Nearly ten years ago, my family and I spent about two weeks in South Africa during the Christmas and New Year holiday. We traveled to Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town. South Africans greeted us with the common Zulu salutation, “Sawubona!” We learned that the term literally meant, “I see you. You are important to me, and I value you.” On the historical tail of the apartheid movement during which indigenous South Africans were marginalized and separated from their tribes, family, and had their culture and language stripped, there seemed not a more befitting greeting to constantly remind others of their intrinsic value and worth.
During the two weeks in South Africa, I learned firsthand the residual effects of the apartheid movement. Post-apartheid South Africa is a melting pot of South Africans of indigenous African decent, Dutch heritage, and Indian heritage. I was impressed with the overall remorse, accountability and culpability that so many South Africans embraced regarding the apartheid movement. The desire was not to erase the past but to no longer honor those who had supported such an egregious time in South Africa’s history. Monuments of apartheid presidents and generals were being removed, national parks renamed, and the importance of having a workforce that reflected the diverse ethnic backgrounds of the people who now make up South Africa was paramount. There was a rebirth happening in South Africa fueled by a celebration of the importance and value of ALL South Africans, the spirit of Sawubona.
On our journey, we met a couple and their young son. We did not realize we would become friends and keep in contact for the next 10 years. Upon introduction, they gave us their names and then stated, “We are colored.” Noticing how visually taken aback we were by this introduction, they laughed. Knowing that we were American, they used their racial classification as a disarming “ice-breaker.” We soon found ourselves sharing dinner with them and discussing even further the rich history of South Africa. They were both of mixed race, a combination of indigenous South African, Dutch, and Indian heritage. “Colored” was the designation for those of mixed race. During the apartheid movement, one’s distinction as Afrikaner (Dutch white South African), Black (indigenous South African), or Colored (mixed race) determined your social class, job opportunities, and overall freedoms with Coloreds and Blacks at the lowest social class/status. While the apartheid movement had ended, the residual social constructs of race-based class segregation and inequality persisted.
During deeper conversation, we learned that our new friends both worked in corporate South Africa. Due to the profoundly negative and lasting effects of the apartheid movement, most companies, like theirs, had taken an active position on diversity and inclusion. He explained that if there was a vacant position or new skills needed in their company and a concurrent imbalance in gender or race existed in the company, they actively sought to fill that position with a WELL-QUALIFIED individual from the race or gender that was not equally represented. It was a practice accepted and supported by most in corporate South Africa, not to fulfill a quota, but in recognition of the legacy of apartheid. The active practice of diversity and inclusion was accepted, expected, supported and recognized as a bridge to a stronger more productive industry. Having traveled to the United States themselves for meetings and engagement with American corporate partners, they were amazed at how difficult, contentious, and often rejected such practices were in America. Although the apartheid movement could have been considered a first cousin, if not a sibling, to some of the Jim Crow practices and overall overt inequities leading up to the Civil Rights movement in America, in their purview, America had not seemed to have made the progress that South Africa had related to race relations and equality.
We still keep in contact with our South African “colored” friends through social media and other forms of web-based communication. As images of unarmed people of color killed by law enforcement become global, our friends communicate their distant support, dismay, and overall sadness. They reached out after George Floyd was killed and the images of his dying body with the knee of a police officer on his neck reverberated around the globe. While George Floyd was not the first unarmed person of color killed at the hands of law enforcement, there was something different about his death. George Floyd was never given the benefit of “Sawubona.” In his dying moment, the officer did not consider George Floyd’s life and humanity important enough to ease his knee enough for Floyd to catch his breath.
As we attempt to move forward in this country embracing diversity and inclusion, we have to do it with the spirit of “Sawubona.” In that spirit, we have to dismiss the notion of being “color blind” – not seeing color but only seeing people. My Caucasian neighbors who have two adopted African-American grandsons recently utilized this notion of being “color blind.” In the same breath, when discussing the ongoing George Floyd case and the financial award received by his family in the civil case, they injected their opinion that neither George Floyd, nor his family, deserved the money because of the “type of person” Floyd was described to be by the media. They went on to propose that, someone like myself, an African-American physician who worked hard every day, should receive that money. Taken aback, I explained my own experiences of being unlawfully stopped and likely racially profiled more than once in my life. In each of those instances, I was not given the benefit of doubt, and my profession and education did not protect me. My gender along with the color of my skin gave the implication that I was more likely than not to be involved in a potentially insidious or unlawful act, all while simply driving. Therefore, to fail to see the color of my skin but admire my professional accomplishments was a failure to truly see me and understand my life experience as an African-American man in this country. More egregious, their “failure” to see color was a failure to understand and proactively educate their two African-American grandsons related to the ongoing realities of race and ethnicity in this country. The euphemism of being “color blind’ or “not seeing color” is a phrase that invokes an internal cringe for many African-Americans when uttered from our Caucasian counter-parts, as it is an inadvertent utterance of a lack of awareness of our experience and humanity as African-Americans. We actually would prefer that our color be seen and, more importantly, understood. What most of us would rather is the spirit of “Sawubona”, I see you. You are important, and I value you and your humanity.
Mark A. Clay, MD, MSCI
Medical Director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit
Co-Director Congenital Heart Center
Medical City Children’s Hospital Dallas, TX