Sunday, October 03, 2010

“Sorry, we are fully booked”

September 17, 2010

“Sorry, we are fully booked” : Racism and Discrimination today

I am a white American. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the same year I graduated from high school, and so I have spent the majority of my life living in what was supposed to be a free and equal society.

My friend Walter, an African-American, once told me that racism in America is not only not dead, the newer, less blatant forms of racism are perhaps more difficult to deal with because they are less obvious. Instead of telling a person flat out, for example, that an apartment complex does not rent to them, a black person might be told a unit has already been rented when, in fact, it is still vacant and the landlord is holding out for a white applicant. Services may be refused under the guise of ineptitude (poor service or bad seating in a restaurant), or being too busy (a contractor who eagerly comes out to your house to give you an estimate but doesn’t respond with a quote, responds with an outrageously high quote, or mysteriously doesn’t have time to take on your job) or a host of other ploys designed to exclude people of the targeted category. It is not only people of colour who are targeted in this manner, but mixed-race couples, gay people, foreigners of any colour, non-Christians, and even women. When discrimination against groups of people became illegal and, eventually, unpopular and socially unacceptable (“politically incorrect”), it went underground and “We don’t serve your kind here” became “Sorry, we are fully booked.”

South Africa is increasingly suffering from the same phenomenon. As the nation continues to normalize, to move away from the strictures of apartheid, certain relics of it remain in the form of people who, while acknowledging the changes in the laws, have made no changes in their hearts. And Walter is right: it’s tough when you find yourself in an otherwise inexplicable situation and, when all other explanations fail, sometimes you just have to play the race card, no matter how reluctantly.

A couple of years ago, in Cape Town, we came across this problem. It was so stealthy we failed to tip to it until we were actually told “We didn’t want to take this job because we know what you people are like!” But the warning signs were there, had we only seen them. We called a referral service to find a contractor who could refinish some water-damaged louvered doors. The contractor came out to the house, looked over the job, agreed to do it, took my email address and promised to send me a quote. After a few days…during which I called to find out where my quote was…I contacted the referral service to request another contractor or that they press this guy to get going on the quote. The quote finally arrived and the amount was reasonable, but then we had trouble getting them to come pick up the doors. Once the doors were finally collected, they kept them forever. Finally, in exasperation, I called and asked them to bring back my doors…and they demanded 100% payment before I had even seen the work. When I objected, they send me a new demand that worked out to 100% payment minus the VAT (sales tax). Again, I called the referral service and the doors were quickly returned. But the work was frightful! The sanding was coarse and the wood was splintery. The colour of the two doors no longer matched. And the varnish was spotty, and one door had been left unvarnished on one side.

The following day a woman called me, demanding payment. I said they would have to do the doors over again, this time properly, for us to pay them, at which time she began screaming at me over the phone, saying that she knew that the job was going to be trouble because of what people like us are like. When pressed to explain what she meant…what kind of people are we that she could know in advance that we wouldn’t pay for the work…she hung up. Since we have a perfect credit rating and no complaints or judgments against us, it is not possible she was referring to our payment history; since we lived in an up-market suburb in a very nice house, she could not mean we were too low-income to trust for payment; since there was a top-of-the-line Mercedes SUV parked in the driveway, she could not mean we were too poor to afford their services. What, other than something unpleasant and smacking of racism, could she mean? Surely her husband saw the Ganesha statue and godlamp in the living room and, judging from their company name and the Bible quotes on their business card, they considered themselves über-Christians, but was it the fact that Hubby is Hindu, non-white, or we are a mixed-race couple that offended their sensibilities? What kind of people did they perceive us to be that they felt justified in doing a worse-than-half-assed job on the door and demanding full payment in advance, essentially cheating us?

We have moved to Johannesburg and bought a house. We don’t know why the seller has done the same…blatantly cheating us by intentionally concealing defects and outright lying to both us and, in the end, the estate agent as well. He told the estate agent on 28 August that the garden would be cleaned up and the pool in perfect condition when the handover was done on 1 September…it wasn’t. Now he has lied to the conveyancing attorneys, telling them that they handed over the house to us in the same condition as when it was sold: not true…when it was sold, the pool was clean and blue, the garden lush, clean, and well-watered. And he warranted the “fixtures” in the house to be in proper working order, which they are not. Would he have done the same to a white couple? We will never know, but if racism is behind his unethical actions, then he’s also a hypocrite who can be bought and sold for a handful of silver: he had another offer for the house, and it was only slightly less than our offer, but he took the greater sum and sold to us. Is he just a greedy cheat? Or is there more to it than that?

