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Sticking to What You Know

I was going to write about the fun stuff I’ve been doing since I arrived in Cape Town. I was going to write about adjusting to a massive school like UCT. I wanted to talk about the exciting things I’ve done and seen- the whales, the baboons, the penguins, lions, wine tasting, peri-peri, the Old Biscuit Mill, bungy jumping, backpackers, the Garden route, the night life. I really did. But then I started looking around and found something far more worthwhile to write about at this time.

I still cannot claim to know that much about South African history nor contemporary society. I didn’t grow up here, didn’t know anyone who grew up here, wasn’t educated on the place. And even though I’ve been here studying and just living in Cape Town for about two months, I know this culture is not my own. Given all that, it is near impossible to ignore the dull throb of the collective exposed nerve that is race in post Apartheid South Africa. Yes, for those keeping track, this blog post is going there.

The little that I did know about South Africa before I came did center on the Apartheid era, and generalizations made from that led me to wonder what race relations were like after, now. My wondering in turn led me, consciously and sometimes unconsciously, to people watch. The best and only consistent place for me to ask and watch is at the University of Cape Town. Even though I personally have no comparison to make with the interactions (or lack thereof) between races during Apartheid, race and racial difference still appear to divide the campus into four groups- blacks, whites, Indians, and Coloureds (five groups if you count the international students who stick out like sore thumbs).

I’ll qualify all of this by saying that I’m obviously not South African, and my opinion and observation could be completely off the mark. Regardless, I see in the class rooms, in the dining areas, on the Jammie Steps, self segregation based on race. It’s not so much that the clustering of distinct racial groups surprises me. Instead, the less than frequent times I see, for example, a black person socializing, or even conversing with a white person warrant a double take.

Maybe I’m looking too much into this head-scratching aspect of student life at UCT, maybe I’m not looking enough.  It could be that around 20 years after Apartheid, race might not be an issue for this younger generation; color is no longer visible, as I’ve heard multiple South Africans . However, if it really isn’t a problem, then why does it seem so obviously problematic to me, someone out of the loop on what’s going on here and now? I feel like I could be comparing this to what I do know about race and racial interactions and looking for differences. And I feel I know about race relations in the US.

Once I really started paying attention to racial interactions at UCT, I quickly began to think about how it compared to what I have observed in the US. My initial reaction was to announce the US as more diverse, more willing to be interracial. It seemed pretty straightforward. At home, my school contained so many different types of people that made regular contact-conversations, general socializing-with other different people. Clearly my thinking on this seemed to influenced by the common American thought that the country is now ‘post-racial’ and a place of equality for the diverse. But, as time has passed, I began to find things to contradict these beliefs. I thought of my school’s dining hall, where I could consistently spot a typically ‘black’ table separate from a typically ‘Asian’ table in a larger crowd of typically ‘white’ tables. I thought of the general lack of non-whites and interracial interaction in my own neighborhood and high school. I know these two personal observations are hardly enough to prove that the entire US still self segregates, or even worse, actively segregates itself. But my own experiences looking at this at home makes me realize how far from perfect race relations are in the US. Perfect is always too much to ask. I still wonder after looking at two societies, two histories, how can things be improved? When will the white student sitting with his or her Indian student not warrant a double take and become the norm? I personally think part of the answer lies in looking at what makes groups of people stay together. This means looking at, among other things, friendship. So much progress could be made by reaching out and looking outside of what you know.
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