Posted on June 22, 2010

Feeling a Little Uneasy These Days

Jemele Hill, ESPN Soccernet, June 20, 2010

I’m not used to feeling uncomfortable around black people, but I’ve had some experiences in South Africa that have made me uneasy.

I was in Soweto watching South Africa’s opening match against Mexico when I got into a philosophical discussion with a young black South African about what black South Africans think of African-Americans.

“I see how the n—-s live on TV–the videos, they show me,” he said, beaming proudly.

Now, you probably think I was uncomfortable because he said the N-word, but that wasn’t it. It didn’t even offend me, because I realized he meant it as a compliment. I knew that by using that word he was trying to fit in with another black person from the United States, because in the short time I’ve been in South Africa, I’ve discovered how much black South Africans idolize American rappers, who use the N-word frequently.

Talking with me, though, only seemed to confirm the perceptions of African-Americans he gleaned through entertainment. He ended our conversation by wrapping his arm around my shoulder and telling me that he couldn’t wait to tell his grandchildren he had met me: a successful African-American woman. {snip}

I’ve had that type of encounter regularly since I’ve been in South Africa. I know this will seem strange, but being treated with such reverence embarrasses me.

Several of my black friends who have visited Africa told me before my trip to prepare for this. {snip}

Like the black maid in Sun City who told me she would love to go back to the States and work as my live-in housekeeper because it would afford her a rare opportunity to work for a “smart black woman.”

Or the black bartender who said to me: “A black American and a white American . . . you all are the same to me.”

It was another awkward compliment, but from his viewpoint, he equates the lifestyles of black Americans with white people, both in America and in South Africa.


The problem, though, is that it implies privilege. Am I blessed? Yes. Hard-working? Absolutely. Privileged? Never.

This isn’t an easy admission, but on some level I’m bothered by the fact that black South Africans would look at me and see any similarities between myself and the privileged classes that oppressed them for hundreds of years. One of the weirdest things about Johannesburg is that every house, gas station, school, grocery store, just about any building is fenced in, protected by either iron gates, barbed wire or a fence–especially in the fancier, mostly white neighborhoods. It’s like a city full of military compounds. So when they praise me for living a “white life,” are they saying I’m also like that?


Certainly a great deal of healing has taken place in South Africa, but there is still an enormous gap between the way blacks and whites live. {snip}