What my car break-down taught me about racism

The traitor. It's a Chico. We call it Chico. We're great at coming up with car names
The traitor. It’s a Chico. We call it Chico. We’re great at coming up with car names

First I need to explain my experiences with cars so far in South Africa. I started out with Skedlemba, a sweet little Ford, possessed by a spirit that cut the petrol (gas) at random moments. And no matter how many times we took him in (and I mean, it was quite a few), they couldn’t really figure it out. I was towed in probably four or five times by my patient co-workers (once, the tow cable broke three times on the way to the mechanic and so we coasted then pushed the final few meters!). Then, David and I were blessed enough to buy our own car and this one is possessed by a spirit that controls the starter. Sometimes, it perkily starts right up first thing in the morning and we’re zooming on our way, and other times it needs a push start. (We lent it to our brother-in-law for a few months, only to find out he had been “coasting-starting” for a month! Luckily we live in a hilly area). We finally got the starter replaced, and everything had been hunky-dory until Monday. We had no milk. We had no, well, anything, in the pantry. But I was going shopping after dropping David off at school (so I let him use the last dribbles of milk for his cereal), and off we went. Until halfway up the hill to town the car started losing power. And then it died.

I’m telling you, I was convinced we were cursed with an evil car fairy. I honestly wanted to cry at that point, because when you’ve been through so much with a dang car, and put in so much money so that it will work right and it still fails you when need it to come through for you– it’s like a personal betrayal. Not to mention I had not eaten breakfast. So, I’m coasting backwards down this winding hill (luckily there were no cars behind me) so I can pull off on a side dirt road. As I reverse into this dirt road, David starts yelling something unintelligible, and then I realize it’s the word “STOP!” so I stop, but not before our two back wheels are in a HUGE ditch. So now we can’t start the engine and we’re stuck in a hole. We were debating calling the tow-truck (because we would have to take the car in anyway to be looked at) but David, my mr-fix-it-myself husband said no. Instead we called a friend to give David a ride to work.

Thankfully some Zimbabwean petrol attendants were driving by in a bakkie (pick-up), and stopped to help pull us out of the hole with their tow-rope. Hallelujah. Then we coasted back down the hill to our house, David went to school, and my darling friends brought me some milk so I could eat breakfast, drink tea, and finish my master’s thesis analysis chapter.

David returns from school and spends the afternoon poking under the bonnet (hood) and googling things. He can’t figure it out. That night as we’re eating supper, he suddenly says, “Hey, wait, did we drive anywhere this weekend?” “Uh, yeah.” I say. “Like to Durban and back which is an hour away, and then four times to Edendale, and–” Oh. Cha-ching. It hits us: no power= no petrol. David borrowed our lovely landlord’s car, got some petrol and our little car started in a jiffy.

Now, thankfully I like to laugh at myself, and I have enjoyed telling other people this story, but I am always surprised when they interrupt me before the punchline (when I’m describing what happened to us) and say, “Oh, were you out of petrol?” Firstly, I’m annoyed they are stealing my thunder. But I’m also astonished (and frustrated) that SO MANY people thought of that. To them, it was obvious– when you loose power in your car, the first thing you check to see is if you still have petrol. But this thing that is seemingly obvious and simple to everyone else is not obvious or simple to us because of our long and twisted history of car trouble.

Okay, so what does this have to do with racism?? Well… as a white person, when my friends of other races relate an experience where they were the victim of a racist remark, or racist treatment, sometimes I’m like, “Hmm. I don’t think that person was being racist, I think they were just being their normal mean self, because they treat me exactly the same way.” And then I’m tempted to think my friend is overreacting, or seeing race where it isn’t, because it’s obvious to me that it’s not a racial thing.

BUT. There are several things I have learned about this:

1. It very well may be a racist thing, and because I don’t experience racism, or have a history of experiencing racism, I automatically assume the “racist” person is just having a bad day. My context (of never really experiencing racism) means my framework for interpreting other people’s actions does not account for the idea that someone would be acting in a racist way. If my car only ever stops when it’s out of petrol, then when someone is telling me the story of their car break-down, my first thought is going to be: just put in more petrol. 

2. Even if it’s not a racist thing, the fact that my friend is interpreting it as a racism tells me something about her lived experience and that requires sympathy and empathy, rather than me getting all defensive. The reason she interprets something (perhaps a waiter being very slow to attend to her) as racism is because she has been in situations before where waiters were purposefully slow to attend to her because of her race. If my car is always stopping because it’s falling apart and faulty, then when it does stop, my first thought is going to be: here we go again, call a tow-truck not put in more petrol.

The fact is, because of my race, I never really wonder, “Is this person begin racist here? Are they not?” I just happily assume the other person is just a jerk, or slow, and get on with my day. That “here we go again” feeling is what’s important here. Even if the incident is small, what matters to my friend is that it’s one more incident in a long line of incidents. It’s the emotional exhaustion of dealing with racism again and again. And so when she opens up and shares her frustrating experience with me, and I oh-so-helpfully say, “Well, maybe the other person wasn’t being racist there…” that’s not really helpful. I wasn’t there. Even if I was there, I might not have been attuned to what was really going on. And even if I was attuned, and knew 100% that this was in fact not an instance of racism, pointing that out is still probably not the best thing to do. (When people interrupted my wonderful car story to ask me if I had checked the petrol, I did not think warm fuzzy thoughts towards them).

So that’s my how to be a better friend about racist incidents tip of the day.

And on a lighter note… imagine if we had called a tow-truck, only for them to take it in to fix it… and they discovered it was just that we had no petrol. How. Embarrassing. would that have been??! So I’m very thankful for my mr-fix-it-myself husband.

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