Two weeks ago, I retraced the path my ancestors took against their will and made my way across the Atlantic back to the Motherland.
I write now – and for the rest of this volume – from Cape Town, South Africa. This is my second time across the Atlantic, first time in the Southern Hemisphere and first time in Africa.
My first two weeks in Cape Town have presented me with a series of messy tensions that I’ll have to navigate over the next few weeks and months. The underlying themes to this messiness are: 1) addressing structural racism and class inequality that exists in, around and under the sites of leisure and consumption I visit as a foreigner; and 2) dealing with shifting intersections of power and privilege as I move around Cape Town and interact within the Stanford group. (While I am generally enjoying myself and have had some great experiences already, I focus on the critical for this column.)
De Facto Segregation
Undergirding my experiences have been class exclusion and exploitation that largely play out along lines of race. This exclusion is quite apparent, yet only silently discussed – if at all. What does it mean that wine tasting at vineyards, viewing cultural shows at a theater or climbing Table Mountain become quintessentially part of my South African experience – when the majority of people who live in the Western Cape have much different experiences?
Some more specific examples:
On my second night in the country, I went to a jazz club down one of the main streets in Cape Town with a friend from the program. She and I are both black Americans. Once we got inside, we very quickly realized that we were the only black people who were not on staff at the club (security, bartenders, hostess) – and the only non-white people in the space.
I’d had a sense before coming that we would encounter de facto segregation, but to see it so explicitly was unnerving. Our Americanness seemed to be the quality that allowed us to enter the space as consumers of pleasure and to feel relatively welcome (the discomfort we felt as foreigners may have masked the discomfort we may have felt had we been black Africans).
This experience of segregation has been the norm and not the exception during my leisure time in Cape Town. Wherever I’ve gone – either with other black students or as part of the larger program – we’ve always been the only black or mixed race group in restaurant, bars, etc. The only exceptions have been among other internationals or the elite of black South Africans.
On our first Saturday, some of us ventured to the Old Biscuit Mill, a farmers’ market about two kilometers from our house. This market allowed for a more ethnically diverse clientele, but everyone cleaning up after us was black and working-class, and all the ethnic minorities consuming goods were very markedly yuppies. My appearance (hair, clothes, accent) visibly made me a foreigner, but it was clear that in a different context–as a black South African from the neighborhood surrounding the market–I would not have been welcome.
And I’d learned from talking with a Capetonian friend of a Stanford friend that this biscuit mill has brought with it gentrification that has pushed out longstanding working-class and ethnic minority groups. This process is similar to the gentrification I’ve seen around the working-class and ethnic minority community where my mother grew up (Bushwick, Brooklyn – now witnessing the invasion of white “hipsters” from the one-and-only Williamsburg).
It’s partially this phenomenon that makes me uneasy about how to proceed over the coming few weeks. Talking with this same Capetonian friend, we discussed how the options seem for us seem to be either go out and halfheartedly participate in problematic spaces, or stay in.
Accessing blacker spaces could be possible for me in townships, but my Americanness brings with it similar class privilege that operates in the city center.
And this dilemma is another one that I have struggled to deal with so far.
American blackness in an African context
I had thought that, being black, interacting with black Africans would have been easier for me than for other American students. And while I have felt this to be the case at times, my nationality and its implications (being a viewed as a tourist with more wealth and/or opportunity) have ultimately been a boundary. In the United States, I can and do perceive a certain camaraderie with other black folks (under a shared history and present experience of oppression). But as an American in Africa, my suffering is not of the same degree as those I might see around me. Empathy or fraternity sometimes feel inaccessible and inappropriate.
This troubled me a lot when I first encountered it: why should I then pay the price of being American when my ancestors had no choice in their abduction and forcible transport to America? Where can I call “home” if I can never be welcome in the United States (where black inhumanity and enslavement are the fulcrum that supported the dominance of American capitalism and imperialism) and can never be welcome in the land where my origins trace (with the Middle Passage and my resulting Americanness creating an irreversible rift from Africa)?
In fleeting moments, I’d feel agitated and glum that there would never be a place for me to feel comfortable in this world.
And beyond discomfort with the structural implications of pleasure here, another reason I have less of an interest in going out during this South African summer is because of the frustration I’ve felt trying to navigate bars and clubs while being perceived as straight and having to interact within hetero-based gender dynamics.
‘Coolness’ and masculinity – and black masculinity in particular – have felt like areas that I will never fully have access to. To be a ‘cool’ guy is to interact in a certain way with men and a certain way with women that connotes and privileges straightness.
Finding safe social spaces is more difficult for me as (seemingly) the sole queer-identified student in the group, and I already know that I’ll find similar issue of racial, class- and nationality-based segregation in whatever gay spaces exist here.
So in the same way that I have felt that I can never overcome the weight that history has placed on American and African blackness, I have also felt defeatist about ever feeling comfortable interacting in the world as a queer person.
Other safe and open spaces?
The final large area of messiness I’ll note at this time surrounds what constitutes “safe” and “dangerous” spaces in the neighborhood where we live and take our classes.
Issues of non-violent petty crime do exist where we live, but this neighborhood is very solidly middle-class and these crimes may occur no more or no less than they would in any urban setting that is known for housing a significant Western student tourist population.
The correlation between “sketchiness” and blackness – and non-middle class blackness at that – is troubling, especially given that the real and worst of the violence in the Western Cape exists in the townships and is only experienced by Black and Coloured Africans, the structurally homeless, unemployed and underemployed.
For some in our group (primarily urban black students), the conditions of “danger” in our immediate environment may be no more and no less threatening than they are in our home communities. This may certainly be the case for me, having grown up in the predominantly black communities of Jamaica, Queens.
Having grown up used to hearing my communities or neighboring ones perceived as “threats” or called “sketchy” areas, I know that the reality of these issues exists, but know to resist hyperbolic generalizations.
My informal education at home consisted of knowing how and when to be aware of my belongings and surroundings and how not to stick out and make myself a vulnerable target in higher-risk areas. Here, I know that my perception of safety and threats to it is colored by my experience of race – I may feel safer or less uncomfortable in certain contexts than others who are not black.
It’s thrown me off to go from a quarter in which I began to define the frameworks through which I examine the world, the terms of my politics, and to discover the people with whom I felt comfortable discussing such topics, to a world in which I am completely back to square one.
I don’t feel as bleak about these topics now – I just know that it will be more of a challenge for me to find spaces here where I feel comfortable and can discuss such issues, topics and ideas.
I am trying to figure out how to be a foreigner without being a tourist and while minimizing the harmful effects my American privilege might have. I am trying to figure out where to find allies on the issues I care most about. I am wondering whether it is possible to break through the economic and racial segregation around me and start to build the cross-community relations and coalitions that have come to sustain me at Stanford. I think my Americanness and the short duration of my visit – not to mention the immense structural inequality of this country – will make answering this last question a task in vain.
Send Kristian a message across the Atlantic at kbailey ‘at’ stanford.edu.