Confronting stereotypes on late night walks

By Seth Schlotterbeck

I recently wrote about my daily walk through Rondebosch, the South African town in which I resided while studying abroad last spring. Walking that same route at night was a whole different story. While I lived in Cape Town, I worked for a short while in a little coffee shop called The Coffee Bean. It was located on the second floor of a small shopping mall about a mile from my house. The Bean officially closed at midnight most nights, but on busy nights it wasnƒ?TMt until one or two before we cleaned up and headed home. Those late night walks home had a much different tenor than the same route in the mornings and afternoons. While my daytime walks were full of sights, sounds, and people, the nighttime was filled with a silence that lent itself to contemplation and a hyperawareness of my surroundings. The lone security guard nodded his greeting from the lonely entrance of the deserted mall, and the disreputable bar across the streetƒ?”The Pig and Swizzleƒ?”alight with its slightly dodgy glow. My friends who lived on the streets had gone to their night spots or to a shelter if they had managed to collect the 15 Rand needed to spend the night, leaving vacancies on the street where I would normally see familiar faces. I would turn down the road and walk briskly along the sidewalk with my hands at my side. I always made sure to wear my running shoes on those late nights, just in case things took a turn for the worse.

Walking home on these nights and being forced to confront my own position in the neighborhood I now lived in was quite a trip. Unable to sequester myself in my bedroom or the library and wrench myself out of my rooted situation into the comforting safety of theories and case studies, questions and thoughts and half-formed answers flowed through my head like a babbling creek after spring melt. To call the section of Cape Town where I lived dangerous would be a little silly, but walking anywhere late at night by oneself was not a good idea.

In a place with such economic disparity, crime felt like a necessary method of justice, especially contemplating it from the perspective of an American student studying at a prestigious university, with a house, money, food, and a future. As a white person, I felt like a target, my pale face shining under the streetlights, my blue backpack marking me as a student.

The System in South Africa, just like the System in the United States, was created specifically for me, White Hetero Male, to succeed; and I thought a good deal about my role in this System on my walks. I didnƒ?TMt necessarily feel guilty that I was white, or privileged, but what did come up was that it felt quite logical that as a matter of distributive justice, I would be targeted as a way to get a little money or food or something. As a born favorite of the System, I realized that those who had not been born so had a legitimate reason to get something back from me. And yet, I couldnƒ?TMt help but be afraid walking home, afraid that somebody might do something to me. I never knew exactly what that something was, but when I thought about it, I could picture whom that anonymous somebody was. Who were these people I was afraid of?

Black people, of course. I tried to tell myself that this was because black people were those whom the system had shat upon, used, exploited for hundreds of years, that only 1 percent of white South Africans lived in poverty compared to 60 percent of black South Africans, that this was a matter of statistics, of unequal opportunities, objective fact.

But where do statistics fall away, and desperately denied, kernels of racism hidden somewhere inside me shine through, I wondered?

I wanted to exculpate myself from guilt for South Africaƒ?TMs racial injustice; after all, Iƒ?TMm an Americanƒ?”not some white supremacist Afrikaner. And yet I could not. How different things would be were my skin a few shades darker; the passing of police cars bringing a sense of impending dread instead of the temporary relief it brought to little white me. And yet, like a cop matching a police sketch to a suspect, the question that inevitably pops into my head as I try to discern a figure in the distant twilightƒ?”whether I am walking down Rouwkoop Road in Cape Town or Fry Street in St. Paul, ƒ?oeIs that a black guy?ƒ?? What do I do with that?

We live in a system in which racism infests the deepest recesses of my existence, whether I choose to embrace that truth or not. So fuck you, all you forces, pressures, people, and institutions that coerce, wheedle, trick, seduce, and scare me into forgetting the reality of this existence. I will not move on, I will not get by, I will not forget. Peace.