Handling reactionary attitudes.
My holiday season this year was marred by an unfortunate incident at a North End ice-cream store on December 26, the national Day of Goodwill of all days. We waited in line while the Indian shopkeeper assisted two black women.
As we approached the front of the line, a number of white customers walked in. To my surprise, the shopkeeper immediately turned his attention to them even though we were next in line.
He took their order without even so much as an explanation as to why he was serving them before us. Trying to keep my anger in check, I informed the man that we were next in line but he paid me no attention.
It was surprising to me how the arrival of white customers changed his demeanour – he could not have come any faster to the assistance of his favoured customers even if he tried. That the shopkeeper is Indian does not disqualify this incident from being a race issue.
The history of racism in this country has unfortunately inculcated the belief of white supremacy that still persists in black and white people alike, and in this case the shopkeeper still clearly lives in a world where white people reign supreme. Having been ignored by the man, I turned my attention to the white customers who were more than happy to place their order even though they could see I had been there before them.
I asked that they wait their turn, hoping that was all it would take to correct the situation. I got a snarky response that it was not their fault that they were being served before me.
Clearly they felt entitled to go first and I could only assume that this entitlement stems from their belief that it is their birthright, because nothing else could justify such behaviour. Despite my rising anger I was searching my mind for the most eloquent thing to say to these people.
I wanted to show them how well spoken and educated I am, which would make them see how deserving I was of being served just like them.
I am quite used to racial innuendos, but I am not used to being outright dismissed and having a service delayed because of my skin colour. I have theoretically debated the appropriate response to racist situations with my friends but I found all that theorising had not prepared me for this actual assault on my dignity, the feeling of degradation, humiliation and all the other emotions that come with it.
I found the white customers’ response to my rant quite telling: they retorted that black people were getting all the jobs in South Africa. Were they now seeking revenge and holding me accountable for all that they perceived to be wrong with South Africa?
There is no political grievance that they could raise that could justify their behaviour. As if things could not get any worse, one of the white customers asked the shopkeeper not to serve me any dark chocolate ice-cream.
In case anyone was confused as to whether this was a racist incident or not, the dark chocolate ice-cream joke cleared up all the confusion. This was clearly meant to be a racially offensive joke because they all laughed.
The Indian man hardly looked up – there was a racial showdown in his little shop and not even once did he care enough to resolve it.
In a fit of rage I got in the face of the white man who made the joke, and called him a f***ing racist over and over again. I lost control and the only thing I could do was curse.
As I walked away from the ice-cream shop I felt defeated, and unprotected and let down by the constitution. I was the victim in this situation yet I was the one feeling extreme guilt for losing control and giving them the satisfaction of seeing me in that state.
I had let myself down by failing to prevail on the senses of the Indian shopkeeper and the white customers.
I had pleaded my case with no success and then resorted to cursing which left me with a sense of indignity.
Surely the struggle heroes who I look up to would have found something profound to say. The insidiousness of incidents such as this leaves the victim rather than the oppressor wrestling with his conscience.
Now that I have had time to reflect on my reaction I am unapologetic about it. The appropriateness of my response is not the issue here.
Educated or not, eloquent or not, no one is deserving of such treatment.
I should not have to make out a case why I should be treated fairly.
We are all entitled to fair treatment by virtue of being humans endowed with human rights. How can exchanges and behaviour like this still persist in our so-called free society?
It reminded me that there are pockets of prejudice and injustice that the constitution cannot remedy. I felt I had no recourse.
Even though I felt the constitution was useless to me in the face of blatant racism, it has in fact empowered me by giving me the voice and the means to write this letter and express to as many people who will read this what happened to me and how it made me feel. I also have hope.
I hope for the liberation of the Indian owner, and that he will treat all his customers alike and not favour one over the other because of the colour of their skin. I hope those white customers do not miss the good old days when black people were ordered to stand at the back of the bus, relegated to the periphery of society and groomed for nothing more than chopping wood and fetching water.
I hope they will live by rules set out in our constitution because the only alternative is anarchy, the anarchy I experienced in that ice-cream shop – where the constitution was unenforceable, resulting in the violation of my rights.
– Lwando Xaso, Johannesburg