In January, I was followed around a store.
It was at the airport before the coronavirus turned air travel on its head. I had just checked in for my flight, and had seen, on my way to security, a stuffed toy in a storefront display that I thought my best friend’s baby would like.
As I considered the toys on the initial rack that had caught my eye, a store associate appeared with a basket but did not say anything; she just stood at the wall a few feet away from me, watching.
I greeted her, but she still did not smile or make eye contact, just nodded and mumbled an almost inaudible “fine”.
I would have tried to let this go, would have told myself she was just having a bad day, and that we need to stop expecting poorly paid store associates to give us eight hours of cheer in addition to stocking shelves and serving customers.
Except that, as I continued through the store, more associates appeared, also saying nothing. There was the man to my left, another to my right, a woman to my far right, all in addition to the initial woman with the basket who was now so close behind me that she seemed not to be helping so much as stalking me.
The men, when I made eye contact with them, said, “How are you Ma’am?” This would have seemed innocuous if not for the conduct of the man to my left, who appeared startled when I looked at him, as though I had caught him doing something he shouldn’t have; he muttered his greeting before drifting back behind the mid-store display that he had approached me from.
I slowly put the stuffed animal I was looking at back on the shelf. When I looked up, I saw my sister. She had been standing just outside the store, but came inside when she observed what was happening.
“Do you still want to get anything from here?” she asked evenly; she would tell me later how furious she had been watching the moment unfold.
“No.” I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and walked away, saying a mumbled “Thank you” to the four store associates as I did – I am not sure why, perhaps to convey the civility they had presumed me to be without.
A matter of race
#TravellingWhileBlack – the hashtag might have been on my US Twitter feed. Except that this is a complicated hashtag, because what I just described happened not in the United States, where I now spend most of the year, but in South Africa, one of two countries I transit through whenever visiting my mother in my home country of Malawi.
Furthermore – none of the store associates were white. Each one, including the manager I returned to the store to later speak to about the incident, was Black.
When something like that happens, race is both the first and last thing one imagines as the reason.
First – because it is always first. Living as a Black woman in the US, race is never far from my mind and a person of colour would be foolish to ever let that particular guard down completely.
Last – because I want to believe that in 2020 the reason I was presumed to be a criminal had to have been anything but that.
Maybe I was not dressed right; maybe I did not flash my British Airways boarding pass openly enough; maybe I did not engage in loud enough mindless conversation with my sister so that they would hear my virtually flawless American accent; maybe I did not strategically angle my roller bag so that they could see the Delta Silver Medallion tag attached to the side handle.
Maybe there was something I did, some signal I gave, whereby as soon as I walked into the store I was immediately branded not as a customer but as a thief, and this by people who looked exactly like me.
In September 2019, South Africa descended into the latest of many waves of xenophobic violence against Black Africans of foreign origin.
Shops were looted and destroyed, people were beaten in the streets, and, in at least one horrific case, a man was burned to death. More than 100 Malawians were displaced in the violence, and the Malawi government repatriated 75 citizens back to Malawi.
The claim among the rioters and attackers was that foreign Black people were taking their jobs, their money and their marriage partners.
But Malawians in South Africa are there for the simple reason that the opportunities we want do not exist in Malawi; if they did, we would be at home, and I am indeed in the US for that reason. We migrate, take whatever opportunities we find, work long hours with few holidays, send money home occasionally, return home infrequently.
This has been the case since many great-grandfathers and great-uncles of mine, on both sides of my family, migrated by foot to South Africa back in the 1930s and 1940s to work in the mines; only now it is no longer mines but construction and transportation, and no one travels there on foot any more, now that there are direct buses between Blantyre and Johannesburg.
As a Malawian observing the violence from afar, I did not understand it.
South Africa’s problem is not foreign Black people – it is that nearly three decades after apartheid’s dissolution as government policy, the foundations apartheid built are still very much an economic reality.
Unemployment is staggeringly high; students graduate from university into an economy with vastly fewer jobs than willing workers; and white South Africans still hold the bulk of South African land and wealth. Foreign Black people are not the reason for this state of affairs, any more than migrant workers from Latin America are the reason for the US’s continually expanding wealth gap between the rich and the poor.
Being a victim is no excuse to then turn around and make a victim of someone else. As much as I understood the rioters’ anger and frustration, I could not justify the violence directed against my people. Every non-South African Black person deciding to depart South Africa today will not change South Africa’s root issues – that the economic sins of apartheid are not being repaired quickly or aggressively enough.
The political will exists in words only. The majority of the population continues to stagnate a few slippery steps above poverty with little hope of financial security or advancement, while a select few continue to speed further into the future with bigger houses and fancier cars, casting barely a backward glance at those being left behind.
