‘I am not racist, but ...’

2013-01-20 10:00

“I’m not racist but...” or my favourite, “I have nothing against black (or white) people but ...”

How many times have you heard these phrases?

Too often to remember and, without fail, the comment that follows is loaded with racial prejudice.

It’s the softening blow before the “unexpected” blow. Except it comes as no surprise when one has grown up in South Africa, because as much as we might all like to believe that we are not racists, or have racist views or beliefs, the truth is we all have these racist views.

We see the racism in others and we are quick to shame these “racists”, however, it’s difficult for us to see the racism in ourselves.

I am intrigued by the response on social networks or on radio stations, to comments by the likes of FHM model Jessica Leandra dos Santos, dubbed the “new face of racism in South Africa” by one user.

While I understand the pain that can be caused as a result of such statements (Dos Santos used the k-word and on another occasion “rude African monkey” in a tweet), I am not sure how shaming someone who holds views similar to those expressed by Do Santos resolves the issues at hand.

Shaming Dos Santos does not remove the thoughts from her mind.

Many of those who shamed her were white South Africans who felt ashamed and apologised on public platforms, as if to suggest that the views expressed and held by one white person are representative of the views and beliefs of all white people.

Don’t get me wrong, I often cross both fingers and legs when I hear of a crime being committed, hoping that it’s not a black person.

Is apologising on behalf of “all white people” perhaps indicative of one’s hidden beliefs, which cannot be acknowledged, because they are so bad, but can be rebuked and shamed in others like Dos Santos?

There appears to be an element of surprise when racially prejudicial views are expressed. This while it’s not a secret that South Africa has emerged from a racially divisive system.

Like a child who grows up in a home riddled with abuse, violence and despair, it is likely that as a result of the environment, one will grow up affected by the abuse and violence. His/her children might also grow up in a similar environment despite efforts to change the situation.

Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, it’s likely we have been raised in, or were directly a part of a system that was traumatic to our psyche, our psychological development. Either way directly, or indirectly, despite our shaming efforts, we will grow up with racist beliefs, and/or views.

We might perhaps not express them, but that does not suggest they do not exist.

Do we need to express our racist view publicly? Or only express them among those who might share similar views, or perhaps even similar racial identities?

Perhaps it’s helpful to shame others and pretend it does not exist, however, engaging in a dialogue, trying to understand the thoughts, “false beliefs” about “the other” might be a more suitable way of building a solid foundation for healing.

This means acknowledging that I, too, share some racist views about whites, Indians, coloureds and believe it or not, even black people. Yes, it is possible to be racist towards your own, especially when you grow up being a part of a race seen to be inferior.

Ask the cashier at the store who greets the “white madam” with a smile and packs her groceries, then you, similar to her in colour, is lucky to get eye-contact. She will throw the bag at you for you to manage your own packing.

It’s harder to shame or confront this “sameness” prejudice. If we were “different” we might in a moment of rage, tweet about it or shame them because “how dare they mess with our rainbow nation” and then move on, failing to engage in uncomfortable dialogue to understand the behaviour.

Not all the racists left South Africa for Australia and New Zealand after 1994 ... Or have they?

» Itumeleng Mamabolo is a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist

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