Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Refuge of the Incompetent

For someone who gets annoyed when other people bring up the concept of race, it feels like I write about it a lot.

Honestly, I don’t want to think about race or ethnicity.  It’s just so dumb.  Can’t people get over surface differences?  Talking about race makes me feel like a teenager again, trying to judge someone’s character based on his or her outfit.

Yet I need to talk and write about racism, because it’s impossible to get away from.  Especially in this country.  I was already frustrated back in Canada, where my white friends insist on calling me “Asian” even though I consider myself white because of how I grew up.  Furthermore, I’m equal parts white and yellow – so why does the yellow automatically become a conversation topic?  I was already sick of hearing “Because you’re Asian” as a punch line to statements that have nothing to do with race.  I’d already determined that if a man asks me about my racial background right away, he’s off the “long term potential” list.  Don’t get me wrong – he can ask about it after we know more about each other, like our favourite movies or hobbies or if he wants to tell me about his ancestors that migrated from wherever – that’s fine.  But anyone who feels the need the question me upon introduction where I’m really from, because Canada isn’t a good enough answer, is probably never going to get a dinner date.

In summary, I moved to South African already a bit sensitive regarding race issues.

As you can probably guess, living in this country hasn’t helped matters.

On the one hand, I like that people here acknowledge racism.  They understand that racism still exists in their society and most people want to overcome it.

But I still don’t like the way that race seems to underline everything.  Sometimes I wish I could go a day without discussing ethnicity.

A couple months ago, I stopped into the Hillbrow MacDonalds at 7am to Skype with my friend before work.  At that early in the morning, it was empty except for me and a small group of men.  I sat down with my iPod near the window so I could watch my car (not that I’d be able to do anything if it was stolen, but I liked knowing it was still there).  The men ushered me to sit with them, but I put one my headphones and ignored them.

As I Skyped with my friend, however, I could hear their conversation behind me.

Man 1: “Why are you bothering with her, man? She’s white!”
Man 2: “No way.  She’s Japanese.”
Man 1: “White enough.”
Man 2: “There are only 2 colours: black and white.  Asian counts as black.”

To be honest, I had a hard time keeping a straight face and not laughing as well.  Even though I was still frustrated.

But not all my stories are funny.  In Cape Town last year, my friend and I stopped to get food at 2am on our way home from a club.  Two guys at the neighbouring table tried to talk to us, but we ignored them.  In response, they started sending racial slurs my way.  My friend, who often teases me about being Asian, picked up our garbage and dumped it on them.  Then we flounced out.

Outside, she said to me, “I’m the only one who can make fun of you for being Chinese.  No one else can talk to you like that.”

Last week, however, events unfolded that once again made me question my own reactions to other people’s stupidity.

One of my Canadian friends is leaving next week and she had her going away party on Friday.  A bunch of girls and one gay guy went to her place to drink and snack and chat.

(Side note: I brought Nanaimo bars and the South Africans loved them.  Not for the first time, people told me I should move here and open a bakery.  If anyone out there is planning on doing that, definitely include Nanaimo bars in your store!)

My friend loves partying in Greenside so we eventually made our way there.  I personally don’t like Greenside.  I think it’s pretentious and yuppie.  My friend knows this and once accused me, “What about clubs in Sandton?”

I answered, “At least in Sandton, everyone knows they’re a tool.  When I go there, I recognize that I’m just there to party.  But in Greenside, people think they’re authentic and cool for hanging out there when they’re just a bunch of rich kids blowing their parent’s money.”

“But the men are hot!”

I’ve yet to see any real evidence of that statement, but perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.

Anyways, we went to Greenside and friends started to drift home until there were just my friend, her other friend, and me left of our original group.  The dancing got crazier as people got drunker.  Guys tried to dance with us and we danced away, not interested.  One boy kept coming back, but we continued turning away from him.  He got more and more aggressive and started stepping on my friend’s toes.  I said “No” (my most-used word when I go clubbing) and put my arm between the two of them to shield my friend.

