Changing people's minds and hearts about race - lessons from Vicki Momberg

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Vicki Momberg appears in the Randburg Magistrate's Court to apply for leave to appeal her jail sentence. She was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria after uttering racial slurs at police officers in Johannesburg. (Photo: Iavan Pijoos)
Vicki Momberg appears in the Randburg Magistrate's Court to apply for leave to appeal her jail sentence. She was found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria after uttering racial slurs at police officers in Johannesburg. (Photo: Iavan Pijoos)

Joshua Carstens

I have been following the Vicki Momberg story with great interest. By now the whole country knows she is the racist who hurled the k-word 48 times at police officers and 10111 operators who had tried to help her after a smash-and-grab incident.

There has, rightfully so, been a choir of condemnation of her behaviour. This is not the usual subtle racism, but blatant in-your-face hatred. By now you can probably see a "but" coming in this argument. She is a racist, but…

But nothing. Momberg is simply the tip of the iceberg. There's no excuse for her behaviour, and that is exactly where the problem lies – her behaviour. She received a jail sentence for this rant, and whilst it is a historical judgement one can't help but wonder if this should indeed be a precedent-setting punishment for all discrimination?

What about all the not-so-subtle forms of racism and discrimination? Can we impose jail sentences on all those people? her thoughts, feelings and beliefs, but if she didn't go on that rant we would never have known how she really feels.

And that is the problem with racism and discrimination: You can't legalise people's minds and hearts. It might be less offensive to think the k-word than it is to say it, but it doesn't make it morally acceptable. It might be more hurtful to call a homosexual a "faggot", than just thinking of him in those terms, but it does not make it less toxic to the fabric of society.

Racism and discrimination (yes, discrimination, because sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are just as prevalent) are not just harmful when they are expressed; they are sometimes even more dangerous when they are lurking beneath the surface. It comes in the form of managers deciding who gets the job: The person conforming to your idea of what "normal" or "acceptable" is, or the person of an opposite race, gender or sexuality. It's decided in how we treat each other in shops, on the street and ultimately in our homes. It has tangible consequences that's most often not clearly traceable to prejudices.

As a white male I come across subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – racist remarks quite often. Not directed at me, but at black people. Most often there's this weird unspoken "kumbaya feeling" I get when a white person is racist in my presence: It is okay to be racist, because we are both white.

It's easy to correct the blatant cases of racism and take a stand against those. It's right in front of you, and even the person expressing it knows it is morally wrong. But what about the subtler forms of racism? The "us" versus "them" constructions, the black person not getting that restaurant table because of the colour of his skin, the woman not being treated as an equal or the homosexual guy not getting a sales job because "our customers won't like a gay selling them things".

We can't put all these people in jail. But what we can do, is elevate the conversation and debate to an educational level. It's the only way we are going to change people's minds and hearts. Without that changing, we will not succeed in eradicating racism and discrimination in society.

A healthy debate does not always mean screaming "homophobe" or "racist" at somebody (although it is warranted in blatant cases), but exposing someone to the opposite, debunking their misconceptions often goes a long way. The more we focus on the good things that are happening, the better. Feature powerful, strong women on your Facebook account, share that tweet about the black farmer getting awards, and tell your friend about the homosexual guy who is a successful rugby player.

Slowly, we will break down prejudices and make an impact where it really matters: in people's hearts and minds.

- Carstens is a senior content producer at Health24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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