by Sarah Beyer
In 2014, I look at the hundreds of mopeds and motorcycles lined up around the perimeter of the grass and think to myself, “This isn’t like the other school at all.” It’s the end of May and I’ve been in South Africa for two weeks. As my professor, his husband, and fourteen other Susquehanna University students and I walk the long path from the gate to the main building of the school, I laugh and complain with my friends about how much we don’t want to have to talk to these rich white kids, assuming the stereotypes from back home applied here, too. I tug at the bottom of my shirt that I had thought was fancy enough, but I still feel underdressed in my jeans and flip flops. I hope no one notices the dirt under my toenails.
In 1948, a system of racial segregation called ‘apartheid’ was introduced in South Africa. People were classified into four racial groups: “black,” “white,” “coloured,” and “Indian.” From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods, making it one of the largest mass removals in modern history. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, almost always providing non-white South Africans with services that were inferior to those of white people.
We’re ushered into an empty room full of tables and chairs, everything blanketed with pristine white cloth. The room is dimly lit and we’re instructed to sit two or three at a table. Everything in the room seems to signal the wealth of the school, which is why I find the laminated placemats with pictures of elephants amusing and out of place. I sit with my fellow Susquehanna University students Liz and Meghan at a table in the very front, too close for my comfort to where the principal of the school stands to make an announcement.
“I would like to start by saying welcome to all of you here today,” the principle says with an accent that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past couple weeks. “We’re very excited to have you here to talk to our students.” She smiles and we smile back, but I don’t think anyone actually cares. This isn’t the first welcome speech we’ve had to endure. I notice Liz biting her nails, and I can’t stop bouncing my leg up and down.
“What are we doing after this again?”
“Going to that monument thing, I think. At least, that’s what Peterson told us on our way here.”
“Right,” I say with a sigh and nod of my head as I use my fingers to straighten my placemat. I am tired of fake smiles and shaking hands. I’m tired of feeling out of place and knowing that I don’t belong here with these people. I want to go home. We hear voices from outside getting louder and then through the door come a large group of uniformed students. They all wear navy blazers and pants, and I’m reminded once again that this is their winter season. They cluster together by the door, waiting for instructions
“Alright,” the principle says, “we’re going to have everyone take a seat at one of the tables where the American students are already sitting. Our goal here is for all of you to ask each other questions about either America or South Africa. Notice how much you all have in common, or how much you don’t.” She turns to the high schoolers and speaks to them in Afrikaans to which they all nod their heads in acknowledgment, like children who were told to be on their best behavior. It bothers me that Afrikaans is a jumble of sounds that I feel I should be able to understand but don’t, and I feel a heaviness in my stomach when the principal speaks.
Two girls sit down at our table, all smiles and seemingly eager to talk. When they introduce themselves, their names immediately escape me, and it doesn’t occur to me to feel bad. These past two weeks, I’ve been in a whirlwind of names and faces, towns and villages, and Zulu phrases that I’m too self-conscious to actually use. I will never see these girls again.
In 2010, the census of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania reported that 42.8% of its population was non-Hispanic White, 7.2% Black or African American, 0.4% Native American, 0.8% Asian, and 3.3% were two or more races. 48.8% of the population were of Hispanic or Latino ancestry.
I remember when I was old enough to walk around the store by myself, the freedom of walking unaccompanied was exciting. I had been to the Walmart in Kennett enough times to know where everything I needed was, but finding my mom after we parted ways in different aisles was another story. I scanned the entire ladies clothing section, where she’d said she would be. I looked at the coats and at the display of tee shirts. I backtracked to the racks of dresses she had me look at earlier with her.
I felt like the strangers who passed by, concentrating on their shopping, could tell by my wandering that I was a lost little kid looking for her mom. My head was permanently stuck to the side as I walked down the lane, making it easier to look in every aisle I passed. I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans and blinked as merchandise popped in and out of focus.
