Next they'll expect me to don a dhoti

Saturday, 12 August 1995

Our problem is that we are socialised racists...

A close friend of mine — who is himself pigmentally challenged — mentioned this in passing last week. He was talking about white South Africans. I was thinking about the implications of this admission while trying to remember how to double de-clutch. The synchromesh on the second gear didn't work.

We were driving through the crisp Gauteng morning air in his pristine fire engine red 1957 MG-A convertible decked out in identical tweed hats and winter jackets. I thought I looked rather silly, but the drive and the company made up for that.

We had started the morning with breakfast at his home with his visiting brother and sister-in-law. They were both perfectly charming and hospitable. She had prepared a truly delicious feast of fruit salad and fresh juice, bacon, eggs and grilled tomatoes toast and coffee. And as I helped myself to more toast, she asked: "Do you know Primodhini Govender?"

I took a swig of coffee. "From where?" I asked.

She paused in thought. "Oh, from Phoenix, I think."

And where did she work, I wanted to know.

"With us at the jewellery store. Her husband is in insurance I think."

No. I did not know Primodhini Govender, I said. Should I?

"Are you married?" she asked. I nodded. "Oh, because she's quite beautiful" she said.

I laughed at this. "It sounds as though you are matchmaking," I said," which is quite strange if she's married."

She became flustered at this. I tried to be helpful. My mother's maiden name was Govender. I told her.

She seemed relieved at this. There were so many Govenders in the phone book, she said. Why, there were many Pillays too.

"When in America," I said, "I would tell people I was South African. I would frequently get a response like, I've got a friend in Kenya. Do you know him?"

The others chuckled. She responded quite testily: " I know you're saying that because I asked you whether you know Primodhini. But I only asked because lots of people know her because she's so beautiful."

Socialised racists. They share perceptions that are not malicious, but are so deeply ingrained that they are not aware of them.

So we "Indians" are expected to know each other. We all eat hot curries and not much else. We are shrewd businessmen and somewhat devious. We have insatiable sex drives that white women find irresistible.

That's perhaps an unfair extrapolation. She wasn't necessarily thinking about those things. After all, I don't know most of my 64 first cousins. I was eating bacon and eggs. And I'm not a businessman.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of returning to my country after years overseas. Having worked in places where I have been judged purely on my capabilities, I have to now shift my mindset to cater for the fact that I am probably being judged first as an "Indian".

Working in the newspaper industry cushions that to some extent, since newspaper people are forced to take a larger world view.

Still, I wonder to what extent my fellow "Indians" contribute towards perpetuating stereotypes?

There are those of us who are still instinctively deferential to white people, collapsing into snivelling incoherence even when not at fault. There are the brown-nosers who bust their budgets and their wives to take a pot of crab curry to the lahnee.

But even worse are those who not only wallow in their mental servitude but get quite upset when they see one of their kind who has the temerity to be different.

These are people who have slaved 20 years or more for a white boss, but suddenly develop an attitude problem when they have to report to an Indian. This is a waiter who has served in a whites-only restaurant for most of his life, and cannot stomach the idea of a charro wanting to taste the wine.

Fortunately, we are outgrowing a lot of this. People of my generation have benefitted greatly from the sense of pride instilled by black consciousness. We are more educated than our parents' generation. We don't anglicise our names for those who are too lazy to learn how to pronounce them.

The children of my generation will have a much easier time. As they play together in school, they will grow together discovering what they have in common rather then what divides them.

In the meanwhile, perhaps I should go in search of the beautiful Primodhini Govender of somewhere in Phoenix who works in a jewellery store and whose husband is in insurance to tell her of her passion she inspires.