Language & Privilege


(Pt.1 because there is way too much to talk about when joining these two ideas)

Week 1 in Durban, South Africa.

I arrived in Durban, South Africa on Friday to being my Fulbright teaching journey. We are staying at an Air BnB this week while we apartment hunt. Our Air BnB host is this sweet, old white lady with this beautiful property that she rents out to travelers. Today she  invited us to join her at her private beach club.

We got to the private beach club and I easily notice that I was the only black person there that does not work there. (With the exception of my roommate who is mixed, and would be categorized as “coloured” here, the term used for mixed people in South Africa.) I try not to feel uncomfortable about it, I’m clearly here to have a good time, so I proceed to do just that.

After a dip in the ocean I laid out on my towel to continue reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. A black man walked past in hopes of getting some food or monetary assistance. As I looked up from my book to people-watch and happened to make eye contact with him so I  give a friendly nod. Everybody deserves some sort of human affirmation, whether they are hungry or not. Slash, he could have just as easily not been looking for help on the beach, a small number of black men had walked past, minding their own business. As a result of that eye contact he came over to me. I put my head down and went back to reading my book. He kneeled over by me and started speaking to me in Zulu. I’ve been here for two days and English is one of the 11 official languages here, so I’m yet to learn Zulu or any other and blanked on the basic greetings that I had learned. So I repeated “Kunjani” once he said it, because that sounded like a greeting that I had learned, then returned to my book.

A white lady near by begins to shew him away. He switches to English to say, “I’m just talking” and goes back to speaking to me in Zulu. Not having any South African money yet and no food on me, I had nothing to give him and all I could do was shake my head. As a result he walked away and I couldn’t help but think about how he must have felt.

As human beings, we are naturally aware of color. For anyone who is confused, you are not color blind. When we enter spaces we are aware of whether we are in a familiar space, often times based on surface features before we go deeper than that. If I’m lying, look at the demographics of your church or circle of close friends from your job, neighborhood, school, etc. Anyhow, I walked in aware that there was not necessarily another easily identifiable black person to occupy that space with me, and while not my preferred scenario, that’s life, so I rolled with it. He saw me as he walked past my spot on the beach in the moment when my friends were in the water. Prime opportunity to connect with this sister. If anyone out there would help him, it would be me, right? But here I am, American af, reading a book in the sun, unable to communicate outside of the English language (and concerned that my American accent may cause the assumption that I have something to give) and therefore did not fully acknowledge this brother’s humanity before allowing him to be shewed away.

This is not my first time in South Africa, but the last time I was here, I happened to be studying at the campus where the apartheid was written, Stellenbosch University (this is why you should read the fine print before you hop on a plane in college) so it was a very white-washed experience that had it’s fair share of racism. The few black South African friends I had were the few that went to the school and we only saw other black people if they were maids, janitors or cooks. Signs on campus were in Afrikaans (the language of white South Africans) so if you didn’t speak it, good luck getting around.

I want this experience to be different. I want to delve into the authenticity of this culture. I want to be able to communicate with the people, learn from the people, even if they are hungry, maybe even especially if they are hungry.

Which leads me to a convo that I had with my brother yesterday… see part 2.

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