What living in South Africa taught me about racism in America
By Kameron Hurley
Because I was a white person growing up in white suburbia, it didn’t really dawn on me how stiffly our country was still segregated until I spent a year and a half living in South Africa. In the US, about 28% of our country is non-white now. In South Africa, over 80% of the country is non-white.
That meant that the way the world was segregated, even post-Apartheid, was glaringly more obvious to me. Most of the world was non-white where I lived, in Durban. It was only when you’d walk into isolated upperclass neighborhoods, or down certain streets, that you saw these little congregations of white people sitting behind their ten-foot barbed-wire topped fences. But even then, everybody had a housekeeper, and a gardener, and a handyman, and those people--in nearly all cases--were not white. So when you walked into a white enclave, it felt exactly like a white enclave should feel: not “normal.” It was abnormal to be in a neighborhood primarily filled with white folks.
I remember the first time I walked into a store in downtown Durban and realized I was the only white person there, just a couple weeks after arriving. It was a startling moment of dissonance. I felt like I’d done something wrong, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there. I realized I was 22 years old, and had never in my life been the sole white person… well, anywhere. And the knowledge of that, the striking realization that, in fact, the world I grew up in was a false one, that I had grown up under the false pretense that being white was somehow the norm, and that I had somehow picked up this strange illogical notion that the rest of the world was of course mostly-white too, was absolutely shocking to me. We expect that we’re smarter than that. That knowing something intellectually--of course the world is diverse and varied and wonderful and I had “known” that since I was a child--does not translate into real knowledge of that world until you experience it, was… really depressing, actually. Because I realized how many other white people in America had grown up just like me, in these false white rural and suburban ghettos where they had absolutely no idea of the actual composition of America.
What he failed to realize is that “these people” had been in Aurora all along--they simply didn’t move in the same spaces he did. The only time he saw them was now, on election day, when they all had to come to the same place to vote. If he hadn’t been a poll watcher, he likely would never have noticed them. Because that’s privilege. Because that’s having the ability to live in spaces that have been built to exclude others, and give you a false sense of the world.
After living in Durban, I moved to Chicago, and experienced that eerie train ride from the north side of Chicago to the south side, where the composition of people on the train changes so dramatically that it looks… planned. Because it was. Planned and enforced. Just as it had been in my great-grandfather’s neighborhood in Portland, OR.
When I read a lot of golden age SF, I think about these guys who grew up in planned neighborhoods like my great-grandfather’s, where people who were “different” from the false middle-class white “norm” were excluded. I think of television shows that still give us this narrow view of what “normal” is--so very white, so very male, with strict standards on body sizes and face shapes.
If this is the world you’re fed every day, why wouldn’t you replicate it? Of course, the future is white and male and middle class. Of course the galactic empire is white and male and middle class. It is constructed that way. Just like our cities.
For more on the subject, see White = Sick, Brown = Deviant and White Privilege Will End Soon.
Below: White "god" Kirok teaches savage brown-skins about science and technology.