A partner and I were once denied access to a game park because we were a mixed race couple. It was the first time I’d experienced racism, a single drop of ink that barely registered in the ocean of my privilege. For my partner, it was far more than a needless four-hour drive. This was like water torture for him: the constant drip drip drip of contempt that had tormented him for a lifetime.
On that day, found out how ignorant I was of the experience of racism.
A decade ago, a Zimbabwean friend insisted we start socialising in private because of the stares we attracted for being different races. I’d never noticed them because my skin was the colour of freedom—I had never developed the sensitivity. My country had a purgatory for people like Christy: They judged her in the suburbs for not being Caucasian. They judged her in the townships for not being South African. She ultimately left for Europe, and I saw a snapshot of how oblivious I was to what she’d faced day after day after day ever since she’d been old enough to pay attention.
In the years since she moved, I’ve watched Christy thrive. The ghost with the blue-collar job and The Loneliness has evolved into a woman, a mother, and a confident university graduate. She’s grown into her power. I suppose that’s what happens when xenophobia stops staining your life.
Like Christy, Monica was black and foreign. Unlike Christy, she didn’t give a damn about the staring or the xenophobia. Like me, she’d grown up sheltered from bigotry, so her confidence had never been battered by it. She ruled every street she walked on. She was an alpha, and she felt at home everywhere from Africa to Paris.
Before I was judged for being South African for the first time, I never imagined that being exposed to prejudice like that would feel like prejudice. I thought the absurdity of that kind of judgement would keep me from feeling torn down. I was wrong. For a moment, I felt as though someone had stolen my identity.
What is it like to have your individuality trampled every day of your life? I will never know because I’m white, but I’ve seen it in the difference between Monica’s go-to-hell poise and Christy’s constant attempts to shrink into invisibility.
I will never know how far racism leaks into everyday lives, how high it grows, how deeply it roots itself in people’s identities. Intellectual knowledge cannot tell me how overwhelming it is to have prejudice seep into every aspect of my existence from the threat of prison to the dearth of a life subdued because my education was designed to lock me in poverty. Those of us who are privileged can only listen and stop pretending we know how it feels.
Every time I write about the experience of being a woman, a man tells me I’m wrong, that he knows more than I do about sexism. In fact, he knows that sexism does not exist at all. We who talk about it are only angry.
Just like all these people of colour: they are just angry.
For no reason.
Those who are privileged know an awful lot about the world. The more privilege we have, the more all-knowing we become. As for those society maligns… well they’re just crazy, doncha know?
We’re just crazy.