The magic quotient

I noticed something when I was back visiting in SA, something that bugged me but because I am a social coward of the worst kind I said nothing.

There is this thing, this ratio, or quotient that white people have unconsciously in their minds, like a radar. Not ALL, mind, obviously not all. But this is a general trend I notice. When my friends were discussing the local schools in the suburb I grew up in, the first question was, “What is the balance of whites at X school? Oh Y school is “Indian” now. Z school is still mostly white.”

My theory: there’s a certain magical number of non-white people that white people feel comfortable with, and if the number exceeds that, white people will not frequent the place any more. They will move their kids to a school that is still mostly white, they will stop going to a certain restaurant, they won’t go to a certain beach any more. My Durban friends mostly avoid Durban Beach front nowadays, they all go to Umhlanga and beyond.

Even writing this makes me hang my head in shame but it’s  the truth. Thank god for the people who are not like this.

What the hell is this? Safety in numbers? When are white people going to accept the fact that we are a minority, a small minority at that? It’s normal for us to be outnumbered, that’s the way the population works. You can run and run and run, and eventually there will be nowhere left to run to and you’re just going to have to do your best to integrate. So why put it off? People of darker shades have had to brave white hordes for years if they wanted to get anywhere.  There was one black girl in my class at school. Maybe she felt intimidated and afraid and self conscious but she never let it stop her, she ended up as our head girl. Why can’t we return the favour?

I have a feeling this may not apply so much in Jozi, but since I’ve never really been there I can’t comment. But in ole Durbs and in Cape Town I see this all the time. The magic quotient.

Apartheid still lives and breathes in subtle but insidious ways. I think.

Don’t be afraaaaaaid. Just do it. And stuff.


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Champagne Heathen
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 06:57:09

    Oh but they can keep running… destination: Australia! Where the white face rules the majority! (For now…he he he… scare them a bit).

    One screwed-up ex-SAffer said to me when I 1st arrived in Melbourne that I’d notice “there are no black people here”. I didn’t even bother rising to this out-of-the-blue nonsensical remark. EXCEPT! The comment stuck with me and actually, since then, I have noticed he is quite quite WRONG! Incredibly wrong actually.

    Interesting to note that he is now colour blind, now that he is in Oz. But, in all the wrong ways.


  2. Paula
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 07:16:05

    Very touchy subject you have here Po. Most people don’t realise they have this or they just deny it in public but know deep inside. You really have to consider it is most probably the poeple around them and I also think that it has a lot to do with the television programs we watch and the subconscious thinking it creates.
    You’ll often find that there are next to nil people of colour and more people you are comfortable with looking at because they look like us [in terms of TV, magazines, even the blogs we read]. It’s weird because in studies around the world (that and I forgot where I read them) even people of colour do not like that quotient of people of colour in their space because it is something that has been built up from the stereotypes of television, etc. and thus do not want that association on them because they are good people, but in doing so enter another world of ostracisation that on the surface seems fine but on the inside some insiduous things[sometimes].
    The worst people I’ve ever met in terms of ever changing that stereotype are victims of crime ens. simply because they have always made that association and now have lived through that kind of attack where it happened to be people that belonged to that stereotype… or people who know of people who have and it just perpetuated the lifestyle.
    Anywho. After a while… being a person who is of colour who is accepted by not quite by the non-people of colour society- you just get over it. It really is not worth it being friends or even attempting to show people that you are different, that you aren’t a stereotype. Its not that they cannot change or that you cannot change them. It’s just that I am human and I will falter and at some point I will fit into some part of that stereotype and that will just make you think the whole is right… and really it’s just really not worth the effort. I like that I have a few friends who are really so great that they got passed their own thoughts and just stuck with me. Kim my JHB bestie grew up in a racist home and now her parents are open to me and seeing that I am different and “acceptable.” but like they think I’m the exception rather than the rule… which, to be quite honest- I am the rule and people who falter are the exception. But opening themselves up to me only opens doors for them to give other the benefit of the doubt. Sort of like a pay-it-forward
    Sorry for the long worded essay. I have been battling with the same thing from the opposite end and I’ve realised that if people are going to be like that; then let them. Letting it bug will only make your life sadder and your efforts will come to nothing. But thank God for people like you Po who give people a chance based on the merit that they are people and open yourself up for either proving or disproving. And that is all that is needed. a chance.


