Jean Barker

Black in So-Cal, USA

2012-06-08 08:36

Jean Barker

I noticed something weird as I walked into a big electronics store with a friend the other day: the security guard, instead of greeting me like he had all the other times I'd been there, watched the two of us carefully as we entered.

I brushed off my suspicions, but then saw my friend had this little “smile” at the corner of his mouth. He had seen it too. We stood awkwardly looking at portable hard drives, while security hovered nearby.

On another shopping trip, the same friend flagged down a customer assistant in the craft store. The assistant promised they'd meet him at the paint section, where the spray paints are locked up. We waited there. They never arrived. So I found the same assistant, and asked for the same thing. Within minutes and without question, I was given what I asked for. Odd, right?

We stayed together at a hotel in San Diego. While I was sleeping late, he went to sit in the lobby and used the wi-fi so as not to disturb me. A clerk went up to him and questioned who he was staying with. When he gave my name, he was asked what number. Eventually, he pulled out the key card. The clerk didn't even have the grace to apologise to him - a guest in the hotel - for questioning him.

No drama

This same friend (okay, yes, we're dating...) often visits me at my apartment. The block has a gas braai for residents' use downstairs. While I went to get plates from the kitchen, I left him in charge of the cooking. My landlord and his wife crept up to him and, keeping a safe distance, demanded to know who he was visiting. When he gave my first name, they stood there. Finally, he also provided my last name - and apartment number. The joke is they've been introduced to him a few times in the past.

The reason I bring these things up? Well, because none of these things have ever happened to my white friends in California.

Anyone who knows me well is probably wondering what I did about these insults to my friend. They're waiting for the drama. But I did nothing, because my friend pointed out the obvious: “Well what you gonna say?”

He's right. What would I say? They didn't call him names; they didn't ask him many questions. They just made him feel really, really unwelcome.

Paranoid

Here in the USA, racism is not exactly subtle but it's harder to pinpoint it, combat it or complain without making an accusation that can easily make you look...well...paranoid.

Which I am. I am “paranoid”.

I come from a country that has demonstrated the terrible power of racism in law and only recently repealed those laws. I come from a society where chronic racism nearly killed the country...and, let's face it, still could destroy my home country if left unchecked. Subtle racism to me is like the BANG of a firecracker to a soldier with post traumatic stress disorder. I tend to react with shame, with anger, with a feeling of powerlessness.

The snag is that, although I know my friend was being treated differently for the crimes of walking into a store while black, buying spray paint while black, staying in a hotel while black, and braaiing with a friend while black, it's not like his accusers came right out with it and said: “We notice you're uh, black, so you'll need to prove you're not about to commit a crime.”

Talking openly

But I'm pretty sure that was what they were all thinking.

In some ways, I miss how, in South Africa, people talk about race openly, and more honestly about most things. We're generally less terrified of offending each other than people seem to be here in the USA. That's a good thing.

Unfortunately this refreshing “honesty” also takes forms that make me sick to my stomach. Sometimes honesty is just an excuse for laziness, comments beginning with “I'm not a racist but...”, hate speech and abuse. That's a bad thing.

Yes, the relatively subtler forms of prejudice operating here has its upside. I just wish I didn't have to choose the lesser of two undeniable evils.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

Send your comments to Jean


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