The queue was long and orderly, winding its way around the battered metal stand that was Zvishavane’s bus station. Zimbabwe’s summer sun beat down on us, fierce and relentless. Women with babies tied to their backs with swathes of brightly coloured cloth stood patiently, bathed in sweat. I joined the back of the queue, smiling into the silent stares that surrounded me. White people didn’t take buses in this place. White people didn’t carry their own bags or boxes. White people didn’t walk: they had drivers to transport them in their sumptuous Mercedes Benz cars, with their mahogany dashboards and soft leather seats. For a white person to casually stroll up to the bus stop and wait in the line was something so out of the ordinary that all eyes were on me.
The cloud of dust that came with the bus settled. The queue stood still as the driver got out and approached me: “Madam,” he said, “please come and take your seat.” It was as if he knew me and was inviting me to take the seat that belonged to me. We’d never seen each other before. And I doubted that any one of the few white people living in this town, who lived sequestered in their ample residences with servants tending to their lawns and ministering to their every need, had ever travelled on that bus. I refused. Still he insisted. I shook my head, “I will wait in this line and take my turn.” Heads turned. Would the white woman really stay at the back of the queue, and spend the journey jostling for space, clinging on to the metal handrail as the bus bumped along the dirt road?
Being born into white privilege was not my choice. I was determined not to let it be my invisible knapsack. There had been many of these times. The comforts of privilege were a visible part of my daily life in Zimbabwe. I tried all I could to dispel the myths about white people – that we gave birth without pain, had bodies that were too weak to endure the sun nor the strength to walk rather than ride in a car, or carry our own bags and boxes. But white privilege stuck thickly to my skin; I wore it wherever I went. And for all the times that I resisted its lure there were others when I was barely able to register what my whiteness did for me. It was out of my sight.
It’s a long way from Zvishavane to the United States, where an explosion of rightful outrage is sweeping across a nation built on the legacy of racial discrimination. The history of slavery hangs heavy; those white police who murder and maim young black men are only a few steps removed from their ancestors, my ancestors. Talk of the second civil rights movement is in the air, stoking the memory of how the right to a seat on a bus inspired a generation. In New York and Washington, protesters take to the streets to demand justice from those who have known impunity for too long. Amidst the crowds massing in this storm of protest, I pick out words from slogans. Black Lives Matter! A Riot is the Language of the Unheard, Resistance is Justified. Enough is Enough. Words that get to the heart of what this is all about. Black Men are People Too. Respect. Solidarity. Justice. Humanity. End White Supremacy Now.
Every day the protests jam the streets. The anger is palpable. I join the protesters, searching them out. I lie on the floor of Grand Central Station, amidst a sea of other people for whom enough is enough – white, black, a kaleidoscope of races brought together in rage. Chatting to two young black guys as we leave the station, I hear their stories. “Never thought I’d be here doing this,” one told me, “never done any protesting before. But enough is enough.” His friend nodded. We felt into animated chat about accountability, about stepping over the line, about that feeling of just needing to do something. We hug as the demonstration dissolves and we all go off into the night.
I walk through the city, viewing it through a racial lens. It’s not that I didn’t notice any of this before. It was there in front of my eyes. But in my looking, another world comes into view.
It’s a new way of seeing, one full of stark discomforts.
International Human Rights Day. Passing small gaggles of demonstrators – shouting down the UN for its failures in Tibet, petitioning for men’s rights to a foreskin – I go into the UN. My racial radar is still on full alert. Everyone in uniform is black. But the English they speak is not American; they are from West Africa, the Caribbean. I recall that the US has repeatedly avoided signing up to international human rights conventions, wondering what it would take for the world to hold this government to account for its abuses. ‘All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights’ declares the opening line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no dignity and there are no rights for those young black men shot by the police. Nor for the families they left behind.
Mired in these contradictions, moved by the events of the day and inspired by the wave of protests and the shifts of consciousness that they’re achieving, I’m not concentrating on where I’m going as I head for the airport. I take the wrong train, and find myself deep in Brooklyn. Snow begins to fall. I trudge to the open platform, a thickening crowd of people around me. We wait. And wait. For more than twenty minutes we stand in the freezing cold, as more and more people pour down the stairs onto the platform. I cast my eyes around. My blue eyes. I am the only person with blue eyes on the platform. I am the only person with a white skin. I search in people’s faces. There’s blankness in their expressions, a sense of quiet resignation. We wait some more, huddled together in silence. Eventually a dull rattling of the rails warns of the approaching subway train, and the crowd pours onto it. Now we’re thrust up close together. No-one speaks. It’s cold on this train. I run my eyes, those blue eyes, up and down the carriage. I am the only white person here too, standing holding onto the rail as the train rattles along, picking up speed and jumping stations in its lateness: those who might have wanted to get off, or on, ignored.
I realise I have no idea where I am going. The train is now racing past stations, carelessly abandoning those on the platforms waiting to be lifted out of the cold night. And I have a plane to catch. I ask my neighbour if he could help me figure out where to get off the train. My British accent pierces the silence. Then just across from me, a woman’s face lights up with a smile. “It’s the stop before mine,” she says, “I’ll show you.” We chat a little, about waiting in the cold, about being in a strange place and that fear of losing the way. There’s a warmth between us that restores me. We wave goodbye to each other like friends through the window as I turn to thank her again after bundling myself off the train at the right station.
I re-enter a zone in which almost everyone is white except the service personnel. It is like passing through to another reality. But on the entrance to the lift to the airtrain, at the junction between worlds, I see three figures. All are black. They are clustered together in a corner, seeking sanctuary in the station. One is crouched over her bag. One is splayed out. He looks as if he’s sleeping. Another is huddled with a large, old, coat around her. She’s lighting up a hand-rolled cigarette. Looking into the eyes of the women, hard, red-rimmed, unfocused, I realize they’re probably dosed up with an anesthetic against the indignity of being cold and homeless and poor in a country that has so little for them. The lift carries me up into a bright, warm, space and I am whisked to the airport in a spacious shuttle with its neat blue leather seats, to board the plane back to my everyday life.
I carry back into that life those scenes, those words, and a sense of restless dissidence. Most of all, though, I take with me the memory of those young men for whom enough was enough, of the movement of people across America and beyond who are saying no to a life without dignity. Their words inspire and uplift me. Respect. Solidarity. Justice. Humanity. End White Supremacy Now.