To say apartheid was segregation is an understatement. A state-sponsored policy until 1994, apartheid impacted the lives of every South African, black, white or colored. Yes, I said colored. What is a derogatory word, and unpleasant reminder of our past in the United States, is actually a socially accepted means of categorizing people of mixed racial background in South Africa.
Standing in the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg reflecting on the differences between our separate but equal policies and the policies of apartheid I was struck with how significant the impact of apartheid is today in South Africa versus my impressions of segregation’s ongoing impact in the United States. Segregation in America had been over for over 15 years when I was born and in my experience race and racism are not openly discussed in American society today. Perhaps its because we like to pretend it doesn’t exist or that we weren’t a part of it. It’s certainly something we all know goes on, but I can’t think of an example where its socially appropriate to discuss racism outside of an academic context. To be honest, as an American, it makes me uncomfortable to discuss race and racism. It feels wrong and it feels dirty. In South Africa however, 15 years after the end of Apartheid, its rather openly discussed. Thankfully those we’ve met have been very patient with our questions and haven’t taken offense to our naiveté or ignorance. In turn they’ve asked many questions themselves on the perpetuation of racism in America. Our discussions have been frank, mostly focused on the future not the past. Walking through the Apartheid Museum I was struck by the breadth of information that was contained within the museum, but immediately recognized the breadth of what was not contained within the museum. Perhaps thats the issue in any museum, it can’t contain everything, so choosing itself becomes a political process.
So the question is, how does a society make amends and move on after state sponsored segregation and discrimination? Albeit our situation in America was drastically different (we imported slaves, they were dealing with an indigenous population) than South Africa’s, both nations are coping with its consequences today.
The day after the Apartheid museum Danny and I witnessed a young inter-racial couple walking hand and hand in a shopping center. So little attention was paid to them by other shoppers that it surprised ignorant me. Although 2015 will be 50 years since the end of segregation in America, mixed race couples still deal with a few nasty glances in today’s America. Perhaps they do as well in South Africa and I just didn’t notice. Making amends and moving on doesn’t happen easily. Each country has tried to find its way towards healing. Some ways are more successful than others, but neither country will be able to but its discriminatory past completely behind them until we stop seeing people as a race and start seeing them as people.
Race figures prominently in both countries whether we talk about it or not. Obviously generalizing a country on a few days experience isn’t fair, and perhaps even after a few weeks isn’t enough, but we’ll see how things gof. For now all I can say is that we’re going to be exploring some of our uncomfortable boundaries over the next few weeks.