Invisible ‘Whites Only’ Signs

One Monday morning in the late nineties I stood at the window of a hotel room overlooking the North Beach in Durban. There were about five or six other colleagues with me and we had arrived in the coastal city just that morning for a week-long course. It was my second time in Durban but my first at the beachfront and as I saw the beauty of the morning sun on the Ocean I couldn’t help but ask: “So how much is the entrance fee to the beach?” That was followed by a moment of stunned silence from my colleagues and then laughter. That’s when it dawned on me that I had asked one of those Jim-comes-to-town sort of questions.

Who could blame me, the place just looked so beautiful it felt like one had to pay to enjoy it. After all, a mere nine years earlier some beaches were a no-go area for Black South Africans. Although we’d already had one democratic election, the signs that declared “Whites Only” or “Europeans Only” were still fresh in the country’s collective memory.

I remember that memorable march by the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement in which thousands of people turned up to reclaim public amenities that had been declared for “Whites Only”. The beaches were one of those. Others included parks, public toilets and even public transport like certain sections of trains.

That march, led by Desmond Tutu sounded the death knell for petty apartheid and it was only a matter of time before it was repealed from the statute books. Whilst these “Whites Only” signs were physical and visible to everyone, there is a second set of invisible “Whites Only” signs that unfortunately still stand today -(phrase coined by weavergrace,com)

A black child whose family moves to an Afrikaner-dominated area today is free to attend school in that area. That’s what the law says. Practically though, this child would have to adjust to the norms and culture of the said school, in certain cases giving up sports like soccer and be ‘forced’ to take up rugby and other traditionally “white-dominated” sports like hockey. Goodbye personal choice. Oh, but the child has another choice, find another school that offers soccer, in other words, respect the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the school’s front gate.

A few years ago I changed gyms, from the one national franchise to another that was closer to home and was open 24/7, in search of that ever elusive six-pack. As I walked into that gym at 4.30am I could have sworn I was walking into some Nordic enclave or I was ‘violating the Group Areas Act’ as a Facebook acquaintance put it recently. But I was there to work out so I went ahead and did just that.

It became quite clear that I was an unwelcome visitor because when I approached the free weights area which was packed a few moments before it became almost magically empty and I had undisturbed access to the free weights. So what am I complaining about? A coincidence maybe? Well, I tried to believe that it was all in my mind the first time it happened,  but over the next few weeks, my visits to the gym became acts of defiance. So when the gym underwent a reconstruction, I used that as an excuse to self to move to a more socially ‘accepting’ gym environment.

If you’ve ever suffered a proper toothache you would agree with me that Googling a friendly neighbourhood dentist is not on your list of priorities, you just want a dentist to get rid of the problem, now! So off I went to the “dentist/TANDAARTS” place that I passed daily just down the road from where I live. Now, it’s not abnormal to feel a bit uneasy in a new dental surgery but the uneasiness I felt in this particular waiting area multiplied when the dentist popped his head in and acknowledged just me in a room with about 6 waiting patients. Needless to say I was the only sprinkle of colour in there.

When you have to explain that “No I don’t speak Afrikaans” to a receptionist it’s normally a good sign that maybe you should have read the invisible “Whites Only” sign outside. The two patients ahead of me were taken into a room towards the left of the waiting area. When my turn came, I was taken to a room to the right of the waiting area. The dentist chair looked rather old and tattered, but the toothache instructed me to get help, pronto. Lying down with a numb cheek and a drill in your mouth is not the right time to ask why the cleaner walks into the dentist’s room to retrieve their cleaning equipment in a cupboard within that room. Odd I thought.

As I left, I was curious to know what was in the room to the left of the waiting area, and that’s when I saw it. A zebra-coloured newish-looking dental chair in a dentist’s room that looked nothing like the one I had just been assisted on. There were posters on the walls of this one. I attempted to utter something but everything was numb in my mouth as it all dawned on me, the sign was clear, that proper looking room was for “Whites Only”. At least I got help, I just made a mental note to look for a friendly dentist in the neighborhood.

