In April, I had the opportunity to attend a South African field tour organized for the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE) as the representative of the Haas Institute, one of the partners of AFRE. The weeklong trip was part of connecting efforts between the work of the AFRE fellows and their organizations and communities to eradicate anti-Black racism in South Africa and the US, as well as to understand the mechanisms of Othering that have long defined both places.
Inside the Maropeng center, a World Heritage Site known as The Cradle of Humankind for its fossils of early human ancestors, I was struck by a quote plastered on the cement wall: “Human populations appear to be different in terms of colour, body size, limb proportion, hair texture and other physical attributes. Beneath the surface, we are all virtually identical. There is no genetic boundary for race. We are one species.”
While the sign is technically scientific fact, I felt that its bright optimism lacked proper contextualization of social realities—realities represented in the stark racialized economic disparities in both South Africa and the US that have had a tremendously violent impact on Black populations.
I was not alone in my critique. The 29 AFRE fellows who joined the trip echoed these concerns, discussing how dominant narratives, such as those perpetuated by the well-intentioned Maropeng curators, can continue to maintain privilege rather than address uncomfortable truths about how society actually functions.
This was just one example of many in how we as a group engaged with difficult questions around the social construction of race and power inequalities in South Africa. The Johannesburg trip was planned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, an AFRE partner organization, and followed a tour of the US South organized by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The South African programming took AFRE fellows on a leap from exploring paleontological discoveries of human origins to examining the parallels between US and South African race-based injustices. After visiting Maropeng, we were led on a tour of the Apartheid Museum, where the stark parallels of the segregated US South under Jim Crow stood out boldly.
The tour guide asked us to choose a line to enter into the museum—one entrance marked in Afrikaans read Blankes (whites) and the other Nie-Blankes (non-white). To honor my ancestors and those who fought against Jim Crow and Apartheid segregation, I entered the museum through the white-only line, to make a point.
However, let me be clear: let's not be fooled into thinking symbolic marks of explicit racism are a thing of the past. The very ideology that AFRE fellows are grappling with is the way systemic and structural racism has managed to survive despite the legal removal of a racial caste system and the “so called” abolition of Jim Crow and apartheid systems of racial exclusion and segregation.
The Apartheid Museum was an especially painful reminder of how state sponsored violence continues to rear its ugly head to try and crush the dreams of realizing a true democratic society.
These activities invited all of us to reflect on the inequities deeply embedded in multiple layers of societies, and to contemplate on the complexities of race, specifically Blackness and the paradoxes of privilege within both contexts.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.