Pardon my prejudice

2010-10-29 00:00

IF I ever had one thing to confess publicly that would shame me above all others, it would be this: when I walk down the street, and I see three or more guys approaching from the opposite direction, I tend to clutch my bag a little bit tighter. Not every time, but most of the time. It gets worse. I’ve noticed that I tend to do this more if the guys approaching happen to be black. There. I said it.

I have no idea where this prejudice came from exactly. I was raised in a non-racist home, count among my closest friends many black people with whom I’ve shared functions and families, I’ve never experienced violence at the hands of a black man and I’m generally not paranoid. I don’t bag-clutch around guys of other races, or when one or two come into view. Something about a cluster of men approaching who just happen to be black triggers this reaction from within the deepest, most inexplicable parts of myself.

As an urban South African, it would be a brave move to suggest that we are not conscious enough of prejudice. We are masters at prejudice detection. In a century of extreme permissiveness and a country super-sensitive to any discrimination, the only real taboo seems to be judgment. And yet I once witnessed an older white woman almost give a black guy a heart attack by throwing herself over her Volvo’s boot and shrieking as he tried to squeeze past her trolley to get into the supermarket. It seems to me that in a country with a history of monstrous discrimination, we have thrown out the fine-tooth comb, prejudice-wise. The fact that this isn’t premeditated does not make it less hurtful. I don’t mean to do it — the image of me gripping my purse suspiciously to my chest sends a wave of repulsion through me. This is not at all what I would equate with my beliefs, or with my beliefs on what black men are like — even that all black men can be “like” just one thing. I have no wish to behave this way, and I aim to overcome these petty acts of prejudice.

I first took a look at my prejudice. People who have enough education and interest in the world to read a newspaper have a moral duty to analyse themselves critically. Sometimes the prejudices I harbour about people are because I simply don’t look closely enough. There was a guy at my varsity who used to attend lectures wearing overalls. When we later became friends, I learnt he had never laid bricks in his life. He just thought the overalls were comfortable and, like many guys, didn’t care what he looked like. I assumed he was a labourer because of his clothes and therefore that he had less money, possibly less education. Because he was shy and chose not to speak, I assumed he didn’t have anything to say. Then I really talked to him, and had to reconsider — and I’m glad I did, because I got a friend out of it. Some of my prejudices I’ve been schooled into, I think. Consumers of media (that’s everybody) are unconsciously fluent in the visual language, known as semiotics, which different media use to communicate clues on a character or scenario, like the hero always being typically good-looking. This often translates into real life. For example, any man, woman or child who comes across my path with a hood obscuring their face, black or not, gets the handbag-clutching treatment. People in hoodies just look dodgy to me, probably because muggers wear them in movies. Some arose because they seem to make sense. Like the handbag-clutching one. If one is going to be mugged, then it’s likely to be by a man. Men are know to be more aggressive than women and more likely to perpetrate violent crimes. Criminals are also often impoverished people, and most of the poor in our country happen to be black. Dealing with these kinds of prejudices was difficult, because they seem useful, and could even save my life given the right (or wrong) circumstances. But I did. I stopped making out like it was a mere wrinkle on my track record. It wasn’t. Assuming a prejudice about another person is denying them humanity by blanketing their individuality into unfair generalisations. I firmly believe someone’s prejudice is their problem. If you have a serious bias against someone, for goodness sake be polite and try to keep from making them feel like the scum of the Earth. Remember the white woman with her trolley? Imagine if that poor black guy had been you. For some, it probably has been at some point.

I would like to live in a South Africa that is free of the smaller prejudices in life. More than that, I would like to be a better person, and a huge part of that for me is being better to other people. So if you and your friends see me walking down the street one day, and I smile very politely, and clutch my handbag, I hope you won’t take it too personally. I assure you, I’m working on it.

• Katya Smith is a post-graduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

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