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Racism, a personal perspective

In one respect, my numerous visits to Africa have all had a racist overtone. That is, as a person who grew up in the USA, by world standards, a largely racist society, traveling as a white in black Africa has reinforced my conviction that there is no inherent reason that different races can't get along apart from economic and social historical baggage carried by different groups of people who happen to be able to distinguish each other on the basis of their coloring.

I am a white American. I don't consider myself a racist. I grew up in Texas as a child in the 50's. Blacks and whites used to come together in public places such as buses and grocery stores, but blacks sat in the back of the bus, and I remember there being separate black and white water fountains and bathrooms in grocery stores, cafeterias, and cinemas in Houston in those days. As a small child, I used to wonder why?? What was it that was so unclean about these people that I shouldn't use their bathrooms, and what would happen to me if I drank out of one of their water fountains? That's a lot of baggage for a kid to have laid on him, but I am fortunate that my parents weren't racist. They called themselves "liberals" and their friends were liberal. They supported racial reform in the USA, and they tried to explain to me that segregation was wrong and an aberration. I'm grateful for that. A lot of my friends didn't have that advantage.

Still, as a middle class white growing up in Houston, I had few opportunities to get to know blacks living there. I don't think there were any blacks at Robert E. Lee High School when I graduated in 1966. So it wasn't until I got to college at the University of Houston that I started making friends with black people. And to do that I had to go out of my way.

For example, I struck up an acquaintance with a student at Texas Southern University and visited the apartment where he lived, but he was too much an angry young black to make it a long-term relationship. I had better luck with a student who lived in a nicer neighborhood in the north of town and we used to go out on the town together. Once I invited him to a bar where friends of mine had taken to hanging out. We walked in and up to the bar where I was a regular customer and we ordered a couple of beers. The bartender informed me simply, "We don't serve his kind in here." This was a slap in the face and a real shock to me. My friend took it graciously and we went elsewhere. He was surprised only that I hadn't expected to encounter that kind of treatment in that kind of bar, since he got it all the time.

I started college at the University of Houston swept up in the fraternity rush scene, and I was elected "best pledge" of Pi Kappa Alpha my freshmen year. There were black fraternities and white fraternities at U of H, but never the twain mixed. I remember sitting up one night with some young ladies my "brothers" and I were dating and discussing how we thought it would be acceptable if a black guy wanted to pledge Pi K A. One of the participants in the discussion was one Arthur Shackleford. I remember this guy in particular because later on, a black actually did pledge with a chapter of Pi K A somewhere, and my brothers got up in arms about it. I went to the frat house one night when there was a party, and they were running through the place raising their glasses and singing in unison, "There will never be a nigger Pi K A." One who lent his voice was Arthur Shackleford. So I pulled Arthur aside and reminded him of our recent discussion and asked him how he had come to stray from his previously expressed opinion. He mumbled weakly that he had been drunk that night or something like that and went back to his partying. Needless to say, I left the house within half an hour of arriving there never to return and that was the last time I had any association with that fraternity. This was considered a breaking of a compact by fraternity headquarters, who kept sending me bills for dues, claiming that I could leave the fraternity only by graduating, getting married, or dying (not hard to do, considering there was a Vietnam war on at the time). I ignored them, and eventually they sent me a notice that I was banished from the fraternity and was no longer fit for association with decent folk.

Fortunately, I had been developing a life outside the frat scene, and one of the decent folk I was running around with was a guy named Nat Gee, a good friend from work. Nat was one of several black people I worked with. It was shift work at a 24-hour a day geophysical company, and often we'd get off at 11 at night and go out for a few beers, blacks and whites together. We had an interest in places that featured exotic dancers. Body painting was a great favorite, and once we witnessed a hair-pulling fight between two of the ladies who had their bodies painted there. Sometimes we'd go to white places, and sometimes to black ones (the body paintees were Latino). Either way, it was a lot of fun. Sometimes my girlfriend Bobbi (now my wife) would come out with us. Bobbi was not a racist either, and neither were here parents.

Nat was one of my dearest friends in Houston. His sense of humor, identity with humanity, and take on life transcended race. He lived in a neat little house in a poor part of town, and I visited him and his family often, and got to know him and his wife Mae and his kids, Nat Jr. and the twins Sheri and Cheri (and the oldest boy, forgot his name) quite well.

Nat was a great guy in his youth, but he was beat down by a system that discriminated against black people. When I returned to Houston I used to make it a point to visit Nat and Mae, so I kept track of the sad deterioration. Nat and his friends left GSI, the company where I met him, and went to work at a company called Celanese. There they got caught up in a racial dispute that cost Nat his job. Nat invested a lot of energy and what money he had trying to fight the discrimination he had suffered, but in the end the company was too powerful, and Nat was beat back by a team of lawyers with fly swatters in their briefcases. The last times I visited, he was selling, or trying to sell, used cars, and was not doing well. Nat had always been something of a magician with cars, but unfortunately, not with selling them. The last time I visited his home, it was with Mae, since Nat was indisposed during my visit.

The history of race relations in America is well documented as far as the experiences of others are concerned, and this is only a bit of my own perspective. It was with this background that I visited Africa for the first time in the 1970s. I spent 9 months slogging across the continent, from Egypt to Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya to Tanzania to Zaire to Central Africa Republic to Nigeria to Togo to Dahomey (now Benin) and finally Ghana, all overland. In those countries I met many black people. I slept in their beds (me sleeping one way, they another, same bed - with guys I'm talking about). I walked in the streets holding hands with them (again, guys, this was often their habit). Except for the places where I was treated as a curiosity, where mothers would bring their screaming babies up to me and make them touch me for example, except for those places, I was treated normally, equally, without race being an issue. It was an eye opener, having been brought up in racist America, to see that races could live in harmony (even though they don't, and not always black and white; e.g. Tutsi and Hutu).

One might note that I traveled Africa east to west, not north to south. On a later trip, I went to Malawi, Zimbabwi and Zambia, but not South Africa. In those days, the days of Apartheid in South Africa, I avoided that country. I was always curious about it, but I didn't want to contribute to Apartheid by going there and bringing my money into the country. I was as glad as anyone to see Apartheid end and the governments of Mandela and Mbeke successfully take charge. It meant I could finally visit the country.

And it is with this background that I try to understand the relationship between black and white in South Africa ...

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Last updated: December 20, 1999