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Feeling a little uneasy these days

June 29, 2010
Hill By Jemele Hill

JOHANNESBURG -- I'm not used to feeling uncomfortable around black people, but I've had some experiences in South Africa that have made me uneasy.

I was in Soweto watching South Africa's opening match against Mexico when I got into a philosophical discussion with a young black South African about what black South Africans think of African-Americans.

"I see how the n-----s live on TV -- the videos, they show me," he said, beaming proudly.

Now, you probably think I was uncomfortable because he said the N-word, but that wasn't it. It didn't even offend me, because I realized he meant it as a compliment. I knew that by using that word he was trying to fit in with another black person from the United States, because in the short time I've been in South Africa, I've discovered how much black South Africans idolize American rappers, who use the N-word frequently.

Talking with me, though, only seemed to confirm the perceptions of African-Americans he gleaned through entertainment. He ended our conversation by wrapping his arm around my shoulder and telling me that he couldn't wait to tell his grandchildren he had met me: a successful African-American woman. I nodded, feeling that same unease. I hadn't told him much about myself beyond the fact that I was covering the World Cup, but he was so happy to speak with me you would have thought I was Michelle Obama.

I've had that type of encounter regularly since I've been in South Africa. I know this will seem strange, but being treated with such reverence embarrasses me.

Several of my black friends who have visited Africa told me before my trip to prepare for this. Although every black South African I've met so far has been warm, kind and eager to help this foreigner understand the ins and outs of their country, sometimes their response to me is overwhelming.

Like the black maid in Sun City who told me she would love to go back to the States and work as my live-in housekeeper because it would afford her a rare opportunity to work for a "smart black woman."

Or the black bartender who said to me: "A black American and a white American … you all are the same to me."

It was another awkward compliment, but from his viewpoint, he equates the lifestyles of black Americans with white people, both in America and in South Africa.

I suppose in a way that's a good thing, because it indicates that the perception of American life includes widespread equality.

The problem, though, is that it implies privilege. Am I blessed? Yes. Hard-working? Absolutely. Privileged? Never.

This isn't an easy admission, but on some level I'm bothered by the fact that black South Africans would look at me and see any similarities between myself and the privileged classes that oppressed them for hundreds of years. One of the weirdest things about Johannesburg is that every house, gas station, school, grocery store, just about any building is fenced in, protected by either iron gates, barbed wire or a fence -- especially in the fancier, mostly white neighborhoods. It's like a city full of military compounds. So when they praise me for living a "white life," are they saying I'm also like that?

I do have a sense of why some black South Africans look at African-Americans the way that they do. One obvious answer is that it's because we're Americans, and in most places around the world, our country and its citizens are associated with wealth, whether we have it or not.

And I'm sure it's only natural to look at another successful black person and dream about the opportunities that might be out there for you.

Freedom for black people is in its relative infancy in South Africa. Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, and they elected a black man -- Nelson Mandela -- president 14 years before America did, but the scars from apartheid are still fresh.

Certainly a great deal of healing has taken place in South Africa, but there is still an enormous gap between the way blacks and whites live. And while the World Cup has provided this country with some much-needed infrastructure and tourism dollars, an estimated 50 percent of Soweto residents are unemployed, and United Nations statistics point to South Africa as having the world's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS -- which they estimate affects about 12 percent of the population.

I'm not naive enough to think that America doesn't still wrestle with some of the same racial issues that linger in South Africa, but the gap between blacks and whites isn't nearly as stark. While South Africa was under apartheid rule, America made a lot of significant racial progress, because our saving grace was always democracy. The 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade racial segregation in schools and public places, and employment discrimination. That was followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.

Such landmark legislation, coupled with the overall quality of life in America, helped create a dramatic difference between the way black South Africans and African-Americans live, even though we both experienced the same forms of racism.

Maybe it's not embarrassment I feel when I interact with black South Africans as much as it is guilt, and a desire to belong and prove a shared experience. I appreciate that their awkward compliments are born out of the fact that they are proud to see someone who looks like them living a life they have been told only whites could live.

But it's because we share the same skin and because of my profound respect for the unimaginable struggle they've endured that I never want to be placed in some awkward position of superiority.

I'm not better than them. I'm humbled by them.

Jemele Hill can be reached at