EATING OUT WHILE BLACK
Whether we admit it or not, black people in the Mother City are often discriminated against when they go out to eat. The subject is a touchy one, with many whites accusing blacks of playing the race card
Iwas delighted to see so many of my favourite restaurants listed in Eat Out magazine’s Best Restaurants in Cape Town: Where to Eat in 2015.
The introductory sentence to the online edition says: “It’s hard not to be smug about living in Cape Town.” Well, I live in Cape Town and do not feel smug about living here. Maybe the article and the list were not meant for me, or for people like me.
While my partner and I are part of Cape Town’s middle class, we also happen to be black. This means that we, more often than we like, find ourselves in otherwise exclusively white spaces. There are of course no “whites only” signs on the doors of these establishments, but when we enter these spaces, we often find that except for the staff, we are the only black people there.
This happens at restaurants, at seminars, at functions, at work meetings. It happens so often that we have a punch line to this “joke”: “Oh dear, we’re the only whites here! Again!”
We say it a lot more than we’d like, and we don’t really find it funny. But South Africa has a proud history of using humour as a coping mechanism for our painful fault lines – and we are, after all, South African.
Despite different progenitors, and the last number in our ID books firmly placing us in different apartheid “population registration groups”, we share a similar shade of “medium” brown. We both have “straight” noses. One of us has straight hair, the other tight curly hair, worn in long dreadlocks, so navigating middle class Cape Town is always an interesting experience for us.
While the Where to Eat in 2015 list of Cape Town’s top restaurants includes several of our favourite restaurants, it also includes restaurants we have tried to visit, but where we were made to feel invisible and could not be served. Many black people will know this incredible, magical Cape Town invisibility trick. For those who don’t, it works like this: “We can’t see you because we have made you invisible. We can’t serve you if you are invisible.”
In practice, it means we cannot visit all of the restaurants on the Eat Out list. We’ve tried, but if they can’t see us, they can’t serve us. After trying to get the staff or management’s attention, we either leave and find somewhere else to eat, or try harder to get noticed (waving hands in the air, getting up to advise someone, preferably management, that we’d like to be served, that we’ve been here 20, 30, 35 or 45 minutes and have yet to succeed in getting someone’s attention).
I am not at my best when hungry, so often it’s better to try to get served where we are than to leave.
It’s the start of a new year, so I decided to put my hopelessness about South Africa and Cape Town’s race future aside, and thought I would do something positive. I decided to start a list of restaurants in Cape Town that are “welcoming to all” – where we are not actively made invisible or excluded; where we are not discriminated against for daring to Eat Out While Black in Cape Town.
This list would be based on the experiences of two brown-pigmented people, with a request that others add to it based on their own experiences, acknowledging that others may have vastly different experiences of the same establishments.
Before starting the list, it is important to clarify that there is a significant difference between restaurants (and other establishments) that “tolerate” people of colour and those that “welcome” us (in the same way that they may welcome our paler patron compatriots and pale noncompatriots).
Many Cape Town restaurants tolerate people of colour. This means we are allowed entry, treated indifferently or inhospitably (or as if we are being done a huge favour by being granted seating rights at all) and treated visibly differently to all of the other (white) patrons in the restaurant. It also means that the restaurant reserves the right to grudgingly seat us in the “black” section of the restaurant – somewhere hidden away in the bowels of the building, close to the toilets or any other smelly or windy parts where we will not disturb the view. Several restaurants, including many well-known chains, practise this approach habitually, not only in Cape Town.
A few years back, we arranged to meet a friend for sundowners at a restaurant in Bloubergstrand with a fabulous view of Table Mountain. Our friend is male, of darker-brown colouring than we are, and does not have one of those palatable accents that help to smooth our passage through Cape Town. He had hardly stepped in the door of the restaurant when he was blocked and told there was no work available for him.
Of course there was no work available for him there. Our friend is a nuclear physicist. But he is a black man. And in Cape Town, that matters. Stories like this abound. We’ve all heard, seen and experienced too many of them.
I started my Welcome List and decided to share it in two different spaces on Facebook, explaining why I was doing this, and asking people to add their experiences of being made to feel welcome in any particular restaurant to this list.
I first posted it on my personal Facebook page and then on my neighbourhood’s closed Facebook space. The responses I received could not have been more different.
In my personal space, many people agreed about the necessity and appropriateness of creating such a list, and recognised that we should spend our money in places where we were welcome. Friends of all hues want to support restaurants where we are all welcomed and treated as equals. As humans.
My neighbourhood Facebook space, unfortunately, gives a better insight into the operations of unexamined whiteness in South Africa in a way that my self-selected white friends cannot and do not.
My Welcome List of restaurants was roundly condemned in the neighbourhood space. I was told that it was 20 years after democracy, so why was I creating an issue where there was no issue. I was told I should stop making things up. I was told I was being discriminatory and separatist by making such a list.
Many people who added contributions to the list were white and based “welcome-ness” on their own experiences. Others talked about lots of places having “mixed-group” tables – evidence of a specific venue’s nonracial credentials. They added these restaurants to the list.
The black people who engaged in the neighbourhood discussion were shot down as soon as they tried to share their experiences of being thrown out of restaurants, of having to give up a table to white patrons, of being made to feel invisible, of being told a restaurant was full, only to have their white friends make a reservation. They were told off for “turning everything into a race issue”. Their comments were termed as “nonsense” and their experiences condemned as “playing the race card once again” – “yawn”.
We were all reminded that “poor service” affects everyone, but only black people interpret poor service as racist. Apparently “poor service” is nonracial. It’s what unites us. Seemingly, we are in a postracial reality where white Capetonians get to determine where, what, when and how racism happens, and to whom.
This is Cape Town. It is 2015. And yes, it has only been 20 years since the dawn of democracy, compared with the nearly 400 years of embedded race-based, master-slave relationships in the Cape. Dismantling that prison house will clearly take much more than a short Welcome List of eateries.
Wang Thai in Milnerton, Cape Town, is welcoming to all it’s customers