The human in me

Written  October 2015

A strange day. This morning I finished editing my book, Lost Where I Belong, sent it off to my literary agent,  and then walked down to Campus Square in Melville to browse the stores and pick up some groceries.

In the Pick ‘n Pay, the lady on the till asks me where I am from.

“South Africa,” I tell her.

“You don’t look like it,” she says

“Why not? What looks different?” I ask.

She says my skin looks different.
I replied that it can’t. It is just an ordinary white skin. An olive skin that tans easily, like that of many others raised under the African sun.

I get out my green ID book to prove that indeed, I am a South African citizen.

She shakes her head in surprise.

“It must be something else about me that makes you think that though,” I say, intrigued. She is not the first person to say that I do not look like a white South African. I have heard this before. It is a familiar rif. The accusation, when it comes, is never based on my accent – which admittedly, despite my Benoni upbringing, is not heavily South African – but always on the way I look. The lady packing bags agrees with her.

“What do you think it is about me that makes me seem different?” I ask them both.

They shake their heads. Thinking.

“Do you think it might be the way I look at you that makes me different?” I ask.

The way I look out in the world, I know, is different. I know because it is something I do consciously. Something which I have come to do, through a five-year journey in which I have sometimes pushed, sometimes coaxed myself, to unravel my apartheid conditioning and confront the prejudice in me.

Now, whenever I look at my fellow South Africans, especially people I am meeting for the first time, I consciously look at the human being that is there, that predates their job, their gender and their race. My human sees their human. That is my starting point.

As I left the Pick ‘n Pay a young lad, about 19, his clothes torn, asks me for some money. The human in me sees the human in him, acknowledging that our wellbeing is interconnected, and in this moment, I am able to spare R5 from my wallet.

As I continue on, an Asian man in a car slows to a stop. He rolls down the electric window and asks if I am walking into Melville. I nod and he tells me “to get in, I’ll give you a ride.” The human in me sees the human in him and I know with certainty, that he is not to be trusted. I shake my head and wave him hurriedly away. The more we practice being human, the more we know who truly to fear.

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