Working together to root out racism

2018-03-18 00:00

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Racism is a construct which finds its currency in the notion of the superiority of white people. It is firmly premised on the principle of human hierarchy which placed white people at the top of the heap. This was followed by the “yellow” people from the East. At the bottom rung were black people, who were regarded as inferior to whites.

What hierarchies of this nature achieve is to create reasons for the humiliation, exploitation and complete disregard of those regarded as “subhuman”. This explains why “decent” people were able to justify brutal slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust, apartheid and many other inhumane actions. The reality is that our categorisation of people will determine how we treat them. Notions of superiority and inferiority have their origins in this kind of thinking. What is abundantly clear is that these are ideas devoid of biological or scientific justification. The UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination concludes that “superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”.

The history of racism stems from racist ideas rather than inherent differences. We have to ask who benefits from the relegation of black people to one notch above the level of animals? It is no coincidence that black people are comparatively poor and condemned to live off what is left by white people. In order to maintain the status quo, white people needed to turn black people into enemies, monsters to be feared, half-breeds that do not deserve the same privileges as whites. Black people needed to be kept separate to protect white “innocence”. Black people became an entity to be feared and, once this fear became commonplace, it was just a matter of keeping it alive. These notions became fertile ground for discriminatory policies and actions such as colonialism and apartheid.

One of the key features of the apartheid government was to feed its white compatriots on a diet of white superiority and “swart gevaar” (black danger). I distinctly remember the words of a white judge, in the 1980s, when he sentenced a coloured man found guilty of raping a white woman. He lamented that this dirty, uncultured beast destroyed the life of an innocent, pure, white woman. Did these notions die with the dawn of the new South Africa?

Racism is alive and well in South Africa and resulted in the establishment of the Anti-Racism Network of SA in 2015. Over 60 organisations from across the country are its members. Since 2016, the week leading up to Human Rights Day on March 21 came to be commemorated as Anti-Racism Week.

While overt racist occurrences have declined significantly, the perpetuation of racist ideas has, unfortunately, continued unabated. These ideas have become more sophisticated and covert, manifesting in a lack of engagement by white people in the race debate. They fear being caught off-guard and seem to work very hard at being politically correct. White people are often caught out by what is called implicit bias. This occurs outside of one’s awareness and manifests in explicitly offensive behaviours.

Most black people can relate to incidents of white women clutching their handbags as you approach them, or the street being crossed at the sight of a few black people walking towards them. These actions might seem like automatic impulses, but are driven by fear that had often been fed to whites as a staple diet. It is further entrenched in the next generation by the conversations at in-group social functions, where they are fed a constant diet of black incompetence and inferiority.

Anti-Racism Week, spearheaded by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela foundations, is an annual focus week aimed at creating public awareness about racism and its effects on individuals and society at large. The theme for 2018 is #RootOutRacism and one of its objectives is to help South Africans “understand the root causes of racism and how, over centuries, it has shaped the DNA of our society. From slavery and colonialism to apartheid, racism’s roots run deep”.

All sectors of our society are encouraged to mark Anti-Racism Week wherever they find themselves. Individuals and groups are encouraged to:

. Learn about racism through discussions and other educational endeavours;

. Talk about racism and how it manifests to create binaries of superiority and inferiority, including prejudice and stereotyping;

. Speak out against racism by condemning the culture and underlying beliefs that feed racist thinking. Everyone can do this, whether at dinner tables, on social media or in group conversations;

. Report racism by downloading the racism reporting app launched by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. The Zimele Anti-Racism Reporting App can be downloaded from the Google Play store; and

. Act against racism by reporting incidents to the Equality Court (all magistrates’ courts serve as equality courts), or to the SA Human Rights Commission.

This week creates the ideal platform to challenge South Africans to act on their desires for a united South Africa. The SA Reconciliation Barometer, a public perception survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), reflects that 75.3% of respondents believe that a united South Africa is desirable, while 68% believe it is possible. One of the ways to turn the desirable into the possible is to find ways to deal with what divides us as a country.

We believe that the building of fair, inclusive and democratic societies can only happen if we are prepared to have the difficult conversations about race, privilege, inequality and other issues which continue to divide us. The IJR pledges its full support for #RootOutRacism.

If racism is nothing more than an idea that created opportunities for some people to oppress others and, in the process, contributed greatly to many of the crises facing the world, then it is time to work towards rooting out such a bad idea.

- Henkeman is the executive director for the IJR.

Anti-Racism Week runs from March 14 to 21

Read more on:    racism

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