Location: Cape Town, South Africa
I asked her for directions (read: flirted) to Clifton Beach five days after unpacking my luggage: a muddied, yellow backpack.
Two months later, she's my girlfriend, and I'm the boy at her family's annual "braai," the word for barbecue in Afrikaans, the language of Dutch settlers in South Africa. Her Grandma was lounging in a chair, peacefully snoring on the porch. Enormous mugs of beer teetered in the hands of slightly tipsy people. A goofy German Shepherd was playing keep-away with my girlfriend's even goofier 7-year-old niece in the grass. And the "boom, boom" of Springbok Nude Girls, a popular South African band (seriously, that's their name) moved her aunt to put down the mug and dance.
And they had food. Sosaties (skewered meat), kebabs, "crayfish" or kreef in Afrikaans, marinated chicken, pork and lamb chops, steaks, what seemed like ten kinds of Boerewors (sausages) of different flavors and thickness, and five racks of something that looked vaguely like spareribs. A lot of meat. Maybe it's because I was raised on BBQ pork in Birmingham, AL, but it felt like, well, home.
And then I met Uncle Johan: "Do all those [insert euphemism for African-Americans] in America frustrate you?," he casually asked me. And everyone around us -- my girlfriend's dancing aunt, her sister, brother, and, disturbingly, my smiling girlfriend -- nodded... approvingly. "Na, all is good," I said. And then I guided the conversation back to those sausages on the grill. And the fun-filled braai rolled on past midnight.
I still regret my pathetic answer. Because to do nothing, is to do something.
The fairy tales of Apartheid, a system that smothered the values of many white South Africans, were entrenched in her family's story. Blacks are violent. Lazy. And filthy. This is common sense. Some segregation is necessary, otherwise we'll have "racial violence," my girlfriend once told me. It's normal. Her Grandma and pastor and teachers and friends and their families magnified the myth with more stories. And it's natural. Have you seen the new scientific study? Our brains are actually physically larger... Have you read our history? These are facts.
She was fed these absurdities since birth. And it sounds strange, and it's difficult to write, but: Were her perverse beliefs the result of a conscious choice? Wouldn't a choice imply the awareness of another approach? To her, Apartheid was like gravity -- it was an invisible and unquestioned truth. Bizarrely, she was raised inside the belly of a nation that made it easy for good people to support a system that was hostile to their deepest values.
And in that sense, she has some company. (Hint: look in the nearest mirror.)
Six years later, when I think of my first and only South African barbecue, I think about two things: Uncle Johan and all that meat. Today, in America, what often seems normal is nothing more than the stories all of us seem to accept -- without even thinking. Sound familiar?
And like my former girlfriend, and as equally bizarre, we're living inside a system that makes it easy for us to support practices that violate our most cherished values. We've been fed our own uniquely American absurdities. And we've been unconsciously digesting them since nursery school. Just ask your parents how many cases of Gerber Ham or Beef Gravy meals you slurped down as a baby? My Mom's answer: Laughter, and "a lot." Seriously, go ask them.
When we look at the sausages on the grill during our next family BBQ and see only dinner, we aren't really seeing reality anymore. We're seeing the fairy tales (red barns, straw hats, happy cows, and crowing roosters) we tell ourselves about where our food comes from. And when we casually ask, as I have many time before: "So, how long did you sear the meat?", the myth grows.
One minute inside one of the animal factories that produced those sausages or chicken patties, and yes, even that Gerber Ham Gravy meal would leave you shaken -- and sickened. And that is a big fact. And 99 percent of all animals eaten or used to produce milk or eggs suffer in this very American system of injustice. If you doubt whether you'd be revolted, you won't 10 seconds after you click here.
We might feel anger by the comparison implicit in invoking racism and animal protection. After all, Nelson Mandela didn't move the nation of South Africa to secure the rights of mother pigs or egg-laying chickens. Human oppression is wholly different, and maybe you're right. But we view the contributions of Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King too narrowly if we assume that they cannot stand against all forms of injustice. And make no mistake, there's a reason King's wife, Coretta Scott King, and his son, Dexter, are committed vegetarians.
No jokes here; let's call this what it is: When we eat food from these animals factories we're magnifying another myth and trashing our values. Is this what we want? Or is there something we want even more? Because our life stories, whether stories of apathy or empathy, are being written with every meal.
And to do nothing, is to do something.