We went to the mall yesterday. It’s amazing how similar South African shopping malls are to the ones in North America. Sure, all of the store names are different. But there are the same kinds of things. Lots of clothing stores, a few anchor department stores, electronics places, music and video shops, book stores, and food. Lots of food.
Unlike most of the places we’ve been, nearly everyone shopping at the mall was white. I thought we would blend in more with the locals than we have so far. It’s pretty hard for someone like me to blend in when visiting the townships. But in the shopping mall, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal.
I didn’t wear white shoes. I didn’t have any kind of slogans or markings on my clothing. Zac and Ian were similarly dressed. We didn’t really talk all that much. We just wandered in and out of the various shops.
But we certainly weren’t under the radar. We caught the attention of every security guard in every store as we walked in. We were watched very closely in the stores. They were subtle about it, but it was clear that we were always being watched. You could almost hear the sigh of relief as we left some of the stores.
We fear and mistrust the unknown. The foreigner is out of place, and needs to be scrutinized. Even in this fairly homogeneous environment, we stood out very clearly. Of course we had no intention of stealing anything or causing any problems, but they didn’t know that.
It was very enlightening to be on the other side of that. I’ve been in plenty of spaces where I have been in the majority, and I’ve seen racial profiling in a number of contexts, in both subtle and not-so-subtle contexts. But I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it from the profiled point of view.
Edit (7/14/09): I may not have finished that as well as I could have. Let me add this:
I think we could all benefit from a little more effort to embrace our cultural differences rather than to be suspicious of them. It was both heartening and sad to see that, on both sides of the Atlantic, we tend to make people who are different feel more out of place rather than more welcomed.