I have grown up learning how to juggle three elements of who I am. I do not juggle these elements willingly. I juggle them because I am conditioned to do so and therefore have become, in many situations, a pro.
Every now and again a situation presents itself and I recognise that I have to rely on parts of my skill that come with a shadow-side, an ugliness that I try hard not to associate with. A situation such as this presented itself to me the other day and in my fright and fear, I found myself holding onto parts of myself that I had never thought would come to light.
I Aupair for a white family with black children. This family is currently renovating their house. Doing the renovations are men, labourers who because of South Africa’s racially divided history, are made up of all different shades of brown, brown, only shades of brown.
I arrived at the house with the children in my car. In the front yard were a group of + – 20 men, builders. As a woman I have come to learn that avoiding building sites make my life easier to live and my emotions easier to manage. As a black woman, I have come to fear building sites and large groups of working class men because I have come to accept that working class men see black skin wrapped around the female form as property that can be grabbed and groped at. (This has often been my experience, not always, but often).
I was wary but I had a job to do. 2 children were already climbing out of my car and the 3rd had to be woken up from a warm bundle of chocolate cutness. As she began to stir I hear the first remark, ( everything in Xhosa). “Look at this woman.” The chocolate bundle stretched and took the shape of a 4-year old girl. She open her eyes and stepped out of the car. This gave me reason enough to keep my eyes off the man who had spoken.
“She’s a foreigner.” The words were spat out like venom. In that moment I recalled images of stabbings, burning flesh and other media-represented attacks that had been associated with xenophobia in earlier years. I still had to lock the car, make sure the 4-year old was not asleep on the car tire and get into the house. Was it safe for me to walk through the men?
I had a quick glance up, towards the group of men. There was a dark, serious face staring in my direction. “Why is this foreigner here?” My head began to race, in the split second that I had, I decided that the safest place for me was beside the little chocolate drop. She was connected to The Boss and The Boss was connected to money and therefore life. She would not be made to feel hurt or affraid
We walked in together, she completely oblivious, stopping to stamp in cement puddles, me darting my gaze between her, the spade the man was carrying and the door. When 2 tiny brown feet were all covered in grey dust, we finally moved inside. I had not been aware of being tense, but my neck began to ache as I put down my bag and relaxed it.
Once everyone was in and I had taken the time to trust that my responses would not be impulsive and therefore dangerous, I went outside to speak to the stranger who had forced me to question my safety an take my life into my own hands.
As my words slid out from a body that suddenly felt extremely fragile, cement-like and feminine, I began to hear a sound that so often comes from thin, parted pink lips. It was English, so English, laced with fear and sprinkled with a false sence of authority.
I was hearing myself become the thing I hate the most. I was afraid. I was unsure of myself. I used everything that I come from to separate me from that which I feared. All of a sudden I was outside of myself looking and listening. I could not stand to be a part of the cruelty of that moment, for me and for the man who had caused me internal war.
I asked him why he had called out to me….I told him that I did not appreciate his attitude and that I would not tolerate it. His face was a mask, his eyes were bullets and all the while he looked into me and gave me only silence.
I suddenly became aware that there were 20 pairs of eyes on all different parts of my shape and sex. I became aware that there were 20 pairs of ears listening to my tone, my berating tone, my feminine voice, my English, my reprimanding of a black man in front of his colleagues. I felt alone and on show.
I felt angry and observed myself struggling to juggle, dropping gender, tripping over language and holding only power. It was a difficult experience yet one that I am sure I will meet again. The world is diversifying fast but we are not all on the same journey. There will be many who stumble and trip and drop their things.
I hope for a conversation with this man, but I know that it won’t come. To him, because of a history that was created long before either he or myself were born, I will always be a foreigner who has stolen his opportunities. And sadly, this will often still make me afraid.
Image by: Nick Aldridge.