Enough already

May 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve just been reading a searing opinion piece on racism in South Africa by Paul Berkowitz, in the Daily Maverick, which you can read at http://t.co/0Qsc7QSO – and I urge you to do so. It got me thinking, and I decided I had to write something too, because the more of us who speak out against racism in any form the better. So here, for what it’s worth, are some of my thoughts.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa and I can honestly say I never thought apartheid would be dismantled in my lifetime. But it was, just as I was finishing university and heading out into the world, and to me, it was something of a miracle, and still is.

It’s a funny thing growing up under this kind of system. I was never sat down and indoctrinated in any kind of overt way. Rather, racism was institutionalised, so that it was socialised into me – and those of my generation – in a much more insidious way. I know that I left home and headed for university with some very clear ideas in my head about the differences between white and black people; the line in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

At the same time, however, I had begun to question the validity of all of this, because I was involved in Girl Guides, which was – stupendously, for the times – a multi-racial organisation. I went on camps where girls of all races slept in the same tents and used the same facilities, and where I began to see in a small way, that Mrs Majola, one of the guiders from New Brighton, and Anusha, the girl in my tent who came from Stanger, weren’t different from me after all. Perhaps there were some cultural differences, but those were fascinating and enriching to me. In all of the ways that mattered, we were all the same.

At university this was reinforced as Rhodes University was also completely integrated. I made friends with people from a variety of backgrounds , and as one does at university, I began to question what I’d been brought up to believe. I very soon made up my own mind – that racism was simply not to be tolerated, in any form.

I still won’t tolerate it, and if you are in my home for any reason, please keep your racist views to yourself, or you will be asked to leave. I have had stand-up arguments with family members on the subject to the point where I was convinced my blood pressure was dangerously high, and I am the world’s most non-confrontational person, so that should give you some inkling of how much I abhor racism – and actually, discrimination of any kind.

The funny thing is, a lot of people think they aren’t racist. They’re the ones who preface statements with: “I’m not a racist, but…” Well, as good old Dr Phil always says, ‘but’ simply means that everything you’ve said before the ‘but’ is untrue. Listen carefully – the next time someone says: “I’m not a racist, but…” what usually follows is a racist statement. There’s no ‘but’ about it – either you are a racist, or you aren’t. There are no degrees of racism. You can’t be a teensy bit racist. In fact, I’d respect people more if they said they were racists and left it at that. They wouldn’t be welcome in my home, and especially around my children, but at least I could respect them for being honest.

My other favourite is people complaining about reverse racism. There’s no such thing – reverse racism is non-racism. When people complain about reverse racism, they’re always white people, and what they believe, is that racism means discriminating against black people. Again – it’s either racism or it’s not. So, if you’re discriminating against someone – anyone at all – on the basis of their race, whether they’re black, white, coloured, Asian, pink, purple or rainbow-hued, you are being racist, full stop.

Then there are those who talk about ‘these people’. They say things like: “Since these people came into power…” We’re not stupid, you know. We know you mean black people. And I agree one hundred percent with Berkowitz on this point – we don’t have a crap government because most of the people in it are black. We have a crap government, because by and large, governments around the world are crap. Just get onto Twitter and follow some intelligent people in developed countries around the world and you’ll see all the complaints that we trot out about our government being replicated in the UK and US, for example. It’s uncanny sometimes, honestly it is. It has nothing to do with the race of the people who are in power in our country; it has to do with the way governments work. Because if you think most politicians go into politics to help their fellow citizens, you really are living in Cloud Cuckooland.

Racism has been the topic on many a lip in South Africa recently thanks to the inane spewings of a couple of vacuous airheads on Twitter. A lot of people got their knickers in a knot about the whole thing, and rightly so. And it came from both sides of the colour spectrum, which made me very sad. Because to me, hearing racist speech from a black South African is as incomprehensible as a Jewish person defending Nazism, or watching Israel inflict a form of apartheid on Palestine. It makes no sense to me at all – surely the victims of discrimination should be the most vehement fighters against discrimination instead of perpetuating it themselves?

And as harsh as Berkowitz’s suggestions might seem with regards FW de Klerk and his predecessors, who, let’s face it, got off very lightly, I do think he has a point. We have tiptoed around this issue in South Africa for far too long. It’s time to do something about the racism that seems to be so embedded in such large parts of South African society. I’m not sure what that solution should be, but at the very least, I think ordinary South Africans (white South Africans in particular) need to examine themselves and their attitudes towards people – and that’s the key word here – people of other races. That person you just called a ‘kaffir’ is a human being, with a life that’s just as difficult as yours is to navigate. Can you really not see beyond the colour of their skin, which is, after all, just a genetic trait like blue eyes or the ability to touch your nose with your tongue?

