An African in Africa
“Whenever we went into a fancy upscale restaurant or bar, mainly filled with white people, I would just begin feeling uncomfortable with the looks. Almost as if they were asking themselves, “what is he doing in here?””
In the spring of my junior year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I had the opportunity to enroll in this research class titled, Beyond Borders. It was a semester-long program, which promoted dialogue, responsible engagement, and action between young global leaders in the United States and South Africa. Through the program, we worked with our peers from Stellenbosch University’s Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert Institute for Leadership Development in South Africa to understand and address critical social issues affecting both countries. My research paper ,titled “The Black-White Achievement Gap” compared the experience of racial groups in South Africa and the United States in the educational achievement context. In the United States, where blacks are the minority, this racial group performed worse than their white counterparts.In South Africa, where blacks are the minority, this racial group performed worse off than their peers. My research question was ” What accounts for this and what is the way forward?” As part of the program, we did have the opportunity to visit Stellenbosch and interact with the students we spent the whole semester engaging and interacting with through Skype calls. Now, I knew there were stark differences between the blacks and whites, in terms of how we interacted in society, but it was on another level in South Africa! And what makes this even crazier is that black people are the majority race in the country! A simple Google search shows that 80.2% of South Africans are black, 8.5% are white (Afrikaners) , 8.8% are colored (and yes, before you light me up, colored is an actual race in South Africa) and 2.5% are Indian/Asian. I’m full Ghanaian (born and raised), and while growing up in Ghana, I was not exposed to any form of racism and felt right at home, seeing and interacting with people of the same skin color and of similar history. After going to the United States for high school, I began to understand the struggles of blacks, a significant minority of whom arrived on the continent as slaves, and empathized with them. While I could not fully appreciate the struggles associated with being an African-American, I was still black and was caught off-guard with certain social interactions with whites like slurs and insensitive comments South Africa was a different story though, and it was almost disheartening to witness firsthand how black Africans are treated on their own soil. This was a whole different experience. Stellenbosch was the birthplace and bedrock of apartheid, so it is not entirely surprising that my encounters with two types of “looks” turned out the way they did.
As visiting students, we were “supposed” to be accorded some kind of respect within the university community. We were guests of their esteemed leadership program and had privileged access to the university’s facilities. We visited a lot of heritage sites, and engaged in many activities such as leadership training, discussions, conferences and the like during our time in Stellenbosch. One thing that I kept noticing, and for obvious reasons, the rest of my mates did not notice, were the side-eyes (look #1) I got from many (I assume) Afrikaans while we moved about town. Whenever we went into a fancy upscale restaurant or bar, mainly filled with white people, I would just begin feeling uncomfortable with the looks. Almost as if they were asking themselves, “what is he doing in here?” They had just seen a well-dressed and young dark-skinned gentlemen seemingly lead a group of other white people to have lunch at this restaurant. Definitely not what they’re used to in the home of apartheid! On a personal level, I had never felt more awkward, even with my extensive experience in the United States. And sometimes, the only other black people were the servers and cleaners. This was definitely an experience for me.
On a more positive note, whenever I passed by elderly cleaners, who were black most of the time, I saw this hopeful gaze( look #2) …almost like they were saying “I’m proud of you.” Knowing the history of South Africa and the fact that they received independence in 1994, I can only imagine what life was like for them growing up. Also, after reading Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, I got further appreciation for the struggles of blacks in the country. For me, this “look” with a subtle smile and nod had me feeling expectant of the future. They had just seen a well-dressed and young dark-skinned gentleman seemingly lead a group of other white people around town and they (I assume) saw that as a sign of hope for the future.
You can send me a message at email@example.com if you’d like to take a look at the research paper.
Ato Bentsi-Enchill, Accra, Ghana
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