I turned down the ladies underwear aisle, sure that it had to be the last place I looked. My mom wasn’t there, but two men were. They had tan skin and black hair and wore what looked like dirty sweatshirts. I assumed they were Mexican because all my friends in school who looked like that were always Mexican. They were pointing at all the pictures of the barely dressed women on the packages of underwear, giggling and nudging each other with their elbows. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t look away. I didn’t move. I felt like I had just walked in on the pair of them looking at a dirty magazine. It made me nervous, as if they would have no qualms to do the same for me–to stare and point and giggle at me in my generic underwear and badly shaved legs.
I was thankful to the woman who pushed her cart down the aisle, scaring off the two men. My mom found me soon after that. Nothing happened, but for some reason, I have never forgotten that moment.
In 1990, President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid. A year later, apartheid was officially abolished with the repeal of the last remaining apartheid laws. Non-white South Africans were not allowed to vote until 1994.
“How are you enjoying Pretoria so far?” one of the girls asks us. She has blonde hair that she wears in a ponytail, but, my eyes are constantly drawn to her slightly large nose. She leans slightly forward in her chair towards us. I appreciate how she leads the conversation when the rest of us don’t know what to say. The brunette next to her is quiet like the rest of us, and her face reminds me a porcelain doll.
“It’s nice! Just very different from a lot of what we’ve seen while being over here,” I say.
“Oh? How so?”
Together the three of us try to condense a whole trip’s experiences into a comprehensible story. How our stays have been spent mostly in villages, sharing huts with families who had never experienced interactions with white people in such depth, or maybe at all. How we bathed in buckets and learned to dance. How on our first night in the country, we stayed in a house in Alexandra, considered to be the most dangerous township in all of South Africa. How this was really one of the first times that we’ve seen so many white people since being here. This seems to shock them, and they lean close to each other and start to talk in Afrikaans. Liz and I look at each other, unsure of what to make of this, of them.
“Wow. That sounds crazy. I don’t think anyone in this room has been to any places like that. Especially Alex! That must have been scary,” the blonde says, all attention back on us.
“Nah, it wasn’t that bad. The people there were really nice actually,” Liz says.
We speak over the sound of everyone talking at once, explaining that yes, there is crime in America no matter where you live and that no, America is entirely too big a place to easily travel and see every part of it. I hold my teacup in both hands and feel the warmth of it sink deeper into my palms. The taste of the tea lingers on my tongue, and with every word, I lose a little more. I wish for silence.
Eventually, the principal calls us all to attention once more and asks if we could all prepare one statement about either South Africa or America that we wished for each other to know.
Someone from my group stands up and explains that finding a job in America is still really hard to do, even if you have a degree. Students shift in their seats, unsettled.
“You may have gotten that question a lot from the students here,” the principal laughs. “Students here are encouraged to think about going abroad and getting employment in places like America because there are so few jobs here for them anymore.”
A few other people stand up and speak, South African and American alike. It isn’t until my friend Jade stands up that I really take notice. “Um, yeah, I just wanted to say that in America, it’s really common for different people to mix. Like, it’s actually normal for a white person and a black person to get married, and so there’s a lot of different ways people will identify themselves. For example, you probably can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m half Dominican.”
The students all start to talk at once to each other, and the principal has to reign in their shocked chatter. I wonder if I’m only making up this tension that I feel creep throughout the room. I try to imagine how the conversation at my table would have been if I were black, if for them the white color of my skin wasn’t an indication for a mutual hate of those who are different. I stop, because I don’t like how it makes me feel. For this, I hate them.
In 2012, the American Community Survey accounted Mexican immigrants coming to the United States made up 28.3% of all U.S. immigrants. Nearly 11.6 million immigrants are from Mexico.
When I began my first job at fifteen, I learned quickly that the convenience of being in the same room with a man encourages his eyes to linger and follow you, to smile with too many teeth, and make jokes that aren’t funny. It was at this job, selling newspapers to old men and lottery tickets to the hopeful middle class, that I was first asked for my number by a stranger.
“What’s your name again?” asked a Hispanic man with an easy smile before he pushed open the door to leave.
I smiled at him like a good employee, fully aware that he had never known my name in the first place. This was the first time I had ever seen him come in the store. “It’s Sarah.”
