27 April, 2014

More Than My Whiteness

Race is never not a part of my interactions and identity in Zim. And I’m constantly gob-smacked when I encounter a person living his/her life in oblivion to the colour of their own skin and the weight of history that it carries, the invisible implications etched all over, and the reality of their own prejudices.

The other day, I crossed from one side of Harare to the other; from one racial and social existence to another, from one world and life to another.

It was a little strange to realize that I don’t belong in either world.

On Wednesday, I spent a few hours “down-down-town”, shopping with a friend in the part of town where streets are crammed and crowded with people. We bumped and wended our way through the striding, shouting, grabbing masses, being called after to buy coat-hangers, phone-lines, onions, men’s belts, passport-holders… you name it. It’s the part of town where you can buy flats/pumps for $4, where you don’t hear a word of English being chatted, where shouts of “hey sissi” (sister) and “I love you, baby” follow you around if you happen to be female. Oh yeah, and white. There is nary a white person around, downtown. Except that day, there was me; a shining beacon of whiteness that didn’t belong among the brown bodies flowing and shouting their way through the streets. My friend and I drew stares and comments and whistles. Oh the joys of being female. My friend – a stunning black girl with high-cheek bones, smooth, dark skin and a fashion sense I envy – was the perfect companion and guide. We laughed at some comments, shook our heads at others, ignored most. A few times, however, when I refused to engage with some idiot male, someone would shout after us in Shona and she would interpret: “You with the dark skin, tell the other pretty one to come here” or, from a man leaning out the window of a kombi, “why is it that one is born light and the other born dark?” Appraised and valued like goats or hats, all based on the colour of our skins.

And then from there I drove across town to Borrowdale Village – a shopping centre with prosperous businesses, high-end shops, fancy restaurants and the city’s newest cinemas. It’s the part of Harare where pumps/flats cost $20-50, where white ladies meet for tea and black business men for lunch, where money is no object, and brand-name-clothed teens stroll through the shops with iPhones in hand. In the coffee shop where I parked myself for the afternoon to write e-mails, the waiters are all black and the only person working the cash register was (and is always) a white guy. (OK, maybe that was callous, but it’s reality). It’s actually one of my favourite coffee places – the service is excellent, the food and drink good and the wifi decent. I can sit myself there for a few, uninterrupted hours with my computer.

But. It’s also a place where I feel the scratchy, sticky feeling of being a rich, white young woman – there is always a keen and heavy social/racial divide between myself and the waiter who serves me. I feel just as uncomfortable and out-of-place there as I do downtown. The waiter speaks to my whiteness, my assumed wealth, my supposed higher social standing. Server and Served live in separate realities and only interact as goods and money exchange hands, relating as through an unbreakable window of one-way glass. There’s no relationship, no conversation as equals, no way for me to cross over or reach out. Once again, I, we, are appraised and dismissed by the colour of our skin.

My race is important, it’s a huge part of me, but it’s not all there is to me. Or you. Or the person standing next to you in the grocery queue. I think, realizing that I don’t belong on either “side” of town is kind of cool. It lets me step into each one, every now and then, to discover how to go deeper, how to share the beauty of our differences instead of letting them define and divide us.