Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Hotnot Taxi" the White Woman Said

Last night I was invited to a house party by my neighbors who are a nice and friendly white (Afrikaner) couple.

"We want everyone living around here to get to know each other.  You know like that TV show Melrose Place.  Come have a drink and bring a friend," the husband said.

I agreed with a sense of nervousness drawn from years of knowing that all white or mostly white parties are dangerous spaces (in the US or SA) for folks of color.  Add alcohol and the space can be very dangerous.

When I moved into my townhouse 8 months ago I was looking for a place relatively close to work, very close to a gym, and even closer to my fried D. and his family who were ostensibly the only folks I knew in Pretoria.

A week before I moved in D. and I were having coffee inside a large monstrosity of a warehouse type shop that reminded me of WalMart in the US.  D. called a rental agent, she agreed to meet us, we drove over to the townhouse complex, walked through once, checked that there was enough security to avoid being killed in the murder capital of the world, and I signed the lease for a year.

That was it.  A rental agreement man style.  I did not look to see if there was closet space or even a closet.  I cared less about the pantry in the kitchen pointed out to me or the second floor loft space the agent said was large enough for parties.

I have been to the second floor a cumulative 8 times in 8 months.

The last thing on my mind 8 months ago was getting to know my neighbors.  After three decades in the US I couldn't care less about neighbors.

A passing greeting now and then and the decency to keep noise levels respectable is all I expect from neighbors.
Being the gentleman that he is, D. agreed to be the friend I brought along despite the fact that he had just returned from a month in Russia and obviously needed to catch up with his wife and kids.

'Let's go boet.  We will stay for an hour max and then f*ck off.  It would be rude to just ignore their invitation because you live there," he said. 

We arrived at about 9pm or thereafter and the scene was jovial.  My neighbors were attentive hosts who did not mind that I brought my own bottle of Coke Zero to suck on and D. a few Windhoek Lagers for him and the guests.

We were not too anxious as friendly talk ranged from sport to the tragic tsunami in Japan.  But copious amounts of alcohol was being consumed and I expected that the talk would inevitably change after guards dropped.

At some point into our second hour a girly bleach-blond middle-aged woman walked over to D. and I and begun chatting.

"I hear you are just back from Russia?  Was it nice there?  Are the women beautiful like they say?  Are they all blond?  What did you bring back," she asked in rapid fire order and then started talking about herself.

"I am just back from America.  Americans are so rude.  Especially the white ones.  Oh the black ones are so much more friendly.  The white ones are in a rush and won't even look at you.  I was in New York and then went to Baltimore where my son has married an American and says he will never return to South Africa ever again.  Do you think the Americans will allow me to stay there too once he gets permanent residency?  I am 50 and will be a grandmother and that place is just so much more civilized than here."

D. and I played along adding this and that and then it happened.  That dreaded and permanent change of tempo that I had anticipated.

"If I have to live in South Africa I am moving to Cape Town.  You sound like you are from Cape Town," she said looking at D.

He nodded and she continued.  'Please don't be offended but when I went to Cape Town I told everyone I am not driving I am taking a Hotnot taxi to get around.  I did and it was so cultural and nice."

Two hours ago D. and I were driving to a bank when he looked at me and said:"Boet did you hear that white woman talk about a hotnot taxi to my face last night?  I could not sleep all night," he added.

Hotnot is a very derogatory word used to refer to coloured people.  D. is coloured and as you know this is a time of heightened tensions around the place of coloureds (and Indians) in South Africa.

The shock and insult lay heavy across D.'s face.  'We can't let our guard down with white people hey," he said.

"It is the same in the US.  The need to frame a conversation with white values and to locate the Other is the culture, politics, and pathology of being white," I replied.

The woman eventually left us and her significant other came over just as she fixed her eyes on yet another drink.  Her partner was wearing a golf shirt and proceeded to make fun of my name after he introduced himself.  Those within hearing distance laughed loudly to confirm his humour.

"I hear you are a political scientist.  How are you politically affiliated?  Is your name red wine or reed wing or what?", he started up again to alternative pronouncements being offered from the rest.

"It is Ridwan and yes I am a political scientist and no I am not affiliated with any political party though in my delusional youth I voted for Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.  A lot of political scientists do not vote it is not unusual," I said looking at D. and hoping that the conversation would just end but it did not.

"Don't marginalize my language," he blurted abruptly in reply.

Huh?  I thought as D. rolled his eyes.  The mutha was speaking English but was obviously referring to the politics associated with being Afrikaner (Afrikaans is not a white language).

"I think there is a lot good with ANC people and just because I'm Afrikaans does not mean I hate the ANC.  Hell I hate the British and they white like me.  I have it hard now with Affirmative Action but then it is my time to suffer like you suffered under the National Party.  I accept it because what can I do?"

It was time to go.  We were uncomfortable.  Folks around us were drunk and inhibitions were low enough for sh*t to hit the proverbial.

Our move to leave was, however, stalled by a long condescending lecture about right thinking and merit and the place of Tiger Woods in white dominated golf.  Both D. and I tried to ease the conversation away from race sensitive topics.

It was not to be so and we were humiliated.

Before reaching the bank I looked at my brother who remained thoroughly disgusted.  "We are very foolish to think that that there is integrity and safety in engaging most white people.  I think we betray ourselves in these kinds of situations.  I feel dirty and even dirtier for not standing up.  I mean why the f*ck do white people think it is necessary to say sh*t like that and to do so with arrogance?"

