Sensitivity or insensitivity surrounding ethnicity is just as much a problem as racism itself.
As with most companies, I have colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds. Most of us get along very well but there is still a subtle underlying unease when race becomes the topic of a conversation. It’s like spraying Glaze in a used toilet - the toilet smells fresher but you can tell it has been used. That underlying tone should not be undermined because as harmless as it appears, it is not. It’s waiting patiently, like a volcano.
Myself and one of my African colleagues, who is also a good friend, fell victim to that underlying unease. An unease that with the right amount of sensitivity of insensitivity transforms into something malevolent.
One day I arrived at work and met up with this colleague in our locker room (For the purpose of this article, we’ll call him John). It was the usual “Howzit buddy, . . . how was the weekend . . . Howz the kidz, etc.” Then, he asked:
“Did you hear about this whole controversy . . . about Zuma’s pennies.”
“Zuma’s pennies? . . . What do you mean, ‘his pennies’.” I asked.
“His PENNIES, dude. His pennies.” He said.
“You mean like Zuma coins?” I asked because in my head I was picturing a R5 coin with Zuma’s head on it.
“What?”, he said. He was almost irritated. “What are you talking about?. I’m talking about his PENNIES.”
I stopped to think for a while and tried to recall recent news about Zuma. Nothing about money or coins struck a note (no pun intended). The only thing I could think of was the uproar people was making because some artist . . .
Then, it dawned on me.
“Oh!You mean,his PENIS?” I said.
“Yes, that’s what I said.” He said
“No, you said PENNIES.” I said and burst out laughing.
As I was lmao, I noticed that John didn’t find it funny. There was a look of humiliation on his face. I was surprised because at that moment I didn’t realize the effect of my behavior. Or rather, I didn’t realize that laughing at his accent was obviously very offensive. Because we were good friends and our ethnic difference was something we joked about, I didn’t know better. Without a word John left the locker room and went to sign on duty.
After the incident, our friendship changed. We still talk but it’s like he sat a boundary especially for ME not to cross. Whenever we end up being alone together, there’s an uncomfortable silence and it’s like we can’t wait for another person to join our company. It sucks.
Be it as it may, I’m not sure if I was being insensitive or whether he was being too sensitive about the whole PENNIES thing. Maybe both.
In the end, we both lost.