Monday, November 25, 2013

Oh No! Not Another Cape Town Conversation About Black and White People!

You'd think that with all of the stunning scenery around here, there'd be much nicer things to talk about while admiring it, but here we go again.

Nature in Cape Town offers so many lovely shades of blue, green and brown, yet somehow, it seems, so many of the conversations I've had since my arrival in town two weeks ago, end up returning to the same old same old hues: black and white. I'm not blaming anyone for this because, frankly, those particular two colors are always on my mind here, too.

Sometimes, in fact, I find it hard to think about or see anything else. When the white American expat from Iowa who has been living in Cape Town full-time for 10 years first described my neighborhood of Tamboerskloof as being "very white," he wasn't saying anything I hadn't already thought to myself dozens of times. By the time he repeated this observation yesterday evening while we were driving to watch the sun set over Hout Bay, I'd heard and thought it myself so many times that it sounded absolutely banal. He might as well have been talking about the weather, which everyone in Cape Town tends to do as well.

Frankly, all of the constant talk -- and thoughts -- about black and white in Cape Town makes me uncomfortable, nearly as much so as usually being the only black person in the room and constantly being reminded of it in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok once did. What was a much-welcome novelty 15 days ago in Johannesburg, this new sensation of blending into the crowd, is slowly becoming just another source of social unease.

I might be one of many black people in Cape Town, but that doesn't mean the color of my skin isn't the first thing that people notice about me. I'd been having trouble putting my feelings about this into words until last night when I was explaining to the American expat how life as a black man in Cape Town was different from life as a black many everywhere I've lived since leaving the U.S. and how my personal experience -- being the son of West Indian immigrants and growing up in the Deep South facing racism from both white and black people -- has affected the way I'm affected by Cape Town color dynamics.

That's when I finally nailed the point that I'd been trying to make to myself for two weeks: "The hard thing about Cape Town is how the black and white thing is always so in your face here, more so than it ever was for me in New York City." It's in the rampant segregation that's left over from the Apartheid era (and harder to ignore here than it was in Johannesburg because the greater white presence in Cape Town makes it more glaring), in the grim (all black) township standing right next to one of Cape Town's richest neighborhoods (all white, naturally) on the way to Hout Bay, in the borderline racist thoughts that, shamefully, creep into my head whenever two or three guys hog several machines at once or hover impatiently at my predominantly black gym (Zone Fitness on Strand), in the comments that white guys make to black guys on Grindr (like "tbh, you're the 1st black guy i've been turned on by" --  which someone actually wrote to my new black American expat friend from New York City yesterday).

At first, in Johannesburg, it was enlightening, educational. Now I just want it all to stop. I want to talk about something else. I want to think about something else. I don't like to encourage shallow people or conversations, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little relieved every time talk turned to how windy it is in Cape Town, or how the weather here is so unpredictable (something else it has in common with Melbourne).

As Morrissey once sang (on his 1991 single "Our Frank"):

"Wont somebody stop me
From thinking
From thinking all the time
About everything"

To be completely fair, it's not as if the American expat from Iowa and I didn't hit on a variety of topics yesterday. We covered everything from our backgrounds, to family dynamics, to parenthood, to mental health, to addiction, to panic attacks, to dating, to wanderlust, to real estate, but somehow the conversation always came back to black and white.

Along the way, I learned a fascinating lesson on black-on-black race relations in South Africa. I had no idea that there is so much friction between black South Africans and black African immigrants from neighboring countries. As it was described to me, it sounded like a mix of the way many Argentines regard people from South American countries like Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia (as inherently inferior), and the way the black Americans who tormented me when I was growing up thought of black Caribbeans (with jealousy because how dare we move to their country and do better than they were doing).

It made me wonder what is really going on in their heads behind the warm smiles and friendly greetings that black South Africans are always offering me. Are they sizing me up negatively, placing me in a black hierarchy based on my origins. Am I just another American to them? What do they think about Americans? Do they realize that I wasn't born in one of the 50 U.S. states, that my paternal homelands like many African countries had sprung from Caribbean colonialism by imperialistic European nations?

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the evening arrived when I pointed out that it once was my dream to adopt a baby from Tanzania. Years ago, I edited a Teen People feature on a teenage girl who completed an AIDS Walk benefiting kids in Tanzania, and I fell in love with the beautiful children in the photos. The American from Iowa was surprised. Tanzanians, he pointed out, were the least attractive of all Africans. It's a dishonor which, in his humble opinion, they share with another African country, but I was trying too hard to maintain my casual facial expression while wondering why he'd say such a thing to process the name of the other country.

As he started going down the list, beginning with the most attractive Africans (people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he insisted on calling "DRC"), I was too shocked that he'd bothered to sort this out in his head to take in all the specifics of his countdown. When he commented that Ethiopian women are among the most beautiful females of the species, I wondered what he thought about the men there. (Incidentally, Dave, a straight Australian who has spent time traveling in Africa and used to live in Bangkok, said the same thing to me earlier this year without specifying gender and throwing Somalians into his too-beautiful-for-words mix.)

I wondered what the Iowan thought about me. Where did I fit into his hierarchy of black beauty (or ugliness)? Did I rate as high as the guys in Senegal? As low as the Tanzanians? Despite the strangeness of his commentary, it was obvious that he does indeed think that black is beautiful. And I quietly gave him kudos for recognizing that we don't all look alike. Walking through the streets of Cape Town, I often wonder if I'm blending in that way, too, for white passersby.

I wondered what the Iowan would make of the sexual discrimination against Asian men that I've encountered in Australia, Bangkok and the rest of Southeast Asia (from whites, blacks and other Asians, too), and how so many Westerners lump the physical characteristics of people from so many countries on the entire continent of Asia into one lookalike group based on the shape of people's eyes in some of its countries. Did you have to actually live and/or travel extensively in Asia, as he'd done in Africa, to notice the differences?

It was probably the one topic that we didn't touch on yesterday, nor did we organize Europe's countries according to the physical qualities of the people in them. I won't be coming up with hierarchies of European and Asian beauty any time soon, though. Even if I weren't totally over race, isn't lumping all of the citizens of one country under a hot or not column based on perceived physical characteristics of the entire populace (as if everyone in any one country all look alike) just as bad as doing it with an entire continent?

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