What Being a Black American in Cape Town Taught Me About Privilege


I promise it’s not hyperbole when I tell you I have never seen a city as beautiful as Cape Town, South Africa. Staggering cliffs. Roaring oceans. Vineyards that look carved from the Garden of Eden and canyons so vast it seemed they were invented so the sun would have a reason to set.

Seriously, no filter.

When I was in the airport lounge on my way back – because this is a story about privilege, so of course I had access to the lounge – a white man saw my bright blue box braids and my skin browned by weeks of adventure and came one second short of realizing I didn’t work there. He fixed his mouth to ask me a question.

I’m a friendly young woman. I turned to this man, my eyes smiling and face open, clearly enjoying the complimentary spirits, and he immediately realized his mistake.

I was in Cape Town to visit my friend, a native of the city who identifies as “colored,” a legal designation. On one of our last days, we sat quietly on the porch of our rented Airbnb, the third in the series of multi-family homes we had stayed in across the region. Each fenced in and nondescript to hide the comical luxury on the other side. These were homes different Black women and men would slip into noiselessly to clean around us, washing linens and trimming shrubbery. We sat there trying to name the feeling.

The feeling of sitting in a spa as a woman browner than you paints your toes and locking eyes with the (hostile?) stare of the white woman across from you.

The feeling of adding your spare change to the cupholder not for a toll but for the “parking attendant,” a Black man with an advanced degree that will eat with the tip you give him for standing in the sun watching your car so nothing happens to it while you go to the shops.

What was this feeling, we wondered. This hard knot that starts in the gut and poisons the lining of the stomach, seeping up your throat until it takes everything not to wretch?

Instagram was invented so we could share Cape Town with the world.

We had just come back from safari. On our way we drove past a township, the city’s name for the vast slums of corrugated metal and makeshift housing where the families that cleaned our Airbnbs lived. The energy lines stood tall as a clear reminder of what this heartbreakingly beautiful city thought I should expect for myself. Maybe enough electricity to power a generator but never a home I would clean that didn’t belong to someone else.

We were at the safari when she told me that most people in Cape Town would go their whole lives and not earn enough to visit themselves. And as we sat in the dining hall, the only people who looked like me stood fixed against the wall, waiting to collect our used dishes.

“I know,” my friend says suddenly, her voice the only sound besides the crashing of the waves. She’s figured it out.

“It’s like those old pictures we used to see from the colonial times.” The image forms in my head as she describes. “The ones where the white family is sitting eating dinner and the Black people are off to the side, waiting on them. Only instead of the white people, it was us.”

Us. So to be a Black American of privilege means that for a few thousand dollars I could take a trip across the pond, to the land of my ancestors, and spend two weeks role-playing the cruel fantasy of colonization?

I tried to reconcile this with how I felt sitting in that safari dining hall, belly full with the delicious meal. Roasting marshmallows after, staring up at the bright night sky. Light from the stars reminding me there was nothing but nature and life in every direction. Seeing animals reserved for the Discovery Channel and taking selfies with the ones that weren’t too scary. I felt…blessed.

The smile masks terror, these animals don't play.

Being a privileged Black American in Cape Town taught me that because of my passport, I can visit the airport lounge instead of working at it. Eat at the buffet instead of refreshing it. Unwind in my Airbnb instead of maintaining it. But I should never get too comfortable. Because at any moment someone might decide that my life doesn’t matter as much as much I say it does. Maybe even when I’m sleeping in bed, fresh from an international flight, the airport wine still lingering on my tongue.

And maybe 8 shot laters it will be the last thing I ever drink. I would hope that if this were how it ends, three months wouldn’t pass without my family knowing justice.

But given how it is with Black people and breath these days, don’t expect me to hold mine.

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