The Perils of
BEING a BEST WHITE
In this extract from her book, Best White and Other Anxious Delusions, Rebecca Davis discusses the… erm, plight of young white South Africans.
was bartending at a remote hotel in the Scottish Highlands once when I served a Scot who was intrigued to learn where I came from. As he got drunker, he insisted on ordering beers in his finest parody of a white South African accent. When he finally slapped down his money to pay and leave, he leant forward and said, meaningfully: ‘Thanks, hey … kaffir!’ Then he drunkenly sauntered out, leaving me frozen with horror. I spent hours agonising over that interaction. Was he just confused about the meaning of ‘kaffir’? Did he think it was some cheerful term of endearment employed by South Africans generally,
equivalent to how the Brits use ‘mate’? Did he imagine South Africans of all stripes walking into a bar and greeting each other with a jovial ‘Howzit, kaffir?’ I don’t think so. Neither do I believe that he intended it in the Arabic sense of ‘infidel’, before anyone helpfully suggests that. I imagine that he learnt the word from white South Africans overseas, since it’s not a very well-known epithet beyond our borders. Of course, if he was aware of the meaning of the word, it was bizarre that he would address me with it as a white person. Then again, this was the Scottish Highlands. It wasn’t as if there were any black people around to use it on. It is no
exaggeration to say that some of the locals – who eked out meagre livings as fishermen or small-scale farmers – had encountered black people only a few times in their lives. The last time a black person had been seen in the village was more than five years before. It was a visit that was the stuff of legends because the local alcoholic, Darren, had merrily asked him when he intended to wash his face. Rather than trying to make a cutting point to the racist white South African serving up his drinks, I think my drunken bar patron used ‘kaffir’ as a farewell salutation because he was clumsily trying to signal some form of racist comradeship with me. A kind of covert solidarity: that he knew