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On anti-Blackness


July 7, 2020

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.

#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.

Excerpted from: 'Anti-Blackness is everywhere'.