Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Post-Apartheid: A White Woman and a Black Woman Walk Down the Street…It is Unremarkable.

Abstraction of Global Africa
A woman in an on-line group I belong to shared this comment with me: "I was at an Romance Writers of America party in the early '90's and we were talking about apartheid and a best selling author said, 'What's apartheid?' It spoiled my whole concept of her."

I'd been noodling with how to re-commence my blogging life, and this seemed to be a good way back in.

Apartheid. It's extraordinary to me that a grown woman in the early 1990s couldn't have known about Apartheid. Here's the beginning of the Wikipedia entry on Apartheid:

Apartheid (meaning separateness in Afrikaans, cognate to English apart and -hood) was a system of legalized racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990. Apartheid had its roots in the history of colonisation and settlement of southern Africa, with the development of practices and policies of separation along racial lines and domination by European settlers and their descendents.

So, at that time, the time the best-selling romance author didn't know what Apartheid was, Apartheid had just ended, and it was a HUGE victory for humankind, for human rights. It's beyond belief that anyone in the entire kingdom of the world could not have known not only what it was, but that it had ended...and the enormous costs of that ending.

Getting to Know Apartheid First Hand, Just a Little

When I lived and worked in Botswana (twice) in the 1970s, I went through South Africa mostly for travel. During one period, I had to frequently go there in order to return to Botswana and refresh all my permits and visa as I struggled to get legal.

During that time, I understood ever more fully the destructiveness and crushing-ness of Apartheid. I couldn't even walk with Black African friends on the streets.

My parents, when they came to visit me, on their way up to Botswana, still in Johannesburg, got on the wrong bus...the one for blacks. The Black Africans on the bus waved frantically to them to get off. My parents were slow on the uptake, but obeyed instructions. To them, it was just a bus, not part of an intricate system of oppression.

To be in South Africa now, Post-Apartheid, was such a joy, such a relief.

Seeing Color as a Way of Honoring

In conversation with my blogging buddy Damaria Senne at her kitchen table in Johannesburg recently, we spoke about how folks say, "Well, I don't see color." We both laughed, expressing how outrageous we felt this belief to be.

I said, "I want to say to these people. 'Oh, is there something wrong with your eyesight? Have you been having problems focusing recently?'" And then we laughed some more.

And then Damaria, with her delightfully wicked sense of humor, said, "Yes, maybe we could loan these people some glasses that would allow them to see color and all the rest that makes each of us unique."

And we continued talking, in perfect agreement that seeing color was not the same as being a racist and that to see color is to honor the completeness of the person you are seeing. To see color is be comfortable with color: one's own and others'.

We Walk Down the Street...Together

And, now, in 2008, 18 years Post-Apartheid, Damaria Senne and I can walk together all around her neighborhood and over to a street with swanky shops without fear of being picked up by the police simply because a white woman and a black woman walked together. A black woman and a white woman walking together? It is unremarkable, as it should be.

So, no matter what anyone wants to say about the state of the nation...we have now have that in South Africa. And, to me, that's quite a bit.

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5 Responses »

  1. Janet,
    I must admit, I'm amazed anyone would not know about aparthied now, much less then when it was all over the news. But the wonderful thing is that now, you and your friend can walk together wherever and whenever you want. And you could even take a bus, too. Yeah!!
    Glad to see you're feeling better and you're back to blogging.

  2. On "I don't see color," I agree and also I disagree. There was a time in my life, in the 1970s, when I lived almost entirely "inside" Ghana, with very little contact with Westerner, and reached the point when the only time I might "see color" would be if I happened to look in a mirror (an image that some black Americans of the time might have said wasn't color at all, but "absence of color"...). Subsequently... in sojourns back in America, in Nigeria, in Turkey, in Afghanistan, in China... I reached a point where I realized that I didn't "see color". It was simply not a category used in my reaction to people. And while I recognize that it remains a category much used by many people, in the way they look at other people, and is held in place by much weight of history, it is in fact an empty category. It has nothing to do with character, or culture, or possibility, at least not until people fill it with their own prejudices or presumptions which they then seek to impose on others.
    That said, in America still, and in South Africa still, there is no question that people continue to "see color," and all too often to be blinded by it.

  3. Alan,
    Yes, I agree with you, as well. My comments and our private joke was of course, aimed at people who use this phrase in the same way the phrase, "Oh, but some of my best friends are..."

    You went through a deep and lasting transformation in your life which left you with such a strong sense of personal comfort with yourself and those you meet--of whatever background or color--that those around you feel it as palpable.

    You are one of the strongest human beings, humanists, mensches, I know.

    Being white in a mainly black world in my 5 yeas in Africa changed my sense of self and color, especially my own color.

    My students in Ghana showed me how to look at skin undertones in order to more clearly describe someone as blue-black or red-black or yellow-brown. While I myself was pink and tan with purple veins.

    I agree with you especially when you say "not a category used in my reaction to people." It's the word react that is key. And in that sense, I agree it is an "empty category" but is, in fact, often linked with "character, culture, and possibility." It's a big subject for sure.


  4. Janet,

    How could she have asked such a ridiculous about apathied? In her own country? Are you sure she was not pretending? Or is it that there was another name for that in South Africa? Something was wrong somewhere i think. Anyway, it is a relief that liberation came at last! Liberation after untold physical, emotional, social, and psychological torture.


  5. Janet,

    How could she have asked such a ridiculous question about apathied? In her own country? Are you sure she was not pretending? Or is it that there was another name for that in South Africa? Something was wrong somewhere i think. Anyway, it is a huge relief that liberation came at last! Liberation after many years of untold physical, emotional. social, and psychological torture.

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