Whites must get with the #Woke programme

2016-12-11 06:03

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To be white in South Africa is to have the luxury of choosing to be indifferent to racial issues.

Brian Draper, a prominent author on spiritual intelligence, describes any kind of personal transformation as consisting of four tangible steps.

Firstly, we need to respond to a moment of awakening. This leads us to step two: cultivating a deeper self-awareness which, in turn, enables us to see the world afresh. Step three involves responding creatively to this new awareness in our own unique way. Finally, step four involves passing it on to others.

When it comes to racial transformation, many white South Africans never make it to step one. That is, they have yet to awake from their slumber to notice the random, and often blatant, racial discrimination and dehumanisation of people of colour that is widespread in our society.

Moreover, they have yet to wake up to their own justification thereof – to confront the beast of racism extant in their own manicured lives, while smugly pointing fingers at government.

Let me be clear: I, too, am dismayed by various situations under way in our country – by the violence of some student protests, by the way President Jacob Zuma runs his government, by the corruptness of some state-owned enterprises, and by the vilification of those who dare to stand up for truth.

I am dismayed by these things for the obvious detrimental effect they have on building a better future for all, and especially the poor, in South Africa. But almost above all, I am saddened by these things because of the power they harbour in fuelling racism all over again in our country. And because it appears far easier for many white South Africans to justify their racial bias – albeit implicitly – than to separate what happens in politics from our obligation to rehumanise the other, and by implication, ourselves.

So, how does one wake up? How do whites begin to empathise with the desire of thousands of students to lift themselves from the shackles of poverty and structural violence? How do whites begin to recognise the way they stereotype people of colour by putting them in boxes labelled “entitlement”, or “lack of ambition”, or “corruption”? And, how do whites stop referring to black people as “them” and the way “they” do things?

Many white people stubbornly turn a blind eye to the way in which people of colour experience our public spaces. Stories abound of the difficulties black people have in making dinner or hotel reservations, signing lease agreements or confirming school placements. Whites need to start understanding how such indignities, experienced daily by thousands of black people, chip away at their humanity and sense of self.

Science and our own research point to the notion of “perspective taking” as a critical element in rehumanising the other. It forms a core component of empathy, and can be described as the mental process of putting oneself in the shoes of another to see the world from their perspective.

In one of our recent studies, in which black and white South Africans empathised with each other’s emotional distress while in a brain scanner, we found that the brain mechanisms that support this process of self-projection – mentally projecting ourselves into the alternative reality of another – were much less active when participants perceived an out-group member in distress, compared with when they perceived an in-group member in distress. Thus, it appears as if white people, in general, are much better at understanding the subjective reality and emotional experience of other whites than they are at understanding the reality and experience of their black counterparts.

I believe this is because whites are not trying hard enough. Various previous studies on intergroup relations have shown that the tendency to favour one’s in-group disappears when individuals are specifically instructed to take the perspective of a racial out-group member. In other words, effortful perspective taking has been shown to decrease the use of stereotypes, to increase positive evaluations and caring behaviour towards the out-group, and to foster increased willingness to engage in meaningful contact with the out-group.

Moreover, taking the perspective of a stigmatised individual has been shown to generalise to positive evaluations of the whole out-group.

Perspective taking can work, but it is a skill that – like other mental or physical pursuits – needs training. And, the more one is open to it, and resolves to practise it, the better one becomes at it.

Perspective taking is what is needed for us to form a uniquely individualising view of another person, as opposed to stereotyping and generalising.

But transforming one’s inner view of the other remains a journey. It is a process of small, incremental successes interceded by slippages back to old habits and thoughts. It is a tangential process that may feel daunting and uncomfortable at times – especially when confronted by peers who have been lulled into complacency or who simply choose not to see.

Drawing on our own research, we can identify at least three types of white South Africans on the path to racial transformation and restorative justice.

The first type resides at the bottom of the spectrum, and can be described as a “victim identity”. This person feels they are bearing the brunt of racial transformation and affirmative action. In response, they resist any form of racial integration.

The second type can be described as a “saviour or rescuer identity”. This refers to whites who continue to embrace their superiority while welcoming black assimilation into their culture.

Finally, at the top of the spectrum are people who have attained critical self-awareness. They find transformation difficult, but are genuinely committed to eradicating any trace of racism in their lives. Critically self-aware people do not have all the answers, but they are willing to go in search of them, take responsibility, have the difficult conversations, and not shy away from black pain.

As stated above, to embark on this transformative journey, many whites first need to wake up. To quote Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a senior research professor in trauma, memory and forgiveness at Stellenbosch University, whites need “to take a pivotal turn to perspective taking and gaining an integrated view of both the self and the other”. In so doing, they will arrive at a new level of consciousness about race.

Fourie is a senior researcher leading the neuroscience investigation of empathy in studies in historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University

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