  3. Kirsty
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 09:04:38

    I totally agree with you. I think I’ve been lucky, growing up mostly in Britain, because I genuinely just don’t notice how many black/white/other faces I’m around. But you’re right – apartheid lives on – and it’s going to take a long time for the internal prejudices that people still feel, even if they’re not really aware of it! The only way we can move forward is embracing integration. My experiences in SA certainly make me optimistic that integration IS happening, and will be successful. Here’s hoping… let’s you and I do our bit!


  4. Tamara
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 09:08:43

    I was thinking about this just the other day when my gran was telling us about something that had happened and seemed to feel she had to qualify the race of everyone that she mentioned. Why does it matter if the person was black / white / purple / orange-striped?

    But I’ve noticed that it’s not just a white South African thing. My Indian and black friends make very similar comments sometimes. I think South Africans are so used to thinking in terms of race that we immediately tally up how many of each colour are present wherever we are. It’s awful. I have an Indian mate who won’t go to a certain shopping centre because it’s “too white” or a certain club because it’s “too black”.

    Apartheid may not be the government policy anymore, but the race issue will crop up in any discussion in SA if you leave it to run long enough. In JHB too.

    When will it stop?


  5. A-Nonnie-Miss
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:26:00

    Po I think your friends are a bit narrow minded then and grew up thinking stupidly thanks to their parents, no offense but it is irritating how some people think. I had one white friend growing up, the rest were black and indian and whites were the minority in my class at school during apartheid (private school,) so I think I can have an opinion on this. Like a previous poster said, its not just whites who think like that, I’ve met many people who won’t go somewhere because it’s “too white” which is silly because often I was the only white person where I hung out and it never bothered me. So it’s not a white thing here, its a general thing, and people are so used to thinking in terms of race here it will take a long time to change – if it even does which I doubt, obviously some people dont think in terms of race, but there will always be enough who do. I think when the government continues to separate blacks and whites in terms of employment opportunities, investment opportunities etc, there will be a division and resentment that perpetuates the mind set of thinking along race lines. Anyways it is boring discussing race and apartheid etc, so overdone (plus its not just a south african thing, my friends in France wont go to certain places because there are too many non-white foreigners)


  6. Cam
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:05:11

    So true Po, but it’s a cultural thing. I wouldn’t be able to eloborate without pissing someone off, and I’m just not in that mood today, but our black people at work never sit with us, they all sit together…so it works both ways.

    The Afrikaans people also all sit together…now that I think about it.


  7. Po
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 20:04:55

    Champs: wah, so lame that first thing Saffers always comment on is race. We are such a racialised society. Blegh.

    Paula: I think that many people are willing to meet new people on a one to one basis. Well I hope so! I think that when people are confronted with a large group of people of a different race though that’s when things get weird. It makes sense that people are comfortable around others like them. But are people of other races really so different?? We’re all people in the end hey, we all shit and laugh and cry.

    Tamara: that qualification thing is very typical isn’t it? I can’t really comment on people other than white not wanting to be in groups, I was mostly thinking of my school and how there were always token Black or Indian people, but for some reason I can’t imagine a school with a token white person. But I’m sure it happens. Another thing when I visited home I went to Ballito the day after new year. The first beach had only black people on it. The second beach had indian and black people on it. The third bach had white people on it, with one token black person. It was so weird! Like voluntary Apartheid! But I have a feeling that if enough non-white people decided that the white beach looked nice, the white people would move on to the nex one, til they run out of beaches! Hehe it’s quite funny in a sad way.

    A Nonnie miss: but I’m not just referring to my firends, I’m referring to the beach trend and the restaurant trend, and all that. Also I believe that even if people don’t speak about it, it’s almost inbuilt in more people than youthink that they would choose their kids school based at least partly on race. But yeah, obviously racism is worldwide, and it’s not just a white thing, I am referring specifically to the magic quotient, because I often see single black people in a sea of white, but I hardly ever see the reverse.