The medical field seems fraught with professionals who would put up such signs outside their practices if they were legally allowed to do so.

I remember wanting to give up on going to a 24-hr medical centre because it just seemed to be filled with such individuals. How does a doctor diagnose a patient with tonsillitis without examining the patient, examining the mouth/throat area. No temperature taken, no “open wide”,  no examination to ascertain that what I said was the problem was actually the problem.

But I should have sensed this was coming when on entering the doctor’s room, the “what can I do for you today?” came out before I had even shut the door behind me. I was  left in no doubt that the intention was to get rid of me as quickly as possible. I must have been in and out of there in two minutes flat, and the bugger charged me the full rate.

As I  waited in the queue to collect my medication the same doctor comes out with the patient who followed me,  sympathetically conversing in Afrikaans and making the right oohing sounds and I  could only marvel at the professionalism that was sorely lacking when it was my turn. And then I  remembered, it must have been that I missed the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the entrance.

If you’ve never been to the year-end preschool concert in an area such as the one I live in you are missing out on a lot Afrikaans music, sokkie-sokkie I believe it’s called. That’s not really a problem because you were told it’s a dual-medium language school before you register your child there. Look, I can only take so much sokkie-sokkie in one evening, but that in a cramped school hall can drive you up the wall if your musical tastes are usually laid back R’nB.

But to then get a 10-year-old white girl frantically wiping herself because our black helper had attempted to pick her up to help her across where we were sitting is positively disgusting. I could only wonder if her parents haven’t been poisoning her mind to enable her to read the invisible “Whites Only” signs. I had an idea to ask our helper to scrub her hands with disinfectant for having touched such an obviously poisoned child but I realized sinking to their level will not help.

These are but a few examples that poison our daily social environment, but like a fellow writer wondered recently about the existence of these kind of signs in the USA where desegregation happened in the 1960s one wonders how long these invisible signs will stay in place in this country.

I applaud the efforts of all people who take it upon themselves to defy these signs daily. In the workplace, In the sport fields, at varsity, at school. It is one thing to be the only person of colour in a group of 20 or 30 people, it is yet another thing for people in that group to actively work towards making sure that you feel unwelcome. I know the feeling, I’ve been in situations where I felt like the unwanted extra. To be felt sorry for and patronized, to be assisted “quickly” so that you can leave “them” alone. Where “listen here my friend” is actually a veiled warning to stop being the cheeky black that you are.

These are only personal anecdotal instances, but from conversations with friends and acquaintances it is quite clear to me that there still a lot of areas where “Whites Only” signs are still up, although invisible. That’s why I take my hat off to my friend who has taken up mountain biking. He does it because he loves cycling, but he’s now noted that he is playing his role in ensuring that those sickening “Whites Only” signs come down.

White is still the norm in Cape Town’ screamed a City Press newspaper headline two Sunday ago. Cape Town possesses a lot of areas that Black people are regarded only as part of the cooking or cleaning staff and not the clientele. That a place like that still exists twenty years into our democracy demonstrates the short-comings of our social engineering policies. Clearly a day visitor to Cape Town can be excused for thinking this is a European city because of the lack of colour in certain establishments. Even worse is that the city as a whole should have been up in arms over the article, unless the leadership of the city likes the ‘norm’.

Until you’ve been mistaken for a member of the cooking or cleaning staff at an establishment it must be quite difficult to grasp the deep-seated embedded racism in that ‘honest mistake’. That places and establishments exist that lead to these kind of ‘honest mistakes’ is a terrible indictment on the City of Cape Town, the flagship of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

A facebook friend recently posted this status on his wall. “You are at an establishment for the first time and within a few minutes you realize you are not welcome(you also happen to be the only sprinkle of colour in there, save for the waiters and the kitchen staff. Do you 1) Up and leave and go spend your hard-earned money somewhere else or 2) Exercise your right to freely eat wherever you choose to. Overwhelmingly, the response was to up and leave.