If you can begin to see your fellow South Africans as just people, then please, please speak out. Don’t tolerate racism anywhere – if you witness it, say something immediately. If you catch yourself reverting to any of the speech patterns above, bite your tongue and think about what you were about to say. Don’t allow older family members to belittle members of other racial groups in front of your children. Stand up for people when you can see they’re being ill-treated because of their race. Just don’t stand for racism in any form, at any time, or in any place.

Because if those of us who are not racist don’t start to nail our colours (ahem) to the mast on this issue, and soon, we will never conquer it. And the racists will win. And that would be a tragedy.

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§ 3 Responses to Enough already

  • Jane says:

    Great piece Mandy. I couldn’t agree more.
    Jane

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  • iona says:

    When I lived in the US i was asked to do a guest speaker slot at an influential book club. They had just read Rian Malans Traitors heart. Many of the women were wives of senior army officials who travelled around the world for 3 year secondments. Prior to my talk I listened to them talking about their experiences. When one of the non -army wives said she could never leave her friends and family. The army wives agred that it was fine because there were other families from the USA there and they “stuck together” and did not mix with the locals. They proceeded to talk about the cultural traits they deemed offensive etc. I listened with great interest.

    When it came my turn to speak, these same women castigated racist South Africans for their behaviour, rightly so. I then turned the tables and said “you are racist too, its just not legislated”. Talk about a conversation killer. But it’s true, not only did they shun other cultures overseas they shunned them in their own neighbourhoods.

    The recent shooting of a youth in a gated neighbourhood underscores this – severe prejudice.

    When we first moved to the US we moved into a neighbourhood called Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. It had the dubious honour of being the “Most racially integrated” town in the US. Every agent went to great pains to tell us this when we were looking for somewhere to live. Perhaps they had made the assumption that we would not like this being from SA.

    I remember feeling somewhat confused because I thought EVERY town was integrated. Not so. In Chicago you can draw lines around, black, white, Hispanic, Irish, Chinese and polish neighbourhoods.

    I Agree Mandy, racist does not mean anti-black it means anti any culture but your own. Even black South Africans have issues with cross border immigrants legal or not. Racism has become the poster child of South Africa but it is not to say that we are the only country in the world dealing with it. Speak to a German and he will have plenty to say about Turkish people, The Irish have plenty to say about the English, the croats and the serbs, there is no shortage of examples.

    Its ridiculous how much power we can give words and how the emotions around them become so quickly polarised. There are a group of people in Sri Lanka called Kaffirs, The name has the same origins as SA Kaffir but they wear it with pride.A flower is a weed but for us calling it so.

    We need to try and somehow take the charge out of these words and turn the tables on the people who use them. We need to disown the labels and marginalise the people who use the words to wound. If we could become disaffected by words thrown our way and instead mirror them back to the people who are uttering them to highlight how despicable and brainless they are, we would be better off. People who use racial slurs use them because they do not have the intelligence to engage any other way, they keep hate words in their arsenal to deal the death blow. However it only has impact if we let it have impact. If someone calls me a name I can decide to own it or not. If we deal with these people with contempt or even tolerance the word will lose its sting. We must not just stop saying the words we must strip them of charge!

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  • Jeremy Farrell says:

    Mandy, I wish I had your eloquence to enter into a discussion that also considers that our national politics, and therefore in many ways the national psyche, is polarised along racial lines. The ruling party, and therefore the most influential, doesn’t by and large mind perpetuating the racial barriers, because they are politically expedient in gaining votes. That won’t be changed by a revised TRC.

    I would agree that most governments are self-serving, and in Hungary they have horrible similarities to our ruling party’s constitution-threatening agenda. However, here the fault lines are racial.

    When my children hear me speaking about politics, they can tell by the names and the news, that we are talking predominantly about largely white and black antagonistic relationships. And when I talk politics it is mostly with little love lost for ‘the other’. So through active discussion of current affairs, crime, corruption and political intolerance, racial stereotyping creeps into my home.

    The politics of this nation can be its survival or downfall, and extreme differences between the white haves and black have-not’s breeds the racism that can feed that beast. And when that difference is also used to foster fear and resentment on both sides of the colour spectrum, we all lose.

    I know that I have prejudices, and that they ‘help’ me to fit life into nice little boxes which ‘help’ me to process the madness around me. And I know that I have to work through most, if not all of them, in my pursuit of Christ-likeness.

    That means replacing my prejudices with something far more helpful, and that is one heck of a journey. The person who doesn’t have any prejudices, which ‘help’ with sense-making, should maybe be walking on water. Oh, hang on, there was one.

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