Racism and xenophobia against ourselves – fellow Black people caught in our own varying webs of post-colonial, neo-colonial, post-authoritarian regime recoveries – are distractions from the truth of the real fight that still needs to be conquered. Burning me, the Malawian in South Africa, to death does not do a thing to change that – it serves only to illuminate the wrong darkness.
A global web of anti-Blackness
Anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon, and when I walked into that store I merely walked into one of its many iterations.
Certainly, this was one of colonialism’s chief exports and enduring legacies. The lie that we, the native Black people in Africa, were fundamentally inferior to the white man is what propelled colonialism’s arrival and then fuelled its multigenerational tenure on our lands; the drive to align with that lie to achieve the approval of ruling white people is a poisonous inheritance of the politics of survival that continues to be handed down.
The store associates, then, were only somewhat acting out of their own volition; but in a larger sense, they were simply caught up in a global web of anti-Blackness for which they had no choice but to act out their required roles – in that particular instance, to remind me that my expressed positionality in that moment, a Black shopper with a British Airways boarding pass, was a threat to the established order of whiteness vis a vis Blackness.
I was not supposed to have the ability and papers to travel effortlessly between my third-world home of origin and my first-world home of choice; I was not supposed to have the kind of casual buying power that meant I could walk into a store without a plan or a budget and make a purchase without caring for the impact on my bottom line.
I was supposed to be flying the cheapest airline, not merely the airline I prefer independent of cost; and I certainly was not supposed to be travelling with a family member, my sister, who reinforced all of those realities in double.
I was not occupying my expected place in the social order of whiteness, in other words, and thus like a pathogen I had to be reminded that I was distinctly unwelcome, and eliminated. Anti-Blackness is not solely a feeling inside an individual, then – it is a systemic, entirely global, programming.
In my chosen home of the US, anti-Blackness is baked into its very institutional frameworks, the immovable reality born of the twin legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
It has determined the shape and spread of cities; it predestines what jobs people can get, what homes they can buy, what schools they can send their children to, and whether or not those children matriculate to college or prison.
It is at the root of over-policing in Black communities and the disproportionately high number of Black Americans killed by police each year.
But because I am aware of this reality, I can expect it and even predict it in a way that means I will never again be caught as off guard as I was that afternoon in Johannesburg.
When I walk into American stores, I instinctively watch out of the corner of my eye to see if the store associate who has suddenly appeared is really organising that dress rack or is trailing me; I pay attention to the quality of service I receive in restaurants compared to other, paler customers. I endeavour to conduct as much of my non-work business as I can either over the internet or by phone; this way the person at the other end of the interaction cannot see what I look like and make determinations on how to deal with me based on their internalised assumptions about Black people, and thus the Black woman in front of them.
I plan for anti-Blackness in my American life, then, in ways that I do not once my overnight flight from London to Johannesburg has crossed the Mediterranean Sea and entered African airspace. As problematic as that is, it is a necessary pragmatism that makes my American life easier. My hypervigilance to the possibility of racism never leaves me completely; after almost 18 years in the US, 36 in the world, I know better than to believe that any pocket of the world is immune to that violence.
I have experienced it even in my majority-Black home country of Malawi; if I have experienced it there, no place is completely safe. But safer, yes, and that is what threw me into a spin in that store. Because it was in majority-Black South Africa, and it was in an airport – a place to transit through, not a place with norms to learn and realities to understand. Just a place to arrive at and a place to leave, in between the two places where I live.
The table is ours
I, an archetype of a Malawian in South Africa, can either be a thief of objects or a thief of opportunities but I cannot be both, and I outright refuse the limitations of those categorisations. They are over-simple classifications for wildly complex problems, and turning the rotting eye of apartheid onto ourselves solves none of those issues, but instead allows off the hook a system that very much must remain under interrogation for the ills it continues to visit upon people who look like me – like us.
It is easy to turn on ourselves and fight for whatever haphazard scraps may fall from that very tall table; it is a lot harder to demand an equal seat at that table, indeed, our fair portion of the whole meal. But this we must.
I must be able to shop in a South African airport and have my presence go unquestioned; I must be able to check in at a first-class airline counter and receive the right cabin assignment, without having to correct a desk agent’s reflexive assignment of an economy class seat.
The mantle of apartheid says that we, as Black people anywhere, are not equal to seats at the big table; that on the one hand, we deserve greater privilege and yet will be immediately suspect when we acquire it. But we must refuse this simplicity, in the spaces we choose to occupy, in the ways we walk through the world, in our actions towards other Black people.
The table is ours, as well as the right to exist – as complex and human as we want – while seated there.
We must do this in a way that brings all of us to the table, skinfolk and kinfolk, and make South Africa’s rainbow nation not merely an aspirational slogan, but a sustainable and permanent reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.