By Dianne Lake
In a blooming city of business and culture, the lack of racial integration is not only astonishing, but disappointing, and frankly uncomfortable, because I…am black. After being in Cape Town for only a few days the separation of races is immediately clear, the people who live in this city are white, and the people who work in this city are not. The restaurants and shops only have patrons that are usually white, and the waiters, cashiers, taxi drivers, and construction workers are black.
After being here for only three days the weight of being the sole black person in my group of peers has begun to bear down on me. I am the only black person around whenever we are in shops, bars, or any other public places of enjoyment, and that is not something that goes unnoticed. The whites are the people who truly enjoy and experience Cape Town while the majority of black South Africans are poor and unemployed. The economic disparity in the city is clear and apparent—mansions are next to slums. While driving on the highways it is not unusual to see a cluster of slums backdroped by nice houses in the distance.
Tonight we went to a very “posh” bar in an area of Cape Town called Camps Bay. First off, with beachfront bars and seaside mansions leading up to the hills, Camps Bay is a town that resembles Laguna Beach in California. The bars and clubs are hip and overflowing with young, fashionable, good looking people… who are white. I took this as just another “token black girl” experience to add to my list, and wasn’t going to let this stop me from having a good time among a fantastic group of people.
To my surprise two black girls were also at this bar, but in my opinion they clearly looked uncomfortable. We ended up having to leave this posh bar to find a less crowded place but I made it a point to go back and speak to these girls myself, so as to not be presumptuous about their take of the environment. It turned out that these two girls were from Angola and simply vacationing in Cape Town. I think this only serves to reiterate my point that the people who actually “enjoy” Cape Town are not South African Blacks. The only black people in this bar where myself, these two girls vacationing from Angola, and a few bartenders and workers.
I asked the girls about how they felt about the racial atmosphere in Cape Town and whether or not it was uncomfortable for them. Only one of them spoke English and she explained to me that they hadn’t been paying attention to it too much because they were just trying to have a good time on their vacation but when she explained my question to her friend who didn’t speak English, her eyes lit up and she started shaking her head. She looked at me, rubbed her finger on her skin, lifted it up, and shook it, symbolizing “no blacks here.” We laughed because we all understood; this wasn’t something that needed to be translated.
Before I left them the girls told me that overall they didn’t feel as if the whites here were very friendly, especially because they were black. I felt their discomfort, empathized with them, and wished them well on the rest of their vacation. The rest of night was joyful, and filled with laughter and good conversation, but as we walked outside and gathered in front of the posh bar I got the slap in the face that had been waiting to hit me this whole time, the slap that had been eager to burst my bubble of privileged racial integration and equality. This slap came in the form of a middle aged white man, who had no place creeping about in front of this bar of young people. I could tell from the moment he spotted me that this man was intent on sharing some words. He approached me and said with a creepy smile on his face, “You look lost among these people.”
It all seemed to happen so quickly so I simply turned away and tried to laugh it off, but then I actually realized what this crazy old man had said, “you look lost among these people.” It would have been easy for me to excuse this racist jab because of the type of person this was, but I took another second to really look at the man and honestly he wasn’t that crazy and he wasn’t that old. He had on a nice grey sweater and jeans folded up at the ankles to highlight his bright new Converse high tops.
This man told me what every other white person has probably been thinking whenever I enter their spaces with my group of friends; I look lost among these people, because I am black. This experience will in no way poison the rest of this trip for me, but it’s important that I take these moments to reflect on the fact that in some places equality is a privilege and being black is a condition that I have to live with proudly and courageously.