Sitting at my desk at work, not long after Dan and I got married, one of the cleaning ladies walked into my office. After the warm greeting we exchanged, she caught sight of Dan’s and my wedding photo on my computer desktop. She asked if that was my husband. I enthusiastically responded, “yes!”
As she emptied out my bin, she said, “Oh, you must be very happy!” Assuming she was referring to the natural happiness one feels on being newly wed, I beamed even brighter. Naively, I didn’t know what was coming.
She continued, “… I’m sure a white man/husband doesn’t beat you, or drink too much, or sleep around with other women …”
Rather taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. After a somber moment that felt like ages, I responded: “I’m glad he doesn’t beat me or drink too much; as for other women, I trust and pray not – but that’s between him and his God.”
She went on. “I’m sure a white man treats you well; not like my [black] husband who often comes home late at night, drunk, or sometimes doesn’t come home at all”.
Saddened and caught unprepared, the only (weak) response I could muster was, “white men can be bad too”.
Perhaps it is strange that I did not stand up in full defence of my husband, confidently stating that I believe he would never do that. But, then again, one has to acknowledge that this was a catch-22 where – as much as I trust Dan – to fully defend him felt like it would be rubbing this lady’s face in the fact of my being, as she put it, “happily married … unlike her”. Even worse, this would simply reinforce the racial stereotypes she presented to me. Nonetheless, I accept that, called upon to think on my feet (as I was), I failed to arrive at a satisfactory compromise.
I’ve since had another such conversation with a married, black woman: a young woman living in rural KwaZulu-Natal to whom I gave a lift. I wish I could say I was more prepared and armed with an appropriate response that time round. I was not. I suppose, I had hoped that the first conversation had been an outstanding aberration. (Of course, I worry that the “will you hook me up with a white man” requests previously blogged about are based on similar assumptions that white men treat women in a manner fundamentally different from how black men do.)
Recently, I related these encounters to a group of friends. Among them, two white friends correctly pointed out that my defensive response had, indeed, been the wrong one: “instead of saying, white men can be bad too, why didn’t you say black men can be good too?” I felt duly challenged.
With some grief, I conclude that I probably subconsciously share some of these women’s stereotypes about black men often making bad spouses and the reasons for such a belief are quite straightforward. Firstly, I more personally know of more black men who have been hurtful and unfaithful toward black women than white men – some of these unfaithful men and injured women having been members of my own extended family, or good friends. I personally scarcely know any white women who have ended up in abusive relationships with their white partners that they have spoken to me about, and I personally know only one black woman who was terribly mistreated by a white partner.
Secondly, it doesn’t help that typical media images of black men are in keeping with this idea of them being scoundrels, and crooks. (If you don’t believe me – though I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t – evaluate the news for a few days. Alternatively, see the negative bias in the spectrum of ways in which black men are portrayed in For Colored Girls, and be warned, this movie is really not for the faint-hearted. Otherwise, you can see the juxtaposition of a “bad” and “good” black man in Diary of a Mad Black Woman.) By contrast, white men are represented in more balanced ways, if not in a manner fully biased toward their “overwhelming goodness”.
Thirdly, I would argue that we are socially wired to stereotype more about black people (especially negatively) than white people, who are not generally seen as people with a culture or ethnicity. Black people are typically viewed as jointly responsible for anything one of us does because we are perceived to be simply expressing our (flawed) “culture” or “nature”, and exceptions – no matter how many – do not tend to (re)make the “rule”. (Edward Said makes this point eloquently with regard to East-West relations in Orientalism.)
Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I know many good black men – some are married to my friends, others brothers of friends, and I’d say one raised me. A picture of such is worth sharing.
Shortly after my friends pointed my folly out to me, I was fortunate to be driven for an hour to the airport by an African-American man who could not help but rave about his beautiful black wife and kids of whom he was so proud. It was such a delight to see the veritable glow on his face as he spoke about them. This man was clearly devoted to his family and wanted the best for his kids. Consequently, he was committed to doing whatever he had to (including driving taxis for a living) in order to support their dreams and help build their character. He told me of the sacrifices he and his wife made in order to help their kids make it and escape the traps that so many black kids fall into – especially young black men. He spoke of what he was teaching his sons: to be hardworking, responsible, wise, respectful and strong. He was teaching his daughters to respect themselves too much to be taken advantage of and to be committed to obtaining success in their own right. He spoke with admiration of how strong his wife was, and how he loved that about her. He spoke, too, of his faith in God and how much of a rock that was for him and his family. He spoke of mistakes he’d made and his awareness of his imperfections and shortcomings. But he was grateful and hopeful for the future toward which he and his family were working very hard.
