'Sadly, no driving need' for white racial literacy, says founder of the Racial Literacy Project

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"The quicker we can get white people to understand and grapple with some of the key concepts surrounding race and racism, the better." Photo: Supplied/Joshua Cox
"The quicker we can get white people to understand and grapple with some of the key concepts surrounding race and racism, the better." Photo: Supplied/Joshua Cox

Joshua Cox, who worked in social development and activism for 15 years, started the project known as the Racial Literacy Project which aims to respond to common questions and perceptions of race.

Cox devised the project to explain crucial concepts such as racism, allyship, decolonisation, black tax, to mention just a few, to white South Africans.

He unpacks statements such as 'I do not see colour' or referring to your nanny or domestic worker as 'part of my family' and explains why such statements are problematic in our community.

Cox believes that in order for us as a human race to build an equal and just society, white people need to understand the lived experiences of black people and empathise with their pain.

He created this project for white people to understand race and hopefully have deeper conversations with black people, conversations that go beyond common interests.

News24 reached out to him to find out what inspired this project and what he wanted to achieve with it.

Cox shared with us that around the time of George Floyd's murder in the US in 2020, when many organisations felt the need to weigh in on the issue of racism, his friend, a pastor, approached him.

"He shared his wish to speak up and not be silent on this critical issue. Like many white men, he had had very few conversations on race," Cox said.

"He was frightened that he would say the wrong thing, unwittingly hurting people of colour potentially and exposing himself to criticism," he added.

Because he knew that Cox was passionate about anti-racism, he asked for his input to equip himself with the language and concepts to engage effectively during his engagement.

Read: 'That's strange': This local children's book series tackles racism and other issues

"...become more racially literate" 

"It struck me that many white people in positions of leadership might well agree that racism is still a thing and that we cannot simply 'move on' from apartheid," Cox told us.

He added that just like his friend, there are many such people out there who are scared to say something for fear that they might say the wrong thing, including leaders with influence who tend to remain silent due to that fear.

At this point, Cox felt it was necessary to create a simple online resource where white people can access succinct, clear responses to common questions, giving them the language and concepts to engage on these issues with confidence.

"White people in South Africa need to become more racially literate, and I hope that The Racial Literacy Project makes some contribution towards that," he said.

Also read: 'Uncompromising and brave': Zulaikha Patel looks back on the moment she made global news

Allies of people of colour 

Cox hopes to make racial literacy more accessible to white people who are curious and want to equip themselves to speak out as allies of people of colour.

"The quicker we can get white people to understand and grapple with some of the key concepts surrounding race and racism, the better. As human beings, our inclination is to invest energy in areas that in some way advance our position in life," he stressed.

"Sadly, we still live in a society where there is no driving need for white people to become racially literate. Our careers, social standing and life opportunities are in no way limited by our lack of racial literacy," added Cox.

He says that one of the best opportunities afforded by the project was making it easy for curious white people to become racially literate without dedicating years of their lives to doing so.

He hopes that this project gives white people easy access to content that fuels their curiosity and builds their self-awareness, ultimately drawing them deeper into wanting to understand the lived experience of black people in this country.

Parenting while white

"I think white parents must make an effort to educate their children on race, so that they become aware of the water they are swimming in, given that we still live in a country where white people are socialised into a system of institutional racism," says Cox.

He says that if white parents do not take this seriously, the danger is that their children will grow up unaware of their privilege and will be blind to how different their lived experience is for people of colour.

"Certainly, positions like 'We don't see colour; we judge people based on their character' are not helpful to pass on to our children," he shared.

He said, "we need children growing up into young adults who are comfortable engaging in robust discussions on race without them taking every criticism of white people as a judgement of their character and a personal affront."

How race shapes life 

Educating children about racism, in his view, is not about sitting them down to have a few conversations, but it's about showing white children how race shapes their life.

"How can we show our children how race shapes their life, compared to the lives of black and brown people is the more important question, in my view," says Cox, adding that instead of telling white parents how they can talk to their children about race, he believes that the best way is to show them with actions.

He says, "Experience trumps information." 

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