So, we engaged a handyman to come take care of the worst of the problems, especially toilets that were leaking so badly that we were wasting money…and water…every minute of every day and every night. Hubby called a referral service that referred us to him, and…well, I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.

First, he couldn’t seem to get us a quote. He came to see the property, I gave him a list of faults and problems, and walked him through the house, showing him everything on the list. It took a week and several phone calls from both me and Hubby, but finally the quote was in and, because it was reasonable, we accepted it. It called for a R5000 deposit, but the banks are closed on the weekend, so the internet transfer could not be effected until Monday anyway.

When we accepted the quote via email, he told us he could not start the job on Monday (despite knowing the urgency of some of the work) but we agreed for him to start on Tuesday. Late Monday, however, he calls me and says he can’t come on Tuesday, that a customer for whom he has just built a brick wall now wants it plastered. I asked him if he could plaster her wall on Wednesday because the leaking toilets are costing me money every hour that they run. He agreed to come on Tuesday but a little late…say 9 am.

So, 7 am Tuesday he shows up. He replaced the seals in the toilets and did some other work, then left in the afternoon, saying he would be back in the morning…I haven’t seem him since (and the toilets are still leaking). I called him Wednesday morning to see when he would be in, and he went into a long complaint about “I haven’t seen any money in my account…” I reminded him that it takes a couple of days for a bank transfer to occur, but that Hubby had given me R2000 in cash to hold him over until the bank transfer went through. “Okay, okay,” he said, “I’ll be by later today.” He didn’t show up.

The following day I sent him an SMS asking what time I should expect him to arrive. He did not respond, Hubby tried to call him on the phone several times…he didn’t answer. I sent an SMS this morning asking if he was coming back or if I should call the referral service for another workman. This time he did reply, but he said only “Pls send your bank details that I can refund u.”

Obviously he got the money, but I had ceased to think money was the issue when he failed to show up for the cash. Hubby thinks that the guy had a problem with a white woman (me) being married to a non-white man (him). This seems to be a peculiarly sensitive topic among certain white South Africans, for the same person who would do business with a non-white couple may well refuse to accommodate a mixed-race couple in which one member…particularly the woman…is white. To do business with such a couple is tantamount to approving of the relationship and preventing mixing of the races was a huge issue in apartheid South Africa and may well still be among some of the older white South Africans.

As a white American woman, I have always believed that I am acceptable, that only a few unreconstructed Neanderthals would refuse my custom because I was female and everybody else would be glad for the business. And those who discriminated against me because of my gender have, for the most part, been pretty up front about it...I was once actually told that I was being refused a promotion because "we don't put women in that job"! But for the most part, I get a decent table when I walk into an empty restaurant, I got the house when I offered at the advertised price, and the contractor who flaked out on my house remodel had shown up drunk for work several times (although not to the initial meetings), so it didn't occur to me that he might have abandoned the job because I was female. So it has been a bit of a shock at times to find myself on what may well be the receiving end of the same kind of discrimination that people of colour apparently have to deal with every day for their entire lives, to bump my nose against the concept that I am not acceptable…that I am somehow flawed or unworthy…not because I am too uncouth, too poor, or even too Left Coast, but because my other half is an unacceptable colour, race, or faith.

It sucks. Not in just the emotionally outrageous sense…how dare you refuse to give me a decent table because I’m black or gay or Muslim or an unaccompanied female??...but in pragmatic terms as well: How much time and energy and effort are wasted in futile pursuits, writing offers for houses that will never be accepted, making dinner reservations that end up in an interminable wait for a table (a wait designed to exhaust your patience and send you elsewhere)? How many times will I show a potential contractor through my home, preparing a detailed list of needs and pointing out what I want, only to have to do it over and over again because this one cannot be bothered to send a quote or has suddenly become too busy to book the project? How many people will look into my eyes and smile at me and make promises they have no intention of keeping because my surname is Indian but I when they got to the door, I was the "wrong" colour?

We cannot know…and, just as Walter once said, it’s actually much tougher this way. In an earlier time they would tell you to your face…sometimes hurtfully…but at least you were not left sitting around wondering why your offer for a house was turned down, despite offering at the advertised price, no speculating why the contractor smiled through your explanation of your needs but failed to submit a quote, no questions in your mind why, in an empty restaurant, you are seated next to the door to the toilet. There was no need to wonder, question, speculate: they would just tell you “We don’t serve your kind here” and you knew. You knew.

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