Hearing his story reminded me of another similar story I had heard from the mouth of a black man with whom I had partnered in some work in rural KwaZulu-Natal where I do my research. He was a man whose values, dreams and lessons from an imperfect past had – in his words, “by God’s grace” – brought him to the same place as the first: married to a good, strong woman and fathering children whom he sought to help realise big dreams, despite barriers faced in the unequal world and poverty in which they live.
Finally, there’s no denying that Barack and Michelle Obama give us a welcome and refreshing public image of such a pairing between a devoted black man and strong black woman.
These stories are everywhere to be found. Even amidst the depressing array of stories of black men who’ve been emasculated by oppressive systems that forced them to be “boys” and “monkeys” before white men and women, and tore them away from their wives and children through slavery and forced migrant labour. Amidst stories of men demoralised by alcohol, drugs and guns made most widely available in their communities so that they would destroy themselves and kill each other even as harsher sentences were imposed on black men for (especially drug) crimes they committed at no higher rate than their white counterparts. And amidst the stereotypes of culturally-prescribed patriarchal and chauvinistic black masculinity that fail to acknowledge the role that white domination played in establishing those (self-)images. (Even films sometimes capture these positive stories of black men defying their stereotypes: for instance, see Daddy’s Little Girls.)
So, in case it’s not already abundantly clear, my answer to my own question, “Where is the love?”, is that the love is there. But, largely by fault of our tormented past making it hard to be a black man even today, sometimes it’s broken.
Most times, my telling people my surname is Weeks (or, more explicitly, that I’m married to a white man) yields disbelief – or, as an Indian-South African telephone agent recently (virtually) accused me of identity-theft: “that can’t be you, the registered name is Mrs SM Weeks!” Of course, there are times when it attracts flat-out disapproval. Yet, often enough, it prompts people (as Dan has noted, usually black people) to expressly comment that I have done something “different” or “unusual” – maybe even asking me why not a black man or asking Dan if he paid lobolo (bridewealth/dowry). In case you’re wondering, he did.
But this blog post is about those times when it yields the rather amusing response of people treating me as though my middle name were “Interracial Dating Service”.
Whether I’m at Johannesburg International shopping for last minute gifts before boarding a plane to see my in-laws (really, “in-loves”) or doing fieldwork in deep rural KwaZulu-Natal, somehow this question finds me: can you find me a white man to marry?
Usually the question comes out in an exchange that goes something like the following iteration – a conversation I had with the black cashier at Out of Africa at Johannesburg airport.
Cashier: Are you together? [nodding at Dan who had just left to go to the bathroom, presumably after seeing Dan hand me his hand-luggage]
Me: Yes …
Cashier: [after a pause; her curiosity clearly getting the better of her] Oh, do you work together? [a common first guess]
Me: Oh, no … He’s my husband.
One of the cool things about marriage (there are many) is that you get to say most anything you want to your spouse. Communications gurus advise that you speak what’s on your heart rather than keep it in, something I’ve found doesn’t come naturally to most of us guys, but which can be quite liberating when you get the hang of it. Your spouse is your captive audience and you are hers.
But there are some things that should never be said by a husband to a wife, or vice versa, and some words, in particular, that a white person should never speak to his black wife or any other person of her complexion. You can guess at least one word I have in mind, but let me first give it a little context.
On a recent trip through the southern United States, I found myself in conversation with an affable pair of black gentlemen on the front stoop of their home on the outskirts of an Alabama town. When it emerged mid-way through our conversation that I am married to a black woman, three things happened.
First, our hitherto pleasant and easygoing chat took on a more serious, profound tenor: the line between neighborly niceties and explicit racial recognition had been crossed.
Second, they were noticeably pleased, even impressed by the fact and said as much to me. It seemed to enhance my credibility and reputation in their eyes. I was reminded of the feeling of acceptance as umuntu I have been privileged to experience in the company of Sindiso’s South African family, especially when making a good-faith, if halting, effort to speak their home language, Zulu. (Umuntu is the Zulu name for “person”, generally reserved for black people and connoting “humane”. It developed it’s specificity to black people at an historical moment when white people were not behaving very humanely toward the black masses.)
Third, the younger of the two gentlemen felt obliged to raise the following grave concern, in the form of a question whose assumed answer was yes: When I get mad at my black wife, do I call her the N word?
