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Ubuntu: the sticky subject of race

With Barack Obama as president in America, academics have discussed if we live in a “post-racial society” — are people still classified by the color of their skin? Can people, regardless of who they are, rise to the top?

As an avid dreamer who stands behind the philosophy that “you can do what you set your mind to”, I would argue that anyone can be who they want to be in America. However, that doesn’t come without a lot of hard work, obstacles and determination.

Why? Segregation and discrimination still exist in America. Everywhere I have lived — from a small coastal town to a large city — people of different races generally live in different neighborhoods or areas of the cities. Not all, of course, but most. From talking to African-American friends of mine, they say they are aware that they are black everyday and still feel that they are treated differently.

Interestingly enough, South Africa and America have similar racial histories, just during different time eras. For those of you who don’t know South African history, “Apartheid” was racial segregation enforced by the Afrikaner National Party rule from 1948-1994. During Apartheid, white supremacy was played out by placing people into racial categories — natives, whites, Asians and Coloureds (people of Indian decent or mixed race). The non-white groups had few rights, no voting power, were dislocated from urban areas and forced into townships outside of cities, received inadequate education, and so the list goes on.

Apartheid was abolished in 1990; however, the first democratic election in South Africa and Nelson Mandela assuming presidency in 1994 really kicked out the old tricks. I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that I was alive during Apartheid. Even if I was a baby, I was still here on this earth. Clearly, this dark time of South African history really wasn’t long ago because I still consider myself a youngin’.

Thus, South Africa is still pretty segregated. There is no doubt that I am the only white person that many in my village come in contact with in on a daily or weekly basis. Those of a different race don’t come to rural villages. Similarly, I found that people who have lived in Los Angeles their whole lives have never been to Watts or anywhere in that vicinity.

In my village, people know I am American, so nobody speaks Afrikaans to me. I can’t even begin to count how many times people tried to speak Afrikaans to me during my pre-service training stay in the Mpumalanga province. Every time someone spoke Afrikaans to me it made my skin crawl. I wanted to firmly say, “NO. I am American. I speak English.” I did not want to be associated with the history of South Africa just because of the color of my skin.

Just last Sunday, an Afrikaans man asked me if I was “coloured” because I have darker features and people never really know what I am. I was taken aback because why does it matter if I am or am not coloured? To me, a person is a person. I see straight beyond race back in America and never even think about it because I grew up around so many different kinds of people. I’ve never questioned the color of my skin or my “racial category” back in the states — I only brag that I get tan during summer or joke with my friends about my Native American heritage. The short conversation about my racial identity was an eye-opener for me because now I’m really experiencing a very racially aware country.

Likewise, about a month ago, a drunk Gogo screamed at my PCV friends and I at my host family’s house because she thought we were Afrikaners and that we were forcing the isiNdebele people to speak our language (which was a policy during Apartheid, all “natives” learned Afrikaans as a second language and not English). My Gogo explained otherwise to the lady, but I’ll always remember what was said. These two moments combined made me think about how racial resentment still exists among South Africans — and a little more openly than it does in the states (at least from my observations).

Besides that instance, I’ve never been treated poorly here because of the color of my skin and I doubt I will be. Everyone is so loving, caring and friendly because of the Ubuntu mentality among Africans in South Africa. However, this is the first time in my life I’ve really ever been completely aware of what perceptions people have of me when I may greet them on the street or in any casual encounter; people will always have preconceived notions about others based on race because it’s such a huge part of history.

Last year at Markham Middle School, I made a point to know where all of my student’s families immigrated from — Mexico or a specific country in Central America — because Central Americans get so offended when they are called Mexican and vice versa. I don’t know why and if there are any bad connotations with either of the geographic groups, but I do know one thing: Classifying people based on skin color can be an act of racism seen by those being classified. My 6th grade students were smart enough to point that out, too.

First impressions based on skin color are a vicious cycle the human race will never be able to pull itself out of. When people have classified me as an “Afrikaner” or “coloured” here, I finally felt like how my students did when people would classify them only as Mexican or whatever. This realization for me is a step toward understanding the racial communities I’ve been working in the past two years and will continue to work in.

And I know I’m not the victim here — nor is anyone because stereotyping can be an issue for all regardless of what race. I admit I would get angry and associate being called an Afrikaner off-the-bat with Apartheid history. Not all Afrikaners believe in segregation or supported Apartheid, so I’m guilty of racial stereotyping too.

I wish so much baggage didn’t tag along with people based on the color of their skin, spoken language, or geography, but it’s a part of human nature that all of us can fall under even when we don’t want to.

Some may never be at peace with understanding that we as humans actually share more similarities than differences — especially in countries like America and South Africa that have past segregation history. Too bad history will never be forgotten.

Signs of segregation during the Apartheid era in South Africa at the Apartheid museum

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