I recently got a glimpse of myself in a mirror of entitlement.
The reflection was clear and stark and it took me totally by surprise. I did a double-take; looked and re-looked – but still the images played themselves out in front of me like scenes from a ghastly movie.The incident took place at our local Home Affairs office. We were there to do Cathy’s photo-card ID and had prepared ourselves for a long morning. We were welcomed by a kind man who perhaps could have known a little more about what was going on. But what he lacked in terms of hard knowledge he made up for with his soft and friendly demeanour. He sent us to wait in the right seating area which is really all one can expect from the man at the info desk at a Home Affairs office.
We took our seats in the queue and were greeted by nods, yebos and smiles. Everyone was relaxed and happy; checking their phones or chatting to their mates. The queue moved quite quickly.
But then it happened. Two rows ahead of us, between a couple of students there to get their ID’s sorted out – sat me. I was having a total meltdown.We white people – when firing at our stereotypical best can be entitled in a way that I have frankly never experienced black people to be. We built an entire system of entitlement that has been officially outlawed for 22 years but most of us still behave as though we inherently deserve more, better, quicker than other races. We get around this despicable and outdated behaviour by labelling other races entitled.
Now what I saw in the mirror that day at Home Affairs was your archetypal white man doing the famous white person’s dance of entitlement. The queuing version of this dance goes something like this: When being made to wait in a queue we perform a series of repeated moves usually accompanied by sounds specifically designed to make the surrounding people feel slow, inefficient and inferior. The routine known as: “Things Worked Better in the Good old Days” involves one or more of the following moves:
We sit bolt upright and crane our necks around the people in front of us trying to catch the eye of the man at the info desk. If we can just catch his eye he will realise the error of his way making us wait and move us to the front of the queue where we belong. Whilst we are craning, we develop a strained look on our face, as if we are sitting on the toilet. We then check our watches in an exaggerated manner, lifting our wrists unnecessarily high for this purpose. We alternate between craning, straining and checking our watch. Craning, straining and checking our watch. This is the basic beat of the dance of entitlement (queuing).
Having failed at getting the man’s attention with our initial routine, we up the ante by muttering loudly enough to be heard about how few people are serving the long queues of people. We then roll our eyes. We cluck. We drum our fingers. We pout. Mutter, roll, cluck, drum, pout. Mutter, roll, cluck, drum, pout.
When this also fails, we abandon the subtleties of our various interpretative dance moves, pull out our cell phones and loudly tell whoever is on the other end how incompetent ‘they’ are.
I stared in horror at my reflection and realised how often I had performed the dance of white entitlement (queuing) or some variation thereof. My black friend and colleague caught me doing it just two days later whilst we were waiting together in a bank queue in Limpopo (us mlungus are well-known to black people for our impatience and rudeness). So not even this experience at Home Affairs had shamed me into some form of change.
My wife made it to the front of the queue. As she sat down, she smiled and said a warm hello to the fingerprint lady. The woman was totally taken aback. And as my wife thanked her and turned her back to walk away, the woman literally beamed after her.
It’s quite simple to contribute to nation-building in our country – particularly as a white person. We can begin by patiently waiting our turn. And when we get to the front, say hello and smile.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.