Can we stop talking about racism?

2016-09-01 08:32

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.” 

- Maya Angelou

So you’re a patriot. You work hard, pax taxes, create jobs, offer people opportunities. You smile often, crack lots of jokes with your black colleagues at work. You sometimes pay your domestic worker a little extra, or send some money to her children. Maybe you’re even helping her build a new home in her hometown, far away. Tendai Mtawarira the Beast is your favourite rugby player, and Thuli Madonsela is your role model. At night you dream of a united country, and when a Penny Sparrow appears on social media you rip them to shreds. Basically, you’re a good South African. You’re nice. And because you’re nice you can’t be racist, right? In fact, because you don’t see yourself as racist, we should all just…kinda…move on now, yes? Not quite.

This is another article about racism in South Africa. At this point some of you are thinking: "I refuse to read this drivel, but let me go straight to the comments section and say what I think anyway.” I see you. It is true that this topic dominates social discourse in our country, but the reason for this is that we have never sufficiently dealt with it. When these matters enter social discourse there’s usually a predictable response; black people are enthused and passionate, albeit out of sheer frustration, while white people recoil in bitter, angry despair. A very standard social interaction in our country looks much like this:

Black person: “I find the hair policy at Pretoria High School for Girls to be exceptionally racist.”

White person: “OMG! *rolls eyes* Why do you people have to make everything about race? All the girls have to follow those rules.”

Black person: “But the rules were clearly not devised with natural black hair in mind, and besides, these are archaic Western policies that need to be revised.”

White person: “Arg, everything is always the fault of the whites and the West. All this racism stuff is what’s dividing us. Can’t we all just unite?”

Well, yes, we certainly can. It is well within our physical and intellectual capabilities to unite and meet in a space where we understand and acknowledge our differences, yet commit to solidarity within our diversity. In fact, according to Dr. Richard Crisp, one the world’s leading experts on the psychology of social and cultural diversity, “…who we are, and what we think is defined by the diversity inherent in our social worlds.” He extrapolates that “…while we may have evolved to think about people categorically, we also posses the computational mechanics to bypass this system when it’s necessary to suppress, update or revise our stereotypes…Such a system offers an adaptive advantage, a cognitive capability...providing the building blocks for great feats of human civilisation and technological innovation.” In other words, we are better together than we are apart. However, we cannot unite unless we get uncomfortable enough to confront the unpleasant realities of our past and present. Most white people show severe resistance to this notion, which is a natural result of what is properly defined as White Fragility. 


There is a perception amongst whites that racists are bad people, and of course nobody wants to be a bad person. We want to be good people, and it is assumed that good people aren’t racists. This is what’s called the Good/Bad Binary, according to Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who writes, "Although racism does of course occur in individual acts, these acts are part of a larger system that we all participate in. The focus on individual incidences prevents the analysis that is necessary in order to challenge this larger system. The good/bad binary is the fundamental misunderstanding driving white defensiveness about being connected to racism."

Dr. Robin DiAngelo is globally cited as an expert on Whiteness Studies (yes folks, it exists). She famously coined the term, White Fragility, which she defined as "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves...such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar.” Ways in which these interruptions can take place are: Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint is racist regardless of the intention behind it; black folk talking directly about their personal racial perspectives; black folk choosing not to protect the feelings of white people in a racial debate; black folk not being willing to answer questions about racism; a fellow white not providing solidarity with white racial norms/perspectives; and many more. According to Dr. DiAngelo, "Whites have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides.” Black people, on the other hand, have mastered all of the aforementioned skills. They have had no choice. 

What most white people aren’t conscious of is that the white existence (Whiteness) has been normalised over many centuries. We have been centred for so long we don’t know what it feels like to be marginalised because of our race. (No, affirmative action does not count as marginalisation, as I will explain later on). This continuous centring of whiteness "allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience.” (DiAngelo). We assume, as whites, that our experiences of the world are universal and that every other race feels the same way we do about any given circumstance or issue. 

Have you ever heard yourself or your friends say, “Don’t lump all whites into the same category because we’re not all the same.” Well this serves merely as a tactic to deny white privilege or any form of collective responsibility. Dr. DiAngelo incisively points out that, “...whites often respond defensively when linked to other whites as a group or “accused” of collectively benefiting from racism, because as individuals, each white person is “different” from any other white person and expects to be seen as such. Whites invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses—we are either all unique or we are all the same—interchangeably.”


It’s important for us to be cognisant of the fact that black people, as a whole, have been incredibly patient with us. Their capacity for forgiveness is unparalleled. In 1994 white South Africans were given an executive pardon by President Nelson Mandela, which was part of the negotiated settlement agreed upon during The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Whites lauded this agreement and breathed a sigh of relief, as it became clear that there would be no significant atonement for the silent complicity on the part of the majority of the white minority. We were never forced to reconcile with the historical legacy of Apartheid - which still debilitates our society today - and the barbaric racism perpetuated over 350 years of colonial oppression. In fact, most white people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to absolve themselves of any moral connection to Apartheid or Colonialism, regardless of the fact that all whites are benefitting immensely from the legacy. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung invented the German term, “Kollektivschuld”, which he used to describe the feelings of German citizens after the atrocities committed in their name during World War II. According to Jung collective guilt was "for psychologists a fact, and it will be one of the most important tasks of therapy to bring the Germans to recognise this guilt.” 


