Melanie Verwoerd: We can and must be better - lessons from America

Protests in downtown Charlotte. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Protests in downtown Charlotte. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As we have seen in America, racism will simmer away until there is one incident too many and it all becomes too much. This can easily happen in South Africa as well.

On Saturday evening I was watching a video recording of a speaker at a rally in America, following the horrific killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis.

The young African-American man was shaking violently as he was trying to contain his pain and anger.

“I’m not ok today!” he said. “I want to give the black community the right to say: ‘I’m not ok today’. I woke up this morning with ‘WTF’. I… AM… TIRED!”

He had to pause for a moment to catch his breathe.

“I have yet to watch the video of Ahmaud Arbery – it is too much. I have not watched the video of George Floyd. It is too much.”

At this point his voice broke in anguish.

“Black people have to go to work the next day and pretend they are all right. Black women in particular cannot say anything or else they will be labelled as angry black women. So not only do people get to piss on the community, the community can’t even say they are pissed on.”

Referring to Amy Cooper, the New Yorker who threatened to call the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park, he said: “That woman was so comfortable in her privilege even though she was recorded she was certain that nothing would happen to her.

I’m not ok today.

We are trying to deal with tens of thousands of people dying from Covid, disproportionally so much more in the black and brown community.

There is no bigger fish to fry than the institution of racism and bigotry that is pervasive in every institution across this city, state and country. Period.

So for the NYPD to stand there and say they don’t have discriminatory institutions or practices that they deal with, that nothing about them has to do with discrimination or racism, to say, ‘we have bigger fish to fry’… HOW DARE YOU? HOW DARE YOU???”

Overwhelmed by emotion, he could not speak anymore and walked away from the microphone. 

I was in tears, knowing how this must reverberate with every black person around the world.

At that moment my phone pinged. Someone had sent me a video clip of a white South African who was having a rant to camera about the cigarette ban. He was making fun of African accents and how Africans share “ZIMBA (!) chips – even a small Zimba  - 5 guys all hands to a packet”.

Underneath it the sender texted: “(This video) summarise our politics very well - ANC has lost its path again”.

Over the last few weeks these racist videos and memes seem to have multiplied at the speed of light – to the point where the ANC started naming the people responsible for depicting Dlamini-Zuma as a chimpanzee.

On Saturday night, as I watched the South African video in disbelief, the words of the speaker in America that I had watched a few seconds earlier came back to me: “This (man) is so comfortable in his privilege that even though he was recorded he was certain that nothing would happen to him” – in fact he and others watching and forwarding it – thought it was funny.

Let me again state what should really be the obvious: Racism can never ever be funny!

And if you still need further clarity, depicting someone from another race as an animal is racist. Making fun of someone of another race’s accent is racist. To tell jokes about another race, is racist. Period.

And if you start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” you are a racist. Stop right there and say nothing else.

It is true that none of us are completely free of racism. We are born to see difference and in most societies we grow up believing (consciously or unconsciously) that there is a negative to that which is different from us.

But this is where the hard work starts.

We as whites – especially in countries with deeply painful pasts such as our own, have an additional responsibility and obligation to put in the work. First, we must not through our words and actions add to the historical and ongoing pain of black South Africans.

Secondly, we have to call out those who do. (We also have to fight systemic racism, but that is for another column.)

I am aware that it is not easy. Every time someone sends me something racist or says racist things in front of me, I know that my response will most probably end in conflict. But I also know that if I don’t respond it is a silent condemnation of the racism of the other person.

As Angela Davis said: “ In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racial, you have to be anti-racist”.

Whites in particularly need to understand that racist language whether in real life or on social media does enormous damage. It provides fertile ground for fury and anger to grow. As we have seen in America, it will simmer away until there is one incident too many and it all becomes “too much”.

This can easily happen in South Africa as well. I saw a photograph of a young African-American carrying a poster saying: “We are not our ancestors. We will f…k you up!” This would depict the feelings of many young black South Africans as well.

Michele Obama recently said: “If we ever hope to move past  it (racism)….. it’s up to all of us, ….everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.”

This demands that we have to call others out on their racism, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

So here is my commitment: As I continue to interrogate my own engagement with race, I undertake to respond to every racist text, meme, story, comment or action that cross my path by making it clear that “I’m not ok with this and neither should you be.”

Because as Barack Obama said recently: “If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.”


- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland


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