OPINION | White South Africans: We have got to get real about race

A protest against racism in Chicago in the US.
A protest against racism in Chicago in the US.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Robyn Porteous writes that one of the reasons white people struggle to acknowledge racism is because of the way it is framed in their minds. 

Often, discussions of whiteness and racism only inspires defensiveness. Eyesights sharpen, energy rips through the body, and the impulse arises to oppose whatever comes next - without considering if it makes sense.

The title may have inspired this in you.

If so, I ask that you acknowledge this, and against the defensive impulse, read on. Because we, white South Africans, have got to get real about race and the privileges of our whiteness.

You may feel compelled to dismiss what comes next as rooted in divisive identity politics ("from a virtue signalling, guilt-ridden, white woman," you may add). Well, I can confirm you are right about one thing - it is rooted in identity politics. But it’s being so is not divisive.

I've always been puzzled by the assertion that drawing attention to race is divisive and itself racist. Arguably, this is rooted in the belief that race doesn't matter, intending to dismiss those who bring race into the equation as guilty of giving it "unnecessary" weight.

But the truth is, race IS in the equation. In many ways, it's at the core of it.

Power inequality 

Denial that race matters is disingenuous. Most of us carry within us at least the inklings of awareness of the racial power-inequality. Any refusal that it exists doesn't mean one has a problem with it - only that one has a problem with it being named.

For this to change (and it must), we need to acknowledge white supremacy as a powerful ideology that is especially potent in previously colonised countries. The vote in 1994 may have turned South Africa into a democracy, but it didn't magically dismantle its racist power systems. In many meaningful ways, this work is still to be done.

One of the reasons we have trouble with talking about racism is the manner by which we frame it in our minds. As FW de Klerk began to repeal apartheid legislation in 1991, the message spread that racism is bad.

This didn't erase racism (not even close), but reduced our understanding of racism to a simplified binary of good and bad. This not only prevented us from examining the white supremacist messages we received growing up, but it made it easy for us to absolve ourselves of all responsibility when it came to meaningfully addressing racism.

Because of this good-bad binary, as opposed to understanding that deliberations around racism need to happen, and that racial power systems exist, in discussions of race, we often feel as if we're being challenged in our belief in our identities as good people. We perceive any attempt to connect us to racist systems (the same systems from which we still benefit, 26 years into democracy), as an unfair moral offence and personal insult that we refuse to accept.

Cognitive dissonance 

Sadly, this fuels further cognitive dissonance as our denial and defensiveness morph into the assertion that it's white people who now suffer abject oppression (we don't), prompting us to refer to all forms of affirmative action as "reverse racism", tantamount to the crimes of the apartheid regime (it's not).

We become so concerned with defending our identities, we refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that stands in contradiction to the claims that everyone is equal and hard work is all that's needed to overcome circumstance.

Problematically, we also tend to think about racism as acts committed by individuals (the bad ones), predominantly during apartheid, rather than as the complex and interconnected system of oppression that it is.

If I, as a white person, conceptualise racism within the context of this good-bad binary, placing myself firmly on the side of that which is "good" and therefore, not racist, I may be tempted to believe no further action is required of me. But this limited understanding only stifles critical thinking, any hopes of meaningful deliberation, and any potential for action, ensuring we fall short of every opportunity to challenge racial inequality.

If we believe only bad people hurt others on the basis of race, our response to discussions of racism will be founded in defensiveness and denial. By subscribing to a definition of racism that doesn't acknowledge its nuance and complexity, we make it impossible for ourselves to understand it, and its institutionalised influence, rendering ourselves incapable of viewing it as more than an issue between individuals.

The truth is, we need to acknowledge institutionalised racism to being to have the necessary deliberations about how it ought to be addressed. By refusing to do so, we're demonstrating dedication to a system that still serves us - and only us.

In order to have the necessary deliberations, we need to understand that racism is more than just prejudice and discrimination.

In the words of J. Kehaulani Kauani: "Racism is a structure, not an event."

Everyone has prejudice and discriminates to varying degrees as a result of it. However, the structures of racial oppression that were implemented through colonialism, white supremacy, and apartheid, go beyond the individual to ensure the continuation of racial inequality.

Racism, like other forms of systemic oppression, is founded in ideology and occurs when a racial group's prejudice is embedded in legal authority and institutional control.

This embedded-ness transforms the prejudice of individuals into a far-reaching system that doesn't depend upon the intentions of the individuals who exist within it. This ensures it can be reproduced automatically time-and-time again, as the default setting of the society in which it exists.

For the purposes of clarity, I'll say it: racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. Whilst we may be tempted to believe racism was a function of apartheid that fell away when Mandela took office, it doesn't work like that. Racial disparity between white people and everyone else continues to permeate the institutions across our society - and alarmingly, in areas, appears to have increased.

We may individually be "against" racism, but we still benefit from a system that privileges us. That's why it's not enough for us to just not be racist. It's not enough because irrespective of our individual intentions, racism continues to adapt to produce racial disparity, while excusing us from admitting to our role in it.

While we aren't raised in a world that forces us to see ourselves in racial terms, we need to begin to do so, accepting racism for what it is and doing the work to try to understand how it shapes us, how it influences our lives, and how we've been conditioned to participate within it (which includes complicity, silence, apathy and denial).

If we cannot discuss the complex dynamics of racism, we will never be able to stop participating in, and perpetuating it. And if we choose not to discuss or acknowledge its dynamics, we exercise another privilege exclusive to our whiteness - that is, the choice to live a non-racial life, and the freedom of consequence as a result of it.

Deeply complex 

There is a lot more to be said (and I'm certainly not saying anything that black writers, artists, activists, leaders, politicians, and members of the public, haven't already said), I feel compelled to close with this: we need to accept that racism is deeply complex, nuanced and ever evolving.

We need to acknowledge that the racial system of oppression is deeply rooted in every institution.

We need to see racism for what it is - a system into which we've been socialised, that dictates the unequal status quo.

And we need to be open at all times to receiving feedback on our problematic racial patterns, using it as an opportunity, and a tool, with which we can continually improve our learning and growth.

It is in the will to listen and learn (or unlearn, as the case may be) that we need to ground ourselves, our actions, and intentions. And when it comes to the necessary process of dismantling oppressive institutions that retain unequal and unjust reckoning over the lives of people, to never, ever, ever consider our work to be done.

Robyn Porteous is a passionate South African, an aspiring writer, and a woman with opinions, who works in Digital and can be followed (or blocked) on Twitter @RobynPorteous.

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