely begun to examine as a country.
I don’t think that the continued existence of racism is driven by hatred or resentment. I’d be confident to argue that most white South Africans do not actually hate black people and that most never have. Hatred, sincere and potent hatred, requires a proximity and hurtful interaction to another person that white citizens never had to black South Africans or any people of color. What has existed between us for centuries is distance, a seemingly bottomless and wide chasm dug by legislation/policy that alienated us from each other as human beings. Black people (and people of color in general) are not hated, rather they are feared as the Unknown Other. The history, language and culture of Indians, coloreds and black people is still, in the minds of many white South Africans, a mystery. This generally also applies to the relationships between communities of color. The subtle but pervasive hostility that exists between Indians and black people in KwaZulu-Natal is a sad consequence of a shared ignorance the groups have regarding each other. The result of this alienation from each other, we now only see each other in narrow and damaging categories.
It is fear, based on and coupled with ignorance, that allows racism, both systemic and interpersonal, to flourish in 2018. South Africans don’t understand each other and this ignorance hinders our emotional and intellectual capacities for empathy and compassion, which are the foundation of the emancipatory politics that brought political apartheid to an end.
Ignorance, indifference and fear find their loudest expression in the bedroom. And in doing so they limit our human possibilities for love, intimacy, sexual experimentation and fun. In the upcoming post I’ll be exploring what forces (economic, cultural, and political) generate the myths and fantasies surrounding racial sexuality.
***Zulu is an undergraduate political science student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and currently running a blog that deals with issues of identity that concern “born free” South Africans.