I have been here before.  Felt this burn and turned on myself for not being more assertive and calling the sh*t for what it was.

Instead, both D. and I did what a lot of people of color do in white dominated spaces.  We managed the situation and played safe to escape and lick our wounds elsewhere.

I hear a treadmill calling.  And then a very long and hot shower to try and wash off this dirty feeling.



Dade said...

A disheartening story, my friend. I'm sorry.

This world we live in...

Ridwan said...

Hey there brother Dade.

It is a "disheartening story" but we are wiser still for knowing to press on hey.

Thanks for looking.



pserean said...

This was your midnight party?

Sometimes keeping quiet- to keep the illusion of peace- just means you go home and hate yourself for later.
days and years later.
and times when you Do speak up- you wonder at the wisdom of it.
(For days and years later.)
Either way, you're left with a bitter dead taste in your mouth.

But God knows those secret spaces when you bit your tongue and your heart clamoured for hope and stopped midbeat.
And I have to believe that the patience of the oppressed- means something in His eyes.
And their prayers are never ignored.

Always onwards, hey?

Ridwan said...

Salaams pserean:

Wise words indeed. The cumulative weight of these kinds of interactions rarely just disappear.

Each time an assault like this falls it reminds me of every other time (and those times experienced by Others).

Why we stayed so late is beyond me. We should have measured more effectively, shown a good face and rolled before the inevitable.

So now again I am resolving not to be inside of these spaces.

Though I remember enough seemingly innocuous spaces where the same thing happened.

I guess we can never be entirely safe.

Yes, always Onward!

Thank you for your kind knowing.


PS: Last night I started reading more carefully "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs. (1861)

I am reading again along with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" (I mentioned this novel to you).

Harriet Jacobs' (you may know) is a slave narrative that cuts close to the bone but it sets up the context of being "invisible" to survive.

I am worried that despite my radical 'posturing' there are too many times when I adopt the default place of being "invisible" just to make it through (like at the party).

Being "invisible" is a dangerous place and I think the longevity of this blog and my boldness to claim it despite the professional scorn it has sometimes drawn is my small fight against being so visibly "invisible".

Being a terrorist and a Muslim brings a new kind of visible "invisibility" that goes beyond what Ellison intended in his novel.

The blending (bland-ing?) together of complexities into one ubiquitous handle is the "invisibility" that is so visible.

We remains always a color with essences and now a religion of the same.

Would love to know what you think about this and more.


Onward! still.

pserean said...


I've been struggling with that myself,lately. Being the token terrorist in Life's advert, as well.
This post- and your comments -makes me want to write oodles- but it's more empathy than insight, I'm afraid.
Thank you for adding to my reading list:)

Blanding together of complexities!
Very eloquent.

Anyways, here's a little line that made me smile:
Die Here het geskommel
en die dice het verkeerd geval vi' ons,
daai's maar al" -Adam Small
But this is the same man, who - in his poem, Kroeskop- carries the heavens in his hair.

Perhaps that's the only way to combat invisibility- not by prickling up and staying in our burrows-
but by claiming ourselves without being apologetic- and without rancour to close us up into someone else's shadow ?

(And now you can tell me that real life is not a page of poetry, and you will be perfectly right.)

Ridwan said...


I would never say that because it is not so hey. Poetry captures life and it speaks at many levels.

The Qur'an is poetry I think you would agree. For this reason it has so many levels and more.

No one reading can capture it all.

Thank you for the verse you quoted by Adam Small.

Made me think that even he had moments of doubt. That human condition that speaks more about the struggle (Jihad) to come to terms with being inside and outside all at the same time.

I believe that you are right to press us beyond the survival mode of "staying" and 'burrowing'.

That is why I chose the quote by Edward Said on the left of this blog:

“I have been unable to live an uncommitted or suspended life."

What meaning would there be in just going with the flow no matter how inevitable.

Just recently a friend kindly chastised me for being "too serious" and thinking too much.

I took that as a compliment.

Still, I know that to be fully engaged there must be lighter moments too.

Thank you for writing. I appreciate your words here and at your spot.

I think you have a great contribution to make and have recommended your blog to several folks.


PS: (please forgive this format). You can read/download Harriet Jacobs' narrative here:

pserean said...

Ah. Thanks for that- I shall check it up ...
I wanted to ask for a link but felt shy in case you accused me of being a cheap freebie reader ;)
which *cough* I am..

I used to think the same thing about the Quraan!- just the rhythm of it along my tongue brought peace- until my father once overheard me, and told me very gently that whilst it's certainly poetic- I shouldn't make the mistake of putting my thoughts into God's lines, as I would with a poem.
I never understood what he meant at the time- i thought it was just him being pedantic -but now with all the loco's dragging out aayats and interpretations and 'this is what I think's, I see the wisdom in his words.

It is a well known fact that many comedians are manic depressives.
The light side isn't all it's cracked up to be.
(This might be a quote from Darth Vader- I'm not sure.)

Anyways, I'm hogging up this comment box.
And thank you again for your kind words ( this isn't a ping pong) and your presence in my corner:)

Ridwan said...

Salaam pserean:

Your dad's words were wise and capture a long quarrel among the many 'sects' about the place of translation.

But that as you know is a whole other world.

I hear you on the manic quality of humor and seriousness.

Please hog all you want here and anywhere else on the blog. I am delighted that you take time out of your quarters to read here.

Peace and blessings,