Words can never change who I am

2012-05-12 11:16

We all harbour racial stereotypes and prejudices

Miss Jessica Leandra dos Santos’s racist tweet elicited outrage and condemnation from many quarters – and rightfully so.

Although such blatant racism cannot go unchallenged, given the tightrope we still walk daily in many parts of modern-day South Africa, on a personal level her insult means absolutely nothing to me.

I attribute this largely to my upbringing, which taught me that insults can never change who I am.

I have grown to see racial abuse as nothing but a crutch for those who have serious esteem issues and have nothing better to say about themselves, except to remind us of their supposed racial superiority.

The funny thing is that perpetrators often attribute a high value to something they did nothing to achieve. Whom we are born to is an accident of nature – finish and klaar.

My subdued response is also informed by life experiences at school, work, church and from social interactions.

One of life’s lessons is that we all harbour racial stereotypes and prejudices of one kind or another.

On any given day, crossing over from prejudice to racism is but a short hop that can be triggered by something as innocuous as someone braking abruptly in front of you in typical Joburg traffic.

I am more interested in understanding when and why young people switch from innocent beings to racists who get the whole country talking in a matter of minutes.

Miss Dos Santos was raised in post-1994 South Africa, so where does the anger come from?

At which point do such hard feelings replace the adoration for the (black) nanny, as we have all witnessed at some point in our lives?

We all have stories to tell that prove kids don’t see race, especially among themselves.

My personal favourite is the story of young Jason, who gets home from school completely confused and asks, “Mum, did you know that Sipho’s dad is black?”

It is easy to point at parents, but I learnt a lesson from my son’s racial incident at preparatory school when he was 10 years old a few years back.

An altercation ensued and a white friend called him a black X and he responded by calling the friend a white Y.

After recovering from the discovery of the true extent of my boy’s vocabulary, I decided not to let the matter be.

I felt the school had dealt with the matter superficially and insisted that it be reopened for no reason other than to teach my son a lesson that I hope will be with him for life.

The gist of my message to him was simply that I was proud he stood up for himself, but terribly disappointed he lost the moral high ground by bringing race into his response.

His eyes almost jumped out of their sockets when I made him realise that by using the word “white” he had insulted the four innocent friends who were bystanders.

Not only that, but it was the same four white boys who had given evidence in his favour against “one of their own”.

When we abuse others racially, we are so overcome with emotion that we completely forget about those of other races who we love and respect.

In spite of her big mistake, it is possible that Dos Santos does have black people she truly likes and respects.

The same applies to Miss Tshidi Thamana, who also responded in racial terms.

Her response somewhat gave back the moral high ground she had and possibly makes people feel Dos Santos was justified in using the K word after all. For Thamana, work must be a difficult place to be these days.

Dos Santos has deeply hurt the majority of South Africans. It has been reported that this is not the first time she has publicly made a racist comment, so it is quite likely that she felt emboldened when there were no consequences the last time.

It is, therefore, fitting that Dos Santos has lost her endorsements and titles, if only to remind her and the rest of us that we cannot afford to let such language be used routinely.

But I do not think there is anything to be gained by condemning her forever, as many suggest.

She is still very young and can be helped to be an upstanding member of society with an interesting story to tell about Twitter.

Dr Bhengu is a healthcare industry executive, a fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @N22koBhengu

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