“Ah Sarah, that’s right. It’s a beautiful name.”
“Thank you,” I said, always second-guessing what he said around his accent.
“Can I have your number?” he said, his fingers running over the plastic bag he held.
“What?” I was shocked. I felt my face turning red, and I hoped he wouldn’t think it was because I was flattered.
“Can I have your number? To call you sometime. Get to know you a little,” he said, that same smile never slipping from his lips.
“Uh, no. I don’t think I should,” I said, trying to laugh.
“Oh ok. I understand,” he said, sounding disappointed. “That’s not your thing.”
Later, when I told my boss about what happened, she looked at me with a scrunched nose. “That’s so creepy!”
“I know,” I said with a genuine laugh.
“It doesn’t surprise me though. Especially for one of the Mexicans,” she said, whispering the word Mexicans. She always whispered Mexicans, as if whispering made her judgments okay. “You know how we own that apartment building downtown? Well, this Mexican family was renting one of the rooms and when Greg went down there the other day to check on the heater, he found that there were way more people staying there than should be. He came home all pissed and told me that he told them that they either had to go back to the original number of tenants or they had to move out. That’s so typical. They just hole themselves up in each other’s places like sardines whenever any of them come up from Mexico.”
I nodded my head, but didn’t pay much attention.
In 2013, The World Economic Forum’s global information technology report ranked South Africa 140th out of 144 countries in terms of the “quality of the education system.” The CHE, a statutory body that advises the higher education minister, says, “It is common cause that the shortcomings and inequalities in South Africa’s public school system are a major contributor to the generally poor and racially skewed performance in higher education.”
The blonde leads Megan, Liz, and I on a tour of the school, and I’m amazed at hallways that are on the outside of buildings and the amount of book bags on the floor that line the walls. She shows us the art room and a person in the back who I’m not sure is the teacher or just another student waves. We awkwardly wave back. She shows us the courtyard where students walk past us, and all I can think about is what do they do when it rains?
“In here is where we had our big ceremony this morning, so it’s pretty messy,” she says as she holds the door open to a large room I would have assumed was the cafeteria. Streamers and paper littered the floor and she explains how everyone in her school gathered there this morning and prayed. She tells us how beautiful it all was.
A black man in a janitor’s suit comes walking up along the wall, carrying something in his arms. Instantly, I feel my shoulders hike up as I say “Hello!” in an overly enthusiastic way, and my smile is big. He smiles back, not in the surprised way I thought it would be but with a face that told me he appreciated what I did. I watch the blonde carefully, and I yearn for her to turn her head and smile at him the same way I just did. But she doesn’t.
She shows us to another part of the courtyard where you can easily see beyond the huge chain-link fence that surrounds this part of the school. “Do you see that other building over there?” We all nod our heads, but I have no clue what she’s talking about. “That’s an English speaking school. We had this fence built around us to separate the two schools to make it very clear about the difference.” She stands a little straighter when she tells us this and says it with pride. I’m shocked that they even go so far as to segregate the white people into different groups.
It isn’t until later that I learn that her pride may have stemmed from her school’s ability to keep black South Africans from attending. It will be harder for a black South African to do well in a strictly Afrikaans speaking school than an English one because of the language barrier. I couldn’t stop thinking about a little boy named Francisco who I knew in second grade who had to leave for part of the day to go to a special class to learn English. The teachers were worried he would fail.
Francisco didn’t talk much back then. But then again, I don’t remember ever asking him to.
In 2012, the American Community Survey showed Spanish to be the primary language spoken at home by 38.3 million people aged five or older, more than double the amount in 1990.
Many times at work people have come to buy lottery tickets who don’t know how to play. It’s the worst when they don’t know how to speak English to tell me so. More times than I can count, a Mexican man or woman will walk over to me where I stand at the register and point at the words with the pen in their hands, looking at me with furrowed brows. I don’t usually know what to say to help them understand.
“You fill in the bubble with the number that you want,” I say, gauging how much they can put together from my words and hand motions. “Five numbers,” I say, holding up my hand like I would for a first grader. “Choose five.”
