For me, small talk quickly escalates into sometimes unnecessarily opinionated conversation. So when two White South African University students introduced themselves to a friend and myself at a braai, I should have foreseen the outcome. Social formalities demanded that we share our names, but from there small talk took a creative turn.
He asked what I studied, and I stated with excitement and passion, “History.”
I’ve received many responses to my chosen major. Many ask if I intend on teaching. Some wonder what type I want to pursue. Most comment that it was their least favorite subject in high school. Rarely, I interact with someone who shares my passion for remembering and learning from our society’s past. These specific students’ response was a incredible and terrifying first. One of the two turned to me stunned. He stood before me amazed that his country’s history was worth remembering. “See you don’t understand,” he said, “Racism is dead in our country.”
I felt as though I had run into a wall of ignorance. He had started to wonder out loud if I was in the right country, if I knew South Africa’s history was meant to be forgotten, and, of course, if I had an occupational plan. What he didn’t understand was that I came to study South Africa’s history, specifically. He was so focused on pointing out to me that we were interacting in an age of freedom. A South Africa free of racism.
I’m concerned by his statement because in my eyes there is no truth to it.
Racism, the systematic oppression of a race, roars its head even if you are unwilling to see it. At every turn, social environments scream for equality. Listen to the girls in Pretoria, fighting for their natural hair to be accepted in school. Another taste of this inequality presents itself in the citizens of a country’s financial status. Look at the segregation that plagues housing development, education and water distribution. Smell the streets as you walk and be thankful if the garbage truck actually came down the street. A touch of privilege prevented this young university student from sensing the reality of racism.
Horrifically, this mindset is not unfamiliar to me. I am reminded of the society I left at home. National conversations continue to dwell on privileged self-interest, instead of acknowledging that the beast called racism lives on. I include myself in the general clump of selfish individuals that enjoy our nation’s privilege. Embarrassment floods my heart as I watch our nation’s political conversation. African American men die, and still a piece of American society feels the need to scream, “All Lives Matter!” Syrian refugees die, but assumptions of our Muslim brothers and sisters trump their livelihoods. Native Americans experienced a genocide, but American textbooks gloss over their history.
I write this with disappointment toward the privileged who perpetuate this system. I write this with anger at the privileged bystanders. I write this with embarrassment for being a product of this nonsensical society.