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Image courtesy of Alfonso Cardenas Ortega

It’s taken me a while to feel brave enough to write this post. Long enough that I’ve forgotten what exactly the racist old Afrikaans man said to the two staff members of colour in the Lakeside Pick ‘n’ Pay, while I stood there and did nothing.

It was something along the lines of how stupid Africans must have been to allow their whole continent to be enslaved by a handful of Europeans, and that their stupidity was also evident in their inability to run South Africa today.

Strangely, what I remember more clearly than the precise words is that I was standing in front of the shelves where one finds canned fish, staring at the selection and telling myself that what I was hearing away to my left was, somehow, not what I thought it was. It couldn’t be. Not like that. Not that blatant. Not that loudly and unashamedly racist.

My denial then extended to the two staff members in question, both young black men, who stood there and laughed at the man as he hurled racist abuse at them. I tried to tell myself that they were obviously OK with whatever was happening.

But as I continued to stand there, and was soon joined by a few similarly dumbfounded white shoppers, the reality of it all slowly sank in, and my body began to shake with adrenaline as I thought about the necessity of acting, of speaking out, or even physically dragging this asshole out of the store. No one else was doing anything. It had to be me. But still, I stood there rooted to the spot staring at the cans of tuna.

I found myself trying to make excuses for my inaction right there on the spot. Who was I to try to speak on behalf of the two men on the receiving end of the abuse? Who was I to assume that they needed my help to deal with the situation? I had no right to barge in like some kind of white saviour. Surely, as one of the staff members was a security guard, he could just chuck the racist out himself if he had a problem with him. Or maybe it was all a big joke between them all.

And yet at the same time, I was challenging every possible excuse as soon as it popped into my head. Perhaps they didn’t feel empowered to act against a white man, and it would take another white man to do so. Perhaps they were so used to this kind of behaviour from white people that nervous laughter had become the default coping mechanism. Perhaps I could ignore the racist and rather turn to the staff members and ask them if they were OK.

Or perhaps it wasn’t even really about them and what they thought, but more about the bigger principle. Perhaps it was just about making my own indignation towards racism known. Perhaps it was about making the perpetrator aware that his attitudes were not welcome in my neighbourhood and in my local supermarket. Whatever the case, surely trying to do or say something, even if it was misguided or misjudged, was better than doing nothing?

Still, I stood there and did nothing.

“I had always considered myself a very active citizen, and an equally active anti-racist. But if I’m completely honest with myself, this wasn’t the first time I’d been paralysed into inaction by the shock of seeing or hearing such blatant racism.”

Meanwhile, a large middle-aged woman of colour came around the corner with her trolley, assessed the situation for no more than five seconds, marched right up to the racist and gave him a piece of her mind, jabbing her index finger at his chest as she told him how disgusting and rude he was. After throwing some choice words back at her, the racist turned tail and left the store.

I finally snapped out of my trance and approached the lady to commend her for her actions, then apologised to the members of staff who’d been insulted, cringing as I spoke. To their great credit, they all humoured my rather pathetic retrospective gestures. We all had a brief chat, during which the staff members told me that this same guy pulled the same trick on a regular basis.

As I left the store, a sense of shame was already setting in. I had always considered myself a very active citizen, and an equally active anti-racist, and I could list various tangible examples that I’m sure would go some way to convincing you of this. But if I’m completely honest with myself, this wasn’t the first time I’d been paralysed into inaction by the shock of seeing or hearing such blatant racism. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt relief and then shame when someone else did the job for me. And it probably won’t be the last.

Hoping to make amends for my inaction, I went home and wrote a long post on the Lakeside Community Facebook group explaining what had happened, and asking members who might know the person in question to name and shame him so we could make the management of Pick ‘n’ Pay aware of who he was with a view to banning him from the store, and also to be more primed to act if any of us came across him doing something like this again.

My post was met by a depressingly predictable wave of comments from other white residents 1.) calling me a racist for pointing out that the racist was ‘white’ 2.) suggesting we show him compassion as he might be “mentally unstable” 3.) hashing out a number of far-fetched reasons as to why the whole thing was surely not about race at all 4.) questioning the ethics and legality of my call to name and shame the racist. After a series of increasingly exasperated replies from me, I eventually gave up hope and quit the group altogether.

I then called Pick ‘n’ Pay and asked to speak to the manager about what had happened, with a view to discussing how it might be prevented from happening again. But the manager was out and the employee I spoke to, despite conceding that she’d also been the target of abuse by the racist, seemed to have little enthusiasm for helping my self-righteous crusade. She said she’d get the manager to call me back, but the call never came.

By the end of the day, I was too defeated by the whole affair to challenge the growing awareness that, above all, the Facebook post and the phone call had both been about alleviating my own guilt for not acting when I really should have. It certainly seemed clear after all that had happened that I wasn’t going to achieve much else.

I imagine that most of you who are still with me might only have hung on this long due to some hope of a happy ending, or at least a neat summary of the positive lessons to be learnt from it all. Well, I’m not sure I’m currently in a position to give you either of those. Or perhaps I could finish with a flourish by defiantly declaring that next time I will not hesitate to act. But the truth is I can’t say that for certain.

If there is a lesson lurking somewhere here then I suppose, stupid as it sounds, it’s that you can’t properly acknowledge how far you still have to go without first being honest with yourself about how far you are from the desired end point. I see now that I’m further from where I want to be in terms of being an active citizen and anti-racist than I had led myself to believe. But I’m learning to be OK with that, because I know I’ll keep trying to get there. I know I can do better. We can all do better.