Perhaps, on reading my blog posts in the last year, some might be led to believe that I reject colour-blindness outrighly, as a matter of principle. As a matter of fact, I don’t.
In the last few months, Dan and I have seen a number of movies that have adopted a colour-blind approach and we’ve loved them. The first is The Magic of Belle Isle, starring Morgan Freeman as a well-known author of western novels. He’s come to Belle Isle against his wishes because his nephew insists on his trying to reclaim his life after he has turned to the bottle too much since losing his wife. His nephew is proved right; Belle Isle turns out to be just the medicine he needs to get onto his feet again and resume writing. The real clincher of his recovery is the combination of his friendship with a little white girl with a wild imagination who lives next door to his rented house and wants to tap his wisdom from writing (especially with regard to helping her develop the necessary imagination to write great stories – he shows her that she already has it), and a blooming romance with her strong and good-looking mother. After some twisting and turning, there’s a happy interracial ending.
The key to the success of this film as a heartwarming narrative is that race is never mentioned or made an issue of. Morgan Freeman’s character (Monte Wildhorn) moves to a lily white neighbourhood and is immediately fully embraced by the community even though they don’t know him basically at all and he proves himself very early on to be a grumpy, temperamental over-user of alcohol. This may be “magical” indeed. Despite his being unknown and his flaws, he becomes somewhat of a local sensation (granted he has some redeeming character traits which increasingly emerge as he recovers hope in life), to the point of entering into a romantic relationship with the beautiful, blonde, mother-of-three-girls living next door – and no one bats an eyelid. It’s pretty heady stuff!
This movie presents a highly attractive alternative to our present (a world in which race is not even noticed because it is just not an issue). Sorry to say, it feels like a parallel universe to me.
Julia is her “good name”. The name she gives to white people. It’s how she introduces herself to us, half out of breath, as she runs up and climbs into the cramped back seat of our car to catch a lift over the mountain and to the next town. When she sees Sindiso, she smiles out of more than deference and pipes up a greeting in isiXhosa. Nomsa is her real name.
She’d been waiting on the road for a while, she says, maybe an hour or two? To try the mountain pass on her own two feet–some 20 kilometers and plenty of elevation gain–is a bit too much to ask of a gogo (grandmother) in her sixties.
Is she on her way to work or home, I ask? To work, she says. Nomsa explains that she missed her early train that morning because the two grandkids she is raising had trouble getting out of bed and to the creche on time. When that happens, her only choice is to take a shared taxi to the mountain pass, where it stops, and try her luck with the steady stream of passing cars.
She’s had enough experience by now. Some mornings, with kids aged two and five and mom and dad not around, things just don’t go as planned. Other mornings, the trains don’t run at all from her township in the Flats because of fire or strikes or technical difficulties.
In much of our reading lately, Dan and I have heard the message repeated that the best solution to racialisation and the inequality it perpetuates in society is for white and black people to be intentional about forming deep relationships across the colour line. This requires living in community with one another: shared neighbourhoods, churches, schools, workplaces. Full immersion in each other’s worlds.
Chris Rock jokes, “all of my white friends, they have exactly one black friend”. Of course, this joke is not new: most of us are aware of the “proverbial” white person who either before or after making a, perhaps, racially insensitive remark answers the usually unasked question with “I’m not racist; one of my friends is black”. One question black folks have often asked themselves in response to this has been, “what kind of a friend are they?” What do I mean? We all have a yearning to be fully known and fully loved; without being fully known it seems impossible to be fully loved. True friendships are an essential site for realising this need. Let me illustrate.
From Grade 1 through 12, I went to a school where white girls outnumbered black girls by a landslide. In primary school, I had stayed over at some of my white friends’ houses (they never at mine because of the law), played with them in their sandpits and even bathed with some of them. But something happened in our transition to high school, which coincided with South Africa’s transition into democracy. We drifted apart. As we all wrestled with ourselves and the implications of our socio-political context, we found that we were unable to parlay our blissful, “colour blind” childhood friendships into “race conscious” teenage friendships. We continued to relate cordially and humorously (most of the time) but few relationships were profound or close. Somehow race always got in the way of even the best efforts at deeply connecting across racial lines.
Not long ago, I received a call from a man inviting me to give a talk at a conference.
As friends can no doubt attest, I have a healthy dose of pride and don’t mind being asked to speak in public. So I was happy to receive his call.
Trouble was, I really had no business speaking at this particular conference. I just wasn’t qualified – not my area of expertise.
