I was really, really scared to put this online. But that fear, is the exact reason why I am doing it.
Yesterday was a tough one for South Africa. Watching the videos of the violence at TUKS pour onto Twitter and watching such a clearly racialised fight break out was disturbing, and sadly, somewhat unsurprising. These are big issues. Big arguments we are trying to cope with.
But something small happened yesterday, which reminded me of the daily aggression of racism which then scales right up to group violence on a rugby field.
I was buying my lunch at Woolworths, in the quiet and cozy northern suburbs. While I was looking at the meals I heard a maybe 30-year-old woman to my right, blonde highlights, iPad mini tucked under her arm, raise her voice to the woman working behind the patisserie counter.
She was speaking in that loud voice reserved for people who you perceive to be stupid or who speak another language than you. She drawled, “GIRLIE! Hello?! Don’t you think you should help the customer standing in front of you and stop what you are doing?!”.
The lady behind the counter was trying to put some sausage rolls into the oven behind her. She mumbled something, a quiet explanation, but only a whisper of it came out before this blonde nightmare went “NO girlie, you help me first. Okay?”
It’s these moments of daily humiliation. The look that flashed across the shop assistant’s face. Of anger. Humiliation at being called “girlie” by a woman ten years younger than her. Being spoken to like a child. Being spoken to like she was stupid.
I, as a stander-by, felt the instinct to say something rise in my throat, but my lifetime of not standing up for what is right won and I swallowed the ball of indignation in my throat. The woman got her roast chicken leg and stomped off to the till. I stood in a bit of a daze.
The sausage rolls
So that’s how it is, I thought. I say I want to help, I say I want to contribute. I say I know the work has to begin with the white community challenging itself and it’s own most racist elements. This woman, she’s a stranger but she’s not. I know that tantrum. I’ve thrown that tantrum. I know that that woman behind the counter and every person in any kind of service position has to deal with some white people throwing tantrums when the world doesn’t do e.x.a.c.t.l.y what they want. Even if it means waiting 20 seconds for a person to load sausage rolls into an oven.
I got to the queue, and she was in front of me. Face of thunder. I stood there for the few minutes and my mind was whirling. Have I not been taught that if you do nothing in the face of horrible actions, you consent to them? Do I not believe that as a society we have to stand up for what is right and condemn what we believe to be cruel, unfair or unjust action? Had I not just spoken to someone the night before about how standing up for what is right doesn’t have to be a moral or philosophical choice, but makes sense as an economic one?
We exited at the same time, and I thought, okay, I’ll say something. I didn’t want to cause a drama in the shop, I didn’t think she’s react particularly well to being publicly called out. So I’ll just quickly say something to her in the parking lot, just the two of us.
I gathered up my nerves and said, “Sorry, excuse me.”
She turned around, eyes suspicious. This wan’t a person who was in a good mood to start with.
“Sorry, I wasn’t going to say anything but I just have to, for my own sake. I just don’t think the way you addressed that lady in there was very ni…”
And that’s as far as I got. She completely freaked out.
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? WHO THE FUCK?!! FUCK YOU! REALLY! FUCK YOU! I FEEL SORRY FOR YOU. YOU’RE FUCKING CRAZY!”
She threw a few more “fuck you’s” as she got into her car and I backed off and got into mine.
I drove up the road to my house, hands shaking. I called a friend and had a little cry, mostly just from the shock of being yelled at like that, something I don’t recall ever really happening in my life. But a few hours later when I had calmed down, a deep deep anger and sadness kicked in. Here I was thinking, we just need to get people to understand white privilege. We just need them to realise that there needs to be much more flexibility, much more willingness to listen to ideas and to sit down at the communal table and go, I’m here, I’m not running away, what can I do to help?
But yesterday, the level of violence and hatred and venom spat at me from a complete stranger for confronting her lack of manners, her lack of humanity, her lack of respect, showed me as a white person how desperately far behind we are as a community. How deeply entrenched in our privilege. How disconnected we can be from a country and economy that’s purpose for so long has been to serve us. Coddle us. Pander to our tantrums.
I had been playing in lala-land of academia and journalism where the white people around me are engaged, looking for solutions, looking to participate; forgetting that they are such a ridiculously small minority I don’t know if they’d even collectively pull a 0.0001% of the country.
But, if you are out there, and you are reading this, please act. I don’t know if what I did was going about things the wrong way. But I’ve ripped off the plaster. You and I both know you see a conversation like that at least once a week. It’s time we hold our own community to account. If I dare say it, this isn’t even about race, it’s about basic ethics and morals and manners. Our privilege has dehumanised us. Let’s take our humanity back.
Wait in a queue without rolling your eyes and being snarky to the teller when you get to them. Take a deep breath in the traffic jam or when you get cut off in a taxi and don’t teach your rage to your child sitting in the back seat. Speak to those around you, regardless of race or age or religion, as you would like to be spoken to.
Wait 20 seconds for the shop assistant to put the sausage rolls in the oven at the Woolies on a Monday lunch-break.
Lisa Golden is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. This was first published on Medium.com