I however differed with that. It might sound like I’m a sucker for deliberate poor service but I feel these “Whites Only” signs can only be brought down by the intended victims frequenting those establishments that would wish they could go elsewhere. I call this Civil Obedience (get it?). I know what you are thinking, why don’t you leave them in peace with their bigotry? If that’s our standard response to things then Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela wasted their time and energy, ‘they should have just left these bigots in peace’ right?



13 responses

  1. These invisible signs also form a dent in the shoulder apparently!

    They are everywhere and sometimes they are accompanied by invisible statutes which render one who is ‘Black’ and female both immobile and gagged.

    For those who do not experience these signs and statutes, we are a people who are self-oppressed and our triumph lies in our personal conquests because these things are said to not really exist, apart from in our minds.

    So we turn to the literature, which, written in the linguistics of oppression, and as one First Nation philosopher recently put it, the ‘language of genocide’, we find that the same barriers exist, only now, they are erected between self as socially identified (within ‘mainstream culture’ and self as authentic to own cultural concepts.

    How many books have I read in which the ‘world’ excluded the one I daily inhabit, and whose geographic contours caused the places familiar to me to vanish from the universe?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading Mama D. You always bring an interesting perspective to issues. Over the past two or three years we’ve had a few cases of black women who were either attacked or racially abused at gyms around our country. I had never really considered that these invisible signs are a double blow for black women, but as you indicate, they are.

      As for literature, I am truly beginning to comprehend the gravity of that often loosely-used maxim: “if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will”. I believe the only way we can banish these signs in literature is to tell our story in our own way, including these uncomfortable truths that everyone else chooses not to acknowledge.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. So well writ! This sums up the frustration I feel on almost a daily basis. Such individuals infect us with the poison of their hateful hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Cuz. You are so right, this has become so much a part of the South African narrative to the extent that it has been ‘normalized’. If one raises it that ever-present accusation of playing the race card comes out immediately. But if we refuse to acknowledge the presence of these signs, we’ll never do anything to deal with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I read a portuguese word in this article “pronto”, :D. I feel very sad and angry when I know people are treat/mistreat their fellow according to skin color yet in our days. We’re humans. All humans. And that’s like we should see others.


    1. Thanks for reading Deuseline. I’m glad you are recognizing my proficiency in Brazilian Portuguese, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Syd, I love that you are further discussing the “invisible whites only signs” so they can more effectively be ripped down. I feel badly that you, our dear Mama D, and Thabelo have felt inhibited by such signs. Thanks for pointing them out so we can do more to destroy them.

    “scrub her hands with disinfectant for having touched such an obviously poisoned child” How wicked of you! And delightful! I am sorry for everything that I have ever done that might have made someone feel excluded, and I’m sorry that I look like people who exclude. Surely we were poisoned; we could never have done such harm unless we felt threatened in some way on our side of the “whites only” signs.

    When I look back at the time period of around 20 years after official desegregation in the U.S., I recall the attacks on non-heterosexuals. “Us” and “them” transformed from “black” and “white”. Everyone who resembled a homosexual was outcast, and AIDs gave plenty of people a sense of justification for it. I saw it as another misinterpretation of cultural differences, and clung to my incredulousness in spite of being surrounded by people who had ridiculous ideas about what qualified as moral deviation.

    And, still, in the mid 90s, I was pained by a roadside diner where I stopped. I heard that people in southern U.S. still segregate, but I did not experience it directly until I stopped at that large diner. It was as you describe: “colored” cleaning staff were the only non-European people there, and they all kept their heads down, as if in shame and deference. I could not catch an eye to offer a smile or greeting. I felt horrified and a profound sadness that this divisive culture remained. I understand that 2 more decades later, it continues to exist there.

    I long for a time when all will see that we can only be free when we are ALL free. We can only be safe when we all feel safe. May your Civil Obedience disinfect all that you touch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. About two months ago I deliberately visited a sports pub and grill that I knew does not welcome my kind of people. I drive past it everyday. The waiters are all black but after being deliberately ignored for what seemed like an eternity, a white girl left her place behind the counter to serve me.

