When evaluated across the world, the United States often ranks dismally low compared to its western developed world counterparts when it comes to education, based on math, science, and reading tests. My memory might not be fully clear of what I learned while in school, but I can guarantee that any history book I ever read and was assigned from K-12 never covered apartheid in South Africa to the depth that it really deserved. Considering slavery in the U.S. was never covered to the extent that I’d learned about it in historical fiction I’ve read and museums I’ve visited as an adult, that probably wouldn’t seem surprising to most.
But it’s disgusting when you think about it. We claim to be the best, most prosperous country in the world, but we as a whole know so little about the world outside of our country borders… and for some of us, outside even our own neighborhoods and cities. When visiting the District 6 Museum in Cape Town today, I was staring at everything I’d been ignorant to for pretty much my whole life until this day, and I truly felt heartbroken.
District Six was a municipal district in Cape Town in the 1860s. It was originally a very diverse, mixed group of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers, and immigrants, and because of its proximity to the city and the port, it was a vibrant, lively place to be. But as the 1900s approached, the whites came in and started forcibly removing them, racial group by racial group, out of the area. Of course, the black South Africans were removed first, to be displaced to random outlying areas far from the city, making it harder for them to get to the city and work. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, it was declared a white area, and trucks would transport people with their bare belongings to the outer areas, the houses they once called home being bulldozed right in front of their eyes.
The museum shares the intimate details of these displaced people, all because of the color of their skin. The museum guides are almost all former District 6 residents who have harrowing memories of the genuine living hell they experienced. Systems of institutionalized racism have persisted across the world, but to think that you would forcibly remove and throw people out of their homes to demolish them in front of their eyes is brutal and inhumane to another level. The land they once owned, they no longer owned; the rights they once had they no longer have merely because of their race…. because someone decided that one “color” of person was better or more valued than another color. Some of the people who were forced out of District Six had spent almost their whole lives saving money to buy those homes that were then demolished within seconds. The area was a literal, physical broken dream, shattered by racism and nothing else.
When we’ve visited places like this, I realize that this is part of why I love to travel, and why it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would travel on leisure to any place and not want to understand its people better. Part of being a part of the modern world is having access to air travel, to the internet, and wanting to be a more open, inclusive planet that permits you to see things you would in a previous time not have been able to see as easily. You can’t really be inclusive unless you seek to understand other people, their perspectives and experiences, and the places they call home. I used to think that people who are “well traveled” must be more knowledgable about the world because they travel, they see people that they normally do not get to interact with, and they’ve just seen more, but that’s clearly not true. Many people blindly go from one site to another just to see it, take their selfie, and leave; others will go to resorts and stay within the confines of their laps of luxury away from home, with no regard for the local communities that exist outside those tall walls that barely earn $5 USD/day.
Apartheid is such a huge part of South African history, one that still has endless residual effects on its communities today. Almost all our servers in restaurants and Uber drivers were black. The majority of the management we saw in hotels, restaurants, and businesses were white. And when I looked up the median income for a black South African vs. a white South African, as of 2012 when the data was last collected, a black South African makes only one-third of what the median white South African makes. And today, while browsing in a rooibos tea shop along Long Street, I actually witnessed a white manager condescending to her two black workers with words and a tone that probably would have been appropriate during apartheid or pre-Civil War in the U.S. She spoke to them as though they barely understood English, asking them multiple times, “Do you understand?” and had a tone a parent might have while disciplining his children. Her gaze on her workers was icy, yet when she realized I was looking at her, she immediately switched on a smile and a fake-friendly gaze and asked me if I needed help.
There was no way in hell I was giving any money to that witch. I said I was fine, and immediately walked out.
Racism exists because of a need of power, a need to be above others for an easy, visible reason. As human beings, we’re probably programmed to be judgmental, and racism is the easiest method to form a judgment about another person. But we often hear idiots in society say things like, “I’m not homophobic. My best friend is gay,” or, “I’m not racist; I have a black/Chinese friend.” That’s exceptionalism; everyone else of that race is bad except for my friend; my friend is different from them. Growing up in San Francisco public schools, I was taught this extremely early, and it shocked me so much to move to the East Coast to actually hear people say things like this all the time and not realize why it was wrong. If we made a concerted effort to speak to more people who look different from us, are from different places than us, who grew up in different socioeconomic settings, then we realize that they are all just like us; they want to live productive, healthy, happy lives, do good work, and provide for their families. That’s really it. If that is not a commonality we can understand, then there’s nothing else to understand, and we’re all doomed.
I am a “coloured” person walking all over South Africa, yet all I’ve been greeted with is friendliness and warmth. I feel more hopeful about the future today than I did before I left the U.S. to come here during this trip.