    Cam: you should go ambush them :)


  8. henno
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 00:00:00

    Yeah, nice post. I’m living in Oz now, and it’s pretty….white. Of course, it’s very multicultural, with especially a lot of Asians, but it’s still pretty…white. After living in Vietnam for four years, where you’re put under the microscope every day for being the token white-face, I found it quite a relief to just be anonymous. Vietnam made me realise what the first black students in my school must have felt like all those years back I’ve decided I’m leaving Aus, by the way, and going back to Vietnam where life is freer and less controlled, where you can express your individuality, and not have your every fart scrutinised by a paranoid white government.

    I’m sure there’s a culturally built-in meme, or the “magic quotient” you mention, I still see it in Cape Town all the time when I go back, but hopefully it’s something that will be filtered out in next generations and every one will just feel secure in who they are, wherever they are and not even think about their race. People take time to evolve, but hopefully to have their consciousness raised, a cultural and educational process, will be faster than the evolutionary one…


  9. Po
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 11:18:06

    Wow Henno, interesting that you are moving back to Vietnam, not that I blame you, I loved that place, I hope it works out for you!


  10. henno
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 12:22:44

    Thanks, yeah hope so too. Looking forward to your next thought-provoking posts :)


  11. Rox
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 21:06:52

    Funny, also thinking about that the other night. The Cape Town city area is very diverse, with a huge mixture of SA races as well as international types, and I find that this evens it out quite a lot.

    I almost get used to the little slice of harmony and believe that all of Cape Town can be like this, but then at work someone will make the quota remark or reference, and I’ll realise how hard it is for people to just stop thinking in those terms.

    It makes me feel frustrated, disappointed and just plain upset when people have to constantly differentiating things and if places like Long Street and such can get it right, then how come other places can’t too?!

    I also get upset when people constantly judge accents and focus on the differences between cultures – every single time we focus on these differences rather than the things we all share, we make that gap bigger and we lose more chance of ever being a true nation.

    Obviously things take time, and the next generations will hopefully be more colour blind, but I still think it’s up to each of us to change our own attitudes and start building a proper South Africa!


  12. Angel
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 13:44:57

    Its sad but it is true.
    We (and I’m generalising) tend to flock together.

    Blogging has helped me tremendously to step outside my “comfort zone” because often when you start to get to know someone through their blogs- especially when it all started years ago- you had no idea what “colour” the blogger was!
    And I have tried hard with my son to not even mention colour when we talk about people, because it really doesn’t matter what colour you are.


  13. Champagne Heathen
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 04:26:38

    And then you get even this article: Tough Times for white South African Squatters

    Why focus on race when the issue is poverty?

    Why quote ‘impoverished white’ figures, when so many people of all races are impoverished in SA & are all seeking a non-racial solution?

    The interesting spin to this, is that this article was more than likely written with a “foreign” audience in mind, being written by Reuters.


  14. Shannon
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 05:28:01

    I remember reading a report about residential segregation in the US and that while blacks saw an acceptable level of integration as 50/50, for whites anything over 20% was uncomfortable, and when a neighborhood became 20% minority they’d move, starting a domino effect (one or two white families move and within a year or two the whole neighborhood turns over).

    So yeah, by and large whites have an internal idea of an acceptable level of integration that is quite a bit lower than anyone else’s.


  15. Shannon
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 05:32:31

    @Angel: just an idea, but as a white person who is raising a black child: it’s OK to mention color to your kid. It’s one of the first things kids notice about each other; they just don’t attach the social meaning to race that we do. But they do notice color and who looks like them and who doesn’t, and if you avoid mentioning it, they’ll notice you’re avoiding it.

    I’ve read studies saying kids as young as 3 have figured out that somehow it is taboo to mention race, and so what starts out as this well-meaning effort by parents ends up really confusing kids. Better to acknowledge and talk about differences, the earlier the better.


  16. Lady Fi
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 05:44:00

    When I lived in China in the 1980s, I was scrutinized every day and stood out because I was white… Gave me a taste of what brown-skinned people must go through.

    As the mother of two dark-skinned South Africans, I certainly hope more people have your attitude, Po. I keep telling them that there are more brown people than white in the world… Integration is happening, but slowly… too slowly..

    Good post!


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