Meanwhile, his friend chatted to our other friend a couple feet away.

Angry, he threw his drink on the ground.  The glass shattered.  My friend and I both stared at him incredulously.  She ran off to the bouncer while I shook glass out of my shoe.  The bouncer kicked the guy out.

My friend and I looked at each other, asking if we were ok.  We both got the last of the glass out of our shoes.  I glanced down and realized some glass had cut my leg: blood was trickling down my calf.

We decided to call it a night.  It’s hard to convince yourself to dance when you’re bleeding and there’s still glass all over the dance floor.

Outside, the boy was arguing with the bouncers.  My friend pointed to my leg and yelled at him, “You did that!”

The kid flipped out.  He started screaming at her “Dumb bitch” and other profanities.

Again, I stepped between them.  “Hey,” I said.  “Stop.”


He yelled more racial insults as I stared at him in drunken wonder.

“Did you really just pull the race card?” I asked.


“Christ, at least try to be a little more clever with your insults,” I muttered.  “Racism is so unoriginal.”

I turned away from the boy, who was still yelling at me, and looked for his friend.

“You have to take your buddy home,” I told him.

“I’m not responsible for his actions,” the guy said.

“I know.  But he’s too drunk and you have to take him home.”

Meanwhile, my friend had gotten frustrated with the bouncer’s lack of action and gone to find the biggest guy she could.  When I looked for the drunk kid again, he was gone.

At some point, I realized that tears were running down my face.  I don’t even know when I started crying.

I sat in a chair by the entrance to the club while my friend complained the bouncers and told more guys our story.  A couple men came over and offered consolation.  They wanted us to go back inside the club, but we wanted to go home.  They offered to buy drinks – coke, water, not necessarily alcoholic – but we shook our heads.

One man said to me, “Don’t let him get to you.  You’re a beautiful woman.”

Which annoyed me.  Yes, I shouldn’t let some dumb kid make me upset – but what does my attractiveness have to do with the situation?  Once again, it all simplifies to physical appearance.  Men are always complimenting me on my beauty and I want to laugh in their faces.  Who cares?  If I was to list my top 10 best attributes, I wouldn’t even consider my physical attractiveness one of them.  People who focus too much on appearance are going to miss out the best parts of who I am.

Anyways, we finally determined that the kid was gone so we left the club.  We walked down the alley to the main road where we could get a taxi.  A couple big men accompanied us.

A tall black man walked beside us and asked what happened.  A tall white man answered.  Even though the two were standing beside me, it felt the whole conversation happened over my head.

After hearing the story, the black man asked, “Was it one of my kind?  Where is he?”

“No,” said the white man.  “It wasn’t a darkie.  Don’t worry, we sent some guys after him.  The kid is running.”

Back at my friend’s place, the tears continued to run down my face.  We sat around and smoked and ate chips until we were all calm again.  Then we decided it was time to sleep.

I went to my friend’s roommate’s room because he wasn’t home.  My friend crawled into bed beside me and I apologized again for getting upset, since it was her going away party.  She whispered, “Don’t be sorry, Bethany.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a friend like you.”

Then we both snuggled into bed and fell asleep.  I got to be big spoon.  Honestly, I haven’t felt safe sharing a bed with someone like that for years.  Maybe because men never just want to cuddle – no matter what they say beforehand! – (and my sister kicks a lot in her sleep) but there’s something incredibly comforting about friendship that I’ve never been able to achieve with a romantic relationship.  I think it comes down to trust.  Anyways, I needed a friend that night and, as I drifted into sleep, I was grateful for her warmth beside me.

The next morning, we talked about the event and tried to figure out what we could have done better.  I told her I was glad she went to the bouncer right away since I probably wouldn’t have done that – I have issues about asking for help, especially from authority.

