Monday, May 22, 2006

My Train Ride

Molo to everyone out there!

There are moments here in South Africa where life goes on as normal.
I walk to the beach almost every day, sometimes I sit and read a few
chapters of whatever book I'm reading (okay I'll admit it: I just
finished the Da Vanci code, and am now re-reading one of my favorites,
The Tipping Point). I go to the internet café, sit in coffee shops,
play with Jonathan's kids, jewelry shop in the fishing town beside us,
and I hike up (actually I lost the path and definitely at one point
thought in my head: though I can see the road below, if I fell and
twisted an ankle noone would be able to hear me and I would be stuck
up here for days…). In any case, it is easy for me to create a
comfortable routine where I work a bit in the morning, go into town
(Fish Hoek, not Cape Town), and then do most of my work at night,
since I can't leave the house after dark, about 7 pm.

Sometimes it could feel like any day in California, with a beautiful
beach and mountains around me. In fact on my way to the internet
cafe, I walked on the beach with the mountains above and a rainbow
over the ocean. Sometimes, I could almost forget I am in South
Africa, where those who look like me are, actually, the minority. But
then, there are those moments, when I am almost smacked in the face
with reality—that the majority of the population is black, that the
majority of the population lives in poverty, that there are more
people infected with HIV here than anywhere else in the world. When I
was working in the township Nekkies, you can be sure that this reality
was an everyday reality of what I was seeing, smelling, feeling,
tasting, experiencing. But now that I'm in Cape Town, where I can
live as most white South Africans do, these moments now come in
spurts, usually unexpected. The first one I had in this country was
in the taxi ride from the airport when I saw my first township. (I
just recently learned that the population of Cape Town's townships
actually exceed the population of Cape Town itself.) And sometimes,
as in what happened today, these reality checks come from just
stepping on a train…

I was visiting friends in Observatory - the cool, artsy, touristy, and
at times sketchy neighborhood of Cape Town. The Robertson Scholars
who are three years younger than me are here for two months, doing
internships and living in townships (see I'm certainly not the only
one). I went with them to Robben Island and because it was dark when
we got home, stayed overnight there to take the train the next day.
So today, I bought one first class ticket back to Fish Hoek. First
class and not third class because, well, I'm white and that's what I
was instructed to do.

But as the train pulled into the station, and as I scanned the cars, I
noticed there were only third class cars (the ones that the Robertson
group leader told them not to take). I knew there was nothing I could
do about it, and told myself it would be a good experience in any
case, so I put on my "I've done this a thousand times before" face and
boarded the car.

Immediately, in a blink of an eye, a scan of the car, it was painfully
obvious that no matter how confident I may have looked, I stuck out
like a soar thumb- the only white person in the car. I quickly
grabbed an open seat, and kept my eyes down, not making any eye
contact. Even though it was the middle of the day, I still thought,
"well if I get mugged at least I don't have my video camera on me."
Even though the car was full, I still was scared for my own safety.
All because of what I was told, because of my perceptions, because
everyone else in the car was, it's painful but true to say, not white.
Had I entered the car and everyone was the same color skin as me, had
their backpacks or fanny packs, their over-the-shoulder purses, I
highly doubt any of the previous thoughts would have crossed my mind.

So I kept my eyes down for a while, my hand always on my bag and
coming to terms with the idea that if I was mugged I would hand over
everything quickly, no heroics for this girl. At some points it felt
like this was just another subway car from New York City, but the fear
in my head, my tense body, the fact that I was very conscious of my
safety and my bag…this feeling did not last for very long.

What did last a long time was the train ride. I didn't feel it was a
good idea to do anything else conspicuous and so decided against
reading my book on the 45 minute ride. I wanted to be aware of
everything around me, even as I tried not to make eye contact.

After about five or ten minutes, I noticed no one immediately jumped
on me, an obvious tourist with a North Face jacke,t and a cell phone,
and a backpack with a camera inside it. It was only then that I
really picked up my head and actually looked at the people in the car
with me. In front of me, there were three beautiful little girls,
about five or six years old, dressed in church clothes, laughing with
each other in their own world. There were several mothers with their
babies. To my right were colored men speaking Afrikaans and making
jokes, part of me feeling like they were probably talking about me,
though I don't think they were. To my left was a good looking couple,
a businessman. Suddenly, when I actually looked at the faces of the
people in the car, and not just the color of their skin, they didn't
seem so scary, and- this time similar to NYC subway riders- were in
their own world. In reality, the person most conscious of my presence
was me.

The rest of the car was mostly uneventful. At one point, because two
of the colored men guessed correctly that I was going to Fish Hoek, I
found myself laughing during the train ride.

Moments like this in South Africa, even more so than filming about
HIV, that are the most challenging. Whilst filming I can try to find
someone else to blame for the HIV epidemic, at this moment on my train
ride home, there was noone to challenge but myself. Why, when walking
into a car filled with black and colored people, did I instantly,
almost instinctively tense up and feel my security was threatened?
And why was I surprised when I actually looked at the people, it was
any other subway car: some were sketchy but most were just minding
their own business.

I think I, like most of us out there, likes to believe that we are not
racist, that we treat people based on their character rather than the
color of skin. In South Africa, there is just no escaping my own
racism. This reality makes me feel both angry and vulnerable. Many
times, I even feel justified by my racism- especially when it comes to
issues of personal safety (let me stress again to make my grandmother
feel better that I am being extra safe on everything), which of course
also makes me confused.

But as I stepped of the train, my white skin never feeling quite as
pale, I wondered if perhaps this was what it felt to be a racial
minority in the US, to feel like you stand out everywhere you go.
Before the train pulled away, as I looked at the familiar Fish Hoek,
with its internet café and restaurants, I knew that this was fully
true. For one, I know I can always escape to a white space fairly
quickly, be comforted again to be surrounded by people who look like I
do. But second, and most importantly, is the reality that what
usually is associated with my white skin are privileges, things that
make my road in life that much easier (but not as easy if I were a
white male). In other words, me feeling like an outsider is just
that, a feeling, a fear a discomfort. But for those who are
not-white, their skin color does not just bring discomfort, it has
very real consequences. There are too many statistics of inequity to
list here, so I will stick with just one that I found while doing
research yesterday: 13% of blacks are infected while only 0.6% of
whites are. I couldn't help but wonder if, of the people sitting on
the train today, if it was I who should be worried about my security
and well-being.

Okay, so these emails are always hard to write because I am trying to
describe not just an event but how that event challenges me and
inevitably leaves me vulnerable: it's not the easiest thing to admit
that I am racist over a mass email, but alas, it is impossible to
spend time in this country and still pretend to be color blind.

Love to all!

p.s. I just got off the phone with Beatty and good news- she and one
other at MADaboutArt have received a scholarship to attend the
International AIDS Conference where my film will premiere!


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