You may see yourself as a liberal white person. As a liberal you feel that you are impervious to racism and that you naturally support, wholeheartedly, the struggles of black people. However, Steve Biko astutely warns us about the pitfalls of being a typical white liberal. I quote directly from sections of Biko’s essay titled, "Black Souls in White Skins?”:

"The role of the white liberal in the black man's history in South Africa is a curious one. (…) Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. (…) The integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious manoeuvre rather than to the dictates of the inner soul. (…) As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening… It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master's son to remove all the conditions leading to the former's enslavement. (…) Thus in adopting the line of a nonracial approach, the liberals are playing their old game. They are claiming a "monopoly on intelligence and moral judgement" and setting the pattern and pace for the realisation of the black man's aspirations. (…) It will not sound anachronistic to anybody genuinely interested in real integration to learn that blacks are asserting themselves in a society where they are being treated as perpetual under-16s. One does not need to plan for or actively encourage real integration. Once the various groups within a given community have asserted themselves to the point that mutual respect has to be shown then you have the ingredients for a true and meaningful integration. (…) Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.”

This is what I mean when I say that transformation in South Africa, and the assertion of Black African identity, cannot happen at the leisure and comfort of white people. Our comfort has been central to all legislation and privilege for far too long. In order to be a true white liberal, or what I prefer to call a white liberal activist, in post-1994 South Africa we must be prepared to make difficult and uncomfortable sacrifices in order to speak truth to power and show a genuine willingness to bring about meaningful redress and equality. In other words, we will have to relinquish our white privilege. 


Contrary to the very misguided popular belief amongst white people, White Privilege is not merely a reference to our financial access. It encompasses a great deal of social privileges which have not been earned. Dr. Peggy McIntosh is an American anti-racism activist who defined White Privilege by means of the Invisible Knapsack analogy. Dr. McIntosh famously said, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” In an attempt to unlearn that fallacy she compiled a list of 50 reasons why she is privileged in ways that black people aren’t, which she called her invisible knapsack. All white people carry this invisible knapsack with them through life. I have extracted just a few here to illustrate some examples:

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilisation,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odour will be taken as a reflection on my race.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

For the entire substantial and comprehensive list have a look at Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s work.


Noam Chomsky says of Affirmative Action: “Any such system is going to impose hardships on some people, in order (one hopes) to develop a more equitable and just society for the future. (…) If you look in detail, you find plenty of things to criticise, but the main thrust of the program is humane and appropriate.” I agree with Chomsky. It is a small - rather, tiny - sacrifice to make when compared to the historical struggles black people have endured.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo recalls her experience while facilitating a diversity training workshop with a group of white employees: "I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white.” In Christine Qunta’s book, “Why We Are Not A Nation”, she points out that according to "Statistics South Africa, in 2013, Africans constituted 75.2% of the economically active population, but constituted only 19.8% of the top management of companies. Whites constituted only 10.8% of the economically active population, and yet…[made up] 62.7% of top management.” Qunta notes that in 2015 the figures were even more concerning. The white population had decreased to 10.3% of the economically active population, but their representation in senior management increased to 70%, while black African representation in the same sector decreased to 13.6%. Considering these figures, can we really say that white people are disadvantaged by Affirmative Action in this country? 


I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” 

- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

There exists an enormous abundance of books and online literature, including empirical research, which provides information on the issues of whiteness and racism. Seek out the literature and read it. If you do the work and open up your mind to new concepts, you become aware - you get to the marrow of the problem. Put aside our prejudices for a while and take the time to truly investigate and appreciate Black culture, conciousness and the wealth of excellence that comes from Africa and Black people all over the world. 

There are meaningful ways in which we, as concerned white South Africans, can atone for this country’s unjust past which has secured our privilege. In my next series of articles I will be reviewing Christine Qunta’s book, quoted above, which provides a very clear and tangible roadmap for the future of South Africa, as well as provides details on what atonement would mean in our context. There will also be a series based on African Philosophy and Literature for those who are interested in broadening their minds. 

Lastly, we have to be open to discussions about meaningful redress and the sacrifices we will have to make in order to find the mythical and mysterious “unity" we so often speak about. Listen. Make time to actually. actively. listen. to. (and HEAR). black. people. Our experiences have always been centred. It is time to try to understand the lived experiences of black people. Dr. DiAngelo says, "...we have a very limited understanding of racism. Yet dominance leads to racial arrogance, and in this racial arrogance, whites have no compunction about debating the knowledge of people who have thought complexly about race. Whites generally feel free to dismiss these informed perspectives rather than have the humility