This is the first in a series of reflections on my time studying in Cape Town, South Africa.
On my final day of my service placement in Cape Town, my branch coordinator took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood and adjacent settlements. While I had felt comfortable enough to walk on my own from the office to the mall two minutes away, I had not ventured beyond this developed area to walk past some of the shacks and the businesses being run outside its boundaries.
In fact, I had not noticed how many businesses and the variety of goods and services they offered that were in these shacks that we drove past every Wednesday and Thursday. In the van ride to and from the placement, I had been careful to simply look straight ahead – ever since uncomfortably feeling my tourist gaze during our community orientation tour at the beginning of the quarter. And whenever I walked down the street to the mall area, I similarly avoided eye contact. Most times when I was surrounded predominately by black South Africans, I also averted my gaze.
I was aware that being black means that I was not automatically seen as an American “other” by black South Africans – and this means that I did not necessarily have the identity of “wealthy” or “tourist” or “volunteer” projected onto me. Though I knew I was an outsider and though my hair certainly made me stand out as “not from Khayelitsha,” people identified me as “South African, but not from the Western Cape,” “African, but not South African” and “West African” – sometimes even after I spoke.
So though I could relax my sensitivity about projecting the tourist gaze onto others (when I traveled on my own or with other black students from our program, as opposed to riding through townships on our coach bus or moving in mixed-race groups), I still averted eye contact.
During our communities tour, I smiled, nodded and said hello to a parent sitting in the entrance to a specialized high school that we visited in Khayelitsha. She did not smile, nod back or say anything; she simply gave me a look that I interpreted to be one of disdain, in the context of our large, loud, American group streaming past her. Once I learned the word “molo” a few days later, I’d wondered if her response would have been any different had I addressed her in her own language. But that experience made me hypersensitive to how black South Africans might perceive and respond to me during my trip.
Moving forward, I need to develop a better way of engaging with the communities I encounter in my service, in my learning and in my service learning. Given my internationalist interest in struggles for justice, I will, more likely than not, be an “other” in the places I work. I will need to get over this feeling of “I am an ‘other,’ therefore I am disdained or perceived as ‘less than’ by the community.” I also need to become more secure with how my identity and various privileges change based on where I am. In other words, I either need to become comfortable being “black, but not African,” or, as a fellow student came to accept, embrace being “African in spite of slavery.”
I also need to be more honest about my class privilege in either of these contexts. I’m used to being home and having “less than” the peers around me and used to not being able to do things (like fly to South Africa or pay for a Stanford education) without significant financial assistance.
Here, though – and especially in the context of my tutoring – I definitively came from a “more than” background in relation to most of the learners around me. I think my insecurity around blackness and Africanness during these ten weeks was less based on not being Xhosa or not being African and more based on not being able to identify with learners and others around me solely along lines of shared racial oppression. My relative class privilege meant that the oppression they might experience looked much different than mine.
This difference, however, did not necessitate that I had to keep a quiet, shy, low profile. At home, I am better at engaging with people from all spectrums and background – just through making frequent and genuine personal contact. Though I feared the language and culture barriers made this more difficult in South Africa, I should have tried anyway. And I can still make a better effort on Stanford’s campus, where I sometimes shy away from dining or janitorial staff due to discomfort around the differences in our resources and experiences. Acknowledging my relative class comfort and privilege at home will help me more authentically and meaningfully engage with those around me.
Next week, Kristian will discuss how his perceptions of global citizenship, social action and critical reflection have changed as a result of his experiences in South Africa. Contact him at email@example.com.