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Racism and us South Africans

03 December 2012, 13:16

What follows is the bottom line on racism in South Africa and what we can do to get it right.

Know this about racism –

  • Racism always dehumanises, depersonalises and disempowers. Racism is always an abuse

  • Racism always divides, separates and generates conflict.

  • Racism always emerges out of falsities

Racism is when we understand people, others and ourselves, in terms of race and our or learned assumptions about races. Others and ourselves. Racism is when we believe about and impose things on others and ourselves because of race rather than what or who or how we or they really are.

South African racism

There is no law against racism in South Africa. There is law about unfair discrimination involving race and about promoting racial equality. There is law against hate speech. There is common law about crimen injuria which helps deal with the cruder racist manifestations.

The absence of law against it does not mean racism is allowed, permitted or encouraged.

To our credit we profess non-racialism.

Except that as a nation we institutionalise and legalise racist thinking.

We have race-based programs and agenda.

We are continually required to categorise our race.

We have racially based organisations.

In the workplace racial thinking is required by law.

Behavioural research on a national scale begins with race.

We begin and end political analyses and marketing strategies with race-based assessments.

Race is an ever-present part of sport.

We have an Institute of Race Relations founded on recognising race differences. We monitor race relations.

We can easily see why crude mean, demeaning, denigrating and insulting racism is wrong and we up and challenge it, not always but mostly. Yet we can't see how we perpetuate racism by perpetuating thinking in racial terms and making racist judgments.

We have in South Africa the idea of justified racism. It's a clever idea. But inescapably justified racism remains racism and the hurt, the depersonalisation, all the things racism does, remain.

Honest assessment

I am sure there are truly non-racist people in South Africa. I am pretty sure they will forgive being included in my assessment. They will know just how hard it is to be non-racist ins South Africa.

The only honest assessment we can make is that in South Africa we are all racist. That is the bottom line.

Being racist is probably one of the most non-racial activities in South Africa, next to breathing, heart-beating and making private calls from work phones.

That we are all racist, doesn't mean that

  • all of us crudely demean, insult, belittle, dehumanise and so on.

  • we intend being racist or mean to be or want to be racist

  • we don't have goodwill towards those with whom we share South Africa

  • especially, it doesn't mean that we should ignore the goodwill and millions of normal daily interactions and transactions between people that happen every day where race does not feature.. This is to me, one of the most obvious and over-looked facts and hope-full things about us here in South Africa.

  • Equally especially if you pardon the phrasing, being a South African racist doesn't mean that we should accept statements about race by politicians who use race in their politics.

That we are all racist does mean that at times and too often:

  • our thinking includes race as a major determinant of what we think

  • we are quick to justify our race-driven thoughts and actions

  • we will wonder about if not decide the race of the author of articles about racism.

  • We disguise our racists talk and thought, We use euphemisms and borrow terms from economics to make racial statements. We are very good at disguising our racism.

  • when challenged we are quick to resort to accusations of racism

  • when seeing those who have more than us we attribute the difference to race

  • we will counter racism in others with our own racism

  • we are better at seeing racism in others than our own racism

  • We exaggerate our politeness or impoliteness towards people differences in race

  • We will exaggerate attempts to be non-racialwe are sensitive about whether we are being racist.

  • We accommodate things we wouldn't allow from our own children in another child because of the race of child

  • We will note the race of a criminal- the worse the crime the more we make of race

  • We react to a criticism of the racial group of which we are part as a member of that group.

We are all racist, even if only a little bit. And like pregnancy we either are on aren't. We all have if not a duty than an option to change this.

Changing our racism, our racist behaviour and thinking begins like this.

Its not all our fault, so to speak

As deep as racial awareness and thinking is rooted in us, it is itself rooted in an even deeper driver. At nearly the deepest mode of being, we see ourselves and act as part of a group, a community. Our survival is more likely by being part of a group rather than as an individual. Group members help each other. But being part of a group lends itself easily to seeing other groups as a threat maybe as competitors for resources.

From our earliest days as families, in schools, in neighbourhoods, everywhere. we are grouped and groups are set against each other.

Race is just such an “otherness”. We are born into a cauldron of racism that boils and bubbles and steams up all that we do.

Most often when we are in stressful situations “us versus them” thoughts surface. If a person is murdered we think of the race of the victim and perpetrator; when lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood and have to ask for directions in a public drinking place, all sorts of race-driven thoughts and feelings surface.

And to be fair our group-ism doesn't only manifest as racism – we make unfounded assumptions about every group we think about.


The solution to racism begins with a change in each one of us. We need to think and act differently. Here are five ideas as a starting point:

  1. When engaging with another person, engage with what they are, not with what you think or assume they are or what you want them to be. This means listening to what they say and watching what they do. You don't have to like them. By looking at how they are, it will be the things they say and do, you don't like, not their race.

  2. Start with the idea that every statement or thought that includes race is wrong. You will find the few exceptions. Try to catch yourself thinking or talking about race or skin colour and then rethink and restate what you want to say.

  3. Reflect on how you think about races outside of South Africa – think about the people from China, or Japan or India or the Amazon basin. Understand  how you generalise and then know you are wrong .

  4. Be extra vigilant when in stressful, tense, pressurised, gut-response-off-the-cuff situations  That's when our deepest unthought through urges dominate.

  5. Note the racism in others. Challenge it and support victims. But first make sure you are not doing the same or challenging in a racist manner. It's good practice for challenging racism in others by challenging our own racism.

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