I could feel the other patrons’ eyes on our table.
Why was everyone looking at us? Apparently, white and black people enjoying a meal together in South Africa is not normal. At one point, this was illegal. These days it is just not something you do unless you want to subject yourself to the assumptions and judgements of those around you.
Racism is no longer as blunt as it once was. It is no longer socially acceptable to disallow someone from using a certain bathroom because of the colour of their skin. This doesn’t mean that discrimination is non-existent. This basically means that judging and treating someone differently because of their complexion is now mainly evident on a more subtle and social level. It is much more polite, but it is still so damaging to an individual.
This summer, I visited some of my extended family in a small town in South Africa. I was extremely upset to find that very little has changed. Let me paint you a picture: you find two colours in small-town South Africa: black and white. These colours do not mix or acknowledge one another unless it is for work-related purposes. Both keep to themselves. It is a country still heavily impacted by racist policies of the past.
Why is this happening? The main reason I was given was that “it’s not because we’re racist, it is because we just have very different cultures.” Yet I often heard comments about how black people are lazy drug addicts that get whatever they want because of the past which should no longer be relevant. This kind of opinion is certainly not exclusive to South Africa. In fact, even though we pride ourselves on multiculturalism in Canada, this same negative sentiment is found. The difference is that here in Canada, we believe racism doesn’t exist because we don’t see it. We safely keep it hidden away on a reserve behind the guise of “restitution.”
Racism is ever present in our society. Whether it be in the jokes we make, the caution we take when passing someone of a certain race on the street, or the stereotypes we subconsciously maintain. It is a lack of understanding as to the situation with First Nations in Canada. It means blaming them for the disparity they live in, as if we have nothing to do with it. Who got them there?
Overcoming racism begins with acknowledging that it exists and why it exists. This results in an awareness of comments we make and opinions we hold that affect how we treat others, consciously or subconsciously. Once we become aware of these biases, we can choose to listen to another person’s story and learn from their experience and try to understand where they are coming from. From there we can look at ourselves and ask the hard questions. The betterment of society will only come with every individual’s decision to practice empathy.
Let’s stop being polite.