      No apologies for my wasted time, just a “what can I do for you?”. As in your case Grace, there was no eye contact from the rest of the staff, but plenty of side-stares from the other patrons as if to ask: “What are you doing in our place?” Now imagine if 1) enough “unwanted” people came into this joint regularly to make the patrons realise it’s not really “their” place but everyone’s and 2) the other patrons were to complain to management about the treatment being meted out to the “unwanted” patrons, that would be Civil Obedience in action.

      But the people who can bring down these hideous signs are the “beneficiaries”, those that are not discriminated against.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Syd, I admire your activism. I LOVE your “imagine if”!!!!!

        The most recent bold act that I’ve done was lead the the campaign team for my county when President Obama ran for re-election 2 years ago. Democrats are shunned in most of this county. I found the idea of Romney representing our country to be so repulsive, and Obama’s program proposals so necessary to implement, that I dared to reveal my identity as a Democrat. No burning crosses on my lawn. No nasty responses, except from one friend who said that we could no longer discuss politics, and who hasn’t called me since to discuss anything.

        Lots of conversations behind closed doors as I tried to recruit people who I knew would be sympathetic to my understanding of the issues, and most cowered, afraid of losing jobs, friends, and social status.

        I live in a world where I have the privilege to reveal parts of my identity, or hide them. I don’t recall ever living in a world where my unpopular identity was as conspicuous as yours. Even as a woman in men’s worlds, I have been welcomed as the token woman, and granted privileges to encourage me to stay.


  5. Dear Grace,

    Signs such as these are not the work of individuals, but are erected by institutions, as many signs are.

    Institutions are passive social engineers with active effects.

    How can individuals deconstruct the institution? I welcome hearing the ways…

    Do we try to demolish and rebuild? Do we work on parallel institutions? If we do the latter, we have to beware not to use ‘toxic’ bricks discarded or plucked from old constructions…

    Syd, how to we protect the next generation from the hazards? Or do we leave them be to learn from the fallout directly?

    Can we trust them to herald in different ways of bringing structures together?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Difficult to follow the thought processes that make people think this kind of racist, bigoted attitude is reasonable… I can only imagine that it’s at least partly what they grew up with and a kind of misplaced pride that makes it difficult for them to admit that what they and their ancestors believed and took for granted is quite simply wrong, on so many levels.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Keep working on it, Sydney…

    PS my Richard went to a loggers’ town on the West coast a while back, with Greens and ‘save the forests’ stickers all over his car. He stopped at a little cafe but left pretty quickly when the general talk seemed to turn to ‘f…g greenies’ … probs lucky not to get his car torched, that sort of stuff has happened. Very sad and all because some people can’t tolerate different opnions, ideas, colours of skin, political views etc etc etc

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Intolerance of difference taps into a root of bigotry that we would do the world of favour to erase. That it has proved so difficult to do so must, or certainly might, mean one of at least a couple of things:

    1. That it is related to some other survival trait in a cultural sense
    2.That it is being topped up, regularly and insidiously, by the culture which gains power from its practice

    The two may be related. Both are related to fear.

    That is one way of approaching all of this. Another way is to understand that the focus of many bigotries is on what is different AND what cannot easily be changed.

    It is very difficult or well nigh impossible for most to change either their allocated race or their gender.

    There is a whole industry based upon trying to change ones ‘racial appearance’ either in the individual through cosmetic (and often dangerous ) means or through lightening up over generations (and the root of this was firmly embedded during slavery and colonisation).
    People change gender, but mostly, I imagine, out of choice, rather than through wishing to escape gender bigotry.

    Do we factor these things in during our discussions? Do we make equations between the kinds of bigotries which are ‘escapable’ (in the short run) and the ones that aren’t (or less so)?

    Is understanding, for example, the dynamics of the consequences of ones political choices helpful in understanding the deep rooted traumas experienced by those persecuted for what remains an essential part of their physical identity?

    Teach me.


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