She told me that when I stepped between her and the kid outside the club, she was excited because she thought she was finally going to see my jujitsu.  “I thought you were going to fuck him up!”

“I’m a pacifist,” I laughed.

“But he deserved it!”

“No.  He was just a child.  He got too drunk and used whatever tools he had to vent his frustration.  I’ve gotten too drunk in the past and I hope people don’t hold it against me.  I also hope that he remembers his behaviour this morning and is ashamed.  But no… I don’t think he deserved to get physically hurt.”

What else can I say?  I agree with Issac Asimov’s character Salvor Hardin in his Foundation novel: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

At the same time, though, racism is pretty close to the top of that list as well.

I’m still going over the event in my head, trying to figure out what we could have done better.  Neither of us should have engaged with the kid outside the club.  The bouncers have little jurisdiction over the sidewalk so they couldn’t have made him leave any further, but we could’ve asked them to accompany us to the main road and the taxis.  Not that I was afraid for our physical safety, but I just don’t want to deal with someone else’s drunken bullshit.

The night has made a lot of issues much more personal to me.  Racism, obviously.  But also concepts of machismo and gender roles.  Embarrassingly, I’ve had a couple tearful nights at the clubs in Canada as well.  Strangers have never offered to help before.  Even if they did, though, I don’t think Canadian men would chase down some drunken kid with intentions to beat him up. 

My dad complains that Canada is a nation of “pussy men,” but violence stems from disempowerment and frustration and anger – “the last refuge of the incompetent.”  I’d rather have a nation of passive men if it means we don’t have as much overt racism.

In conclusion, seriously, SERIOUSLY – racism is so ugly.  And unoriginal.  Whether it’s supposed to be a compliment (how many times have I heard “Mixed girls are so hot”?) or an insult, it’s stupid to use ethnicity as a justification for any argument.


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3 thoughts on “Refuge of the Incompetent

  1. Alice Watson on said:

    That was quite “thoughty” .From what I see, Racism is still here but not as harsh as it use to be. Being blonde & blue eyed & white I’ve never been the blunt of racism just what is spoken around me. I think someday there will be none. There has been a huge change in the U.S, attitude toward blacks. It is still there but harder to find. Love, AJ

  2. The concept of making someone feel better by complimenting their looks is so incomprehensible to me. How is being attractive going to make anyone happy?

    This past weekend I introduced my partner to some high school friends, and the primary comment to me was “Wow he’s SO cute!”. Of course I think he’s attractive, that’s part of why I’m dating him. (I wanted to say it’s a “bonus” for dating him, but then I decided to be honest. I think attraction is still more than just looks though.)

    But why do we feel the need to verify for our friends that they’ve got someone good looking? Am I only wondering this because I’ve never told anyone their partner is good looking, and I’m abnormal? It doesn’t make me feel any better about dating him.

    Anyways, this is way off the topic of your post, which is absolutely excellent. I love how you ask more questions than you answer, and you offer various options for answers as well as stating your own opinion.

    I agree with your sentiment in the opening of the post about how race is ridiculous and why do we think about it ever. But unfortunately a lot of people do think about it and think it matters. My social justice prof this term helped me understand it finally when she said “Race doesn’t exist in reality, biology proves we’re all the same. But socially, race exists.”

    Change happens, it’s just achingly slow sometimes.

    You have a beautiful soul. There’s about five people I can think of who I have as much or more fun with than you, and I miss you! (Just wanted to add real compliments to the mix here.)

    • Thanks Kristina! I don’t think the attractiveness discussion is off-topic: it all comes back to physical appearance.

      I had a great prof at EWB, Elvin Wyly, who wrote in his class notes, “Most scholars today are extremely suspicious of the idea that racial categories or identities have any external reality. But racism and racialization are very real indeed.”

      Hope life is going fabulously for you. You’re probably in the middle of end-of-term hell right now. Just a couple more weeks before freedom!

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