Almost in spite of myself, I told him as much and offered to help him line up someone else better suited for the job.
Maybe he was up against a deadline. Maybe he’d already been declined and was just dying to fill this last slot and call it a day. Whatever the reason, his rejoinder caught even me off guard, “You sound eloquent enough. I’m sure you’ll do a good job. Besides, you have an American accent…”
I swallowed my surprise and asked him to send along details and promised to give it a think.
Studies about the impact of race and language on wages and hiring in the US and UK find a startling, and sobering, link between sounding (and being) black and getting second pick.
A black guy and his friend walk into a coffee bar in Cape Town and look around for a table. The bar host comes up to them and asks, “are you here for the barrista training?” Before they can answer, he tells them, “it’s out back”. A little taken aback, confused and (as the penny fully drops once they have exhausted all other possibilities in their minds) admittedly rather annoyed, the one answers, “no, actually, we’re looking for a table at which to hold our meeting”. These guys are wealthy but neither of them flashy. They can’t help but think, “is it because we’re black?”
A few months ago, I was at an Apple store after my laptop had crashed. I hadn’t backed up in 16 days. After a few hours with the technicians at the Fundi Bar (the Genuis Bar in the US), I was standing behind the desk, in the midst of gratefully transferring documents from my hard drive to a memory stick via firewire, when a white lady and her partner came up to the desk. They waited about 10 minutes seeing the coloured Fundi Bar technician moving between a couple of other people with their Macbook Pros (two middle aged white men, to be precise). She then asked me, “how long is the wait going to be?” She added, “I’m just wondering if we should rather come back later.”
Anybody who’s seen Chris Rock do stand-up comedy on national TV knows the man doesn’t pull any punches. “Sometimes the people with the most ‘stuff’ get to say the least ‘stuff’, and the people with the least ‘stuff’ get to say the most ‘stuff’”, he told my white college mates and me one night as we drank beers and talked smack around the TV some seven years ago.
I’m a prude so I’ll substitute “stuff” for the artist’s more colorful term in this post, with apologies to Mr. Rock.
I laughed at his line at the time–like I laugh at most of what Chris Rock has to say–but the full meaning of his words took about seven years to settle in. Here’s what brought that skit back to mind.
A black friend recently observed that white people (wrongly) feel wronged when society calls them out for expressing their honest distaste for certain things “black”. A white friend then confessed to feeling discriminated against when personal preferences he expresses with respect to people in general happen to (be perceived to) fall along racial lines, leading to claims of “prejudice” or worse.
I like both of my friends and I appreciate the sticky spot the latter is in, in spite of having the very best of intentions. But I’m afraid my white friend’s conundrum is a rather small price to pay for having lots of “stuff”.
(Warning: This blog is not for the faint of heart!)
One of my most formative experiences in recent years was when a much-older white man (almost) accused me of reverse racism. I was requesting permission to hold a formal, yet inexclusive, gathering that would highlight racial and gendered differences in experience. The intention was to provide space for people of minority racial groups and the female gender to exchange stories while allowing people who didn’t share their identities to participate in their reflection and get a glimpse of the world seen through their eyes.
Why I had to get permission from this older gentleman is not important; suffice it to say that I did. All I remember from the conversation was his lecturing me about his disapproval of subsets of people grouping themselves according to identity characteristics. His view was that it was divisive. We should stop emphasising our differences and rather dwell on what we have in common across identities (which, in his view, was much more than what we have in common within identity groups). This would be what would lead to unity and reconciliation among people. He offered that, besides, in his view, much of the treatment people of minority identity attribute to unfair differentiation or discrimination can be explained in different ways. He then concluded that, of course, he could not deny me permission to hold the gathering that I proposed because – an old, white man as he was – he would be accused of being racist.
I pause to recognise that what this older, white man expressed is important. I’m very sympathetic to his feeling that minorities overplay the race card and, in fact, colour-blindness is the solution to racial reconciliation. This is a view shared by many. I am even sympathetic to his feeling like he was disempowered by social discourses that emphasise that allowing people of colour to set themselves apart and reflect on their experiences – or even downright segregate themselves – is appropriate and necessary for their healing. With that, I get his feeling that any white person (least of all a man) who tries to disrupt that would be perceived to be exercising the kind of domination that has oppressed minorities for centuries. Thus, I understand his feeling vulnerable to being called racist for expressing a dissenting view in the face of prevailing – if almost exclusively liberal – social acceptance of the need to allow spaces for minorities to cultivate the consciousness and pride around their identities that they were denied for so long.