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Nicole Beardsworth
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Can we talk about our everyday racism?

20 February 2014, 15:25

In the wake of events such as the Reitz residence incident at the University of the Free State (UFS) in 2008 and the recent alleged attempt by two white students to run over fifth-year economics student Dumane "Muzi" Gwebu, South Africans recoil in horror at the unexpected racism that still lingers amongst us. What goes through their minds? How could they possibly justify driving over another human being with a bakkie? To see the reasons for this, we don’t really need to look too much further than ourselves.

In order to avoid sweeping generalisations, I will attempt to speak from my own experience. I’m a white middle class South African, I went to a good government school in Johannesburg where I interacted every day with people of other races. But ten years later, most of my friends are white and middle class. And most of us still live in socially-segregated neighbourhoods and communities in post-apartheid South Africa. Outside of our workplace, shops and petrol stations, we hardly interact with people from other racial groups. Social functions tend to be an almost entirely lily-white affair. It’s not useful to blame anyone for this, we all have a post-1994 hangover – where race and class interact in subtle yet brutal ways, dividing us along both lines and ensuring that our social realms rarely meet.

But can we start to talk about our everyday racism? Can we talk about how, in rush hour every morning that little six letter ‘k’-word pops out of our mouths when a taxi cuts us off? Can we talk about how we refer to our domestic help as ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, infantilising people who are often much older and who are providing services that we would rather not do ourselves? And what about why we become so uncomfortable at the thought of interracial relationships, of loving someone with a different colour skin? Why it seems natural to talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’? We become so immune to these insidious comments, the dichotomies we perpetuate.

Twenty years after apartheid, we need to start challenging and questioning our own biases. We sustain racism on a daily basis, through making jokes about parking attendants, domestic workers and checkout assistants. It is this culture that validates the behaviour of people like those at UFS, whose actions we abhor. With every comment, every sarcastic remark, we perpetuate the division of our society and aid those whose prejudices run deeper, reinforcing their retrogressive views.

It starts with us, and it has to start now.

[1] Nicole Beardsworth holds an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford.

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