People gathering in stressed collectives, listing all the things they think they need to buy; those shoes, that jacket, those potatoes. You know, important stuff. That’s the nature of malls in my opinion, and these days they’re literally everywhere; regardless of which corner of the world you hail from.
As it happens, I’m not actually a fan of malls, or shopping centres as we call them in the UK (we like to call things EXACTLY what they are), but I’m in a new country so thought I would venture into a local mall in Narre Warren (38km from the city; I’m getting closer) and see if I could spot the difference. As it turns out though, if you visit a mall that belongs to a chain of malls around the world (Westfield) they tend not to differ too much. Who knew?
Me. I probably knew.
As I said, the general atmosphere was the same, but due to the space available out here, everything was naturally, about three times bigger. I won’t bore you with the details of me getting lost after turning one too many corners and passing five different coffee stands, but I will tell you about a conversation I had with a fellow mall dweller, or meller, as I’ve just decided to call them.
I was sat minding my own business, having my first coffee of the day at 12.30pm (which explains how I got so lost and my general crankiness on the way there), reading my book (Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment) and generally trying to relax into my coffee buzz. The Meller, or “Older white lady” as she will also be known as, appeared on the table to my left; she told me she was in her 70s, that she really liked my braids, she wanted to know if I did them myself or if paid someone to do them, and how long do they last? These questions are nothing new to me, and have become almost routine for the 31 years that I’ve been alive. They are questions that specifically come from white people, sometimes men, sometimes women. I’m not offended by these questions; if you don’t ask, then you don’t gain knowledge. But yes, it can get a bit exhausting having to answer the same philosophical questions about a hairstyle. If I wasn’t black, it would probably never be a conversation I have to have with a stranger. But whatever; we continued.
Small talk followed, she seemed like a nice enough lady, wanting to impart some of her wisdom to me as a British expat herself who’s lived here for the last 50 years (I couldn’t help but think “huh, so you were here before any of the equality and anti-discrimination laws then? Cool”) and wants to tell me what a great place it is, full of possibility. I agree, and although I want to go back to my book, I endure because talking to locals is always a great way to find out about a place; you don’t have to form lifelong friendships with everyone you meet on your travels though. Thus the conversation went on and she told me (and wanted to let me know this in particular) about a news story she had seen the other day about a black boy with braids who got expelled because of them, and how there was an uproar about it, and how appalled she was by it. She really, really, wanted me to know how terrible she thought it was.
I ignored the ignorance (the desire to show me that she cares about black injustice too, just FYI) and humoured her, told her about a similar news story I heard from another country, where there are also injustices. We appeared to be bonding, but I was trying to decide if I was offended or not (a genuine and constant thought when talking to older white people, a racist comment is just a few exchanges away, every time). I decided I was not, she was harmless. Then she asked me about my plans for work, I mentioned wanting to work in the city, she warned me against it, said it was very dangerous. Fair enough, she’s elderly, traffic probably seems dangerous to her.
I know that was a harsh (but funny) joke, but stay with me on this.
She then proceeds to tell me about a family member who was car jacked in the city, and it sounds like he was beaten up by the thieves. A terrible thing to happen to be sure, but she says that crime has increased in the last five years, and that;
There’s been lots of…how do I say this in a nice way?….Well…black men…coming here.”
Can you picture my face? Yeah it was a sort of confused picture. She was unfazed by it, telling me they were black, but not like me, no, they were from AFRICA. This is her assuming I am British only, with no relation to any other ethnicity. She said they come over, have no job or money, so they steal.
I suddenly clocked that she was talking about migrants, refugees, people fleeing conflict and trauma, those people.
I nodded politely because what do you say to an elderly white woman when she tells you you’re the right kind of black, and you need to stay away from the wrong kind? Well, you don’t say much of anything because she’s 75 or whatever, and you’re probably never going to see her again. And she has no idea that what she’s saying is incredibly offensive. And I mean no idea; this woman gave me her phone number and address and told me I was very nice girl and if I ever needed anything i should contact her.
I considered going to her house and robbing her, but then I remembered that I wasn’t that kind of black, so we’ll probably go out for tea or something.
I jest; I burnt the napkin in effigy.
So yeah, still really loving those malls.