Many times they just stare at me. Sometimes they get frustrated and go ask someone else, if there’s anyone standing around. I feel helpless and annoyed because I want to help, but I don’t know how they understand what it is and are willing to pay money for it if they weren’t told how to play.
My boss says she doesn’t understand why many of the Mexicans who come to our store bother to play at all. “It’s not like they can claim the money if they win the jackpot,” she says. “You have to be a citizen for that.”
In 2013, the sculpture initially known as “In Flight” was unveiled at its new home at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The new name was bestowed in memory of former Prime Minister Dr. D. F. Malan’s closing words during the inaugural ceremony of the monument on December 16, 1949: “Quo Vadis?”
We all pile onto the bus, leaving the school and the students behind. Everyone begins talking at once about how horrible that place was. I sit in the very back of the bus, the sunlight streaming through the window so hot it makes me sweat.
“There was one guy in my group who literally asked us, ‘How do you like our taxis and all the black people who can’t drive?’ Honestly, word for word.” I hear a voice say among the others.
“I just don’t understand how they could be so racist! At our table, they were seriously just trying to tell us how the black people here make it such a dangerous place to live and how crime is such big a problem. Go fuck yourselves.”
“Oh my god, they kept trying to tell me how black people ‘really are,’ and I’m just like, uh, do you actually know any black people that you can say this to me right now?”
“He looked at me like just because I was white meant that I had to agree with him.”
I close my eyes and lean back in my seat. I feel angrier with every story I hear, but I think that some part of me wants to believe that these kids can change. That maybe they can go out in the world and discover that not everyone agrees with this way of thinking and that they would then change their mind about it. I want to see someone break away from this bubble of ignorance and just see for themselves that what they hear every day is nothing more than opinion. That hating someone for just being different is wrong. I fear that I’m just like them.
I don’t believe I’m racist. I don’t think that I’m prejudice or biased or any other word you want to use to describe ignorance. But what if I am? What if, just like these kids, I don’t see how my own thoughts and opinions are sheltering me from seeing the truth? I’m nervous to walk past a group of Mexican men who stand on the sidewalk outside my job because I fear of what they want to do to me or call out to me. I don’t assume that the customers who come asking for lottery tickets speak English, and I hate the feeling of shock when an older Mexican man comes in and speaks without an accent. I hate that I’m this way. I hate that I have to double-check my own thoughts against people who have never done anything to me.
The bus is so hot, and I feel exhausted, though it’s early afternoon and our day has barely begun. What if I’m no better than them? The thought plays in my head, and I lay my head against the window because I pray that these kids will learn. That I’ll learn.
I’m scared of what this blind spot makes me, of who I am when I sit there and let my boss talk because I know that she’s not a bad person, but I don’t know what to call it that could defend her.
No one is really in the mood to go to the Voortrekker Monument and hear about how some white guys came and “discovered” Africa. We aren’t on the bus for very long, but by the time we get there, everyone seems quieter. It’s too hot to put it around my shoulders, but I keep my blanket crumpled up on my lap and take deep breaths of the smell of dirt roads and smoky huts that have clung to it.
When we get off the bus, we’re introduced to our guide, a short white man with glasses and a walking stick. He stands on the steps of the giant square building and points behind us to a sculpture with the words “Quo Vadis?” written on it. While everyone seems impatient and bored, he translates: Where are you going?
I play with the straps of my backpack and my mind automatically goes back to the school. Quo Vadis? Where are you going? I take out my journal and write the phrase down, circling it with my pen till a thick line surrounds the words, giving it the impression that it stands out from the rest of the page.
I want to go home. I want to change from this mindset that I’m any better than those kids. I want to see myself as being a better person because of this. Where are you going? Where are you going?
I shield my eyes from the sun that shines directly over top of us with my hand and repeat the phrase in my head like a mantra, trying to memorize the way it’s pronounced. Standing there on the giant steps of the Voortrekker Monument, I’m not so sure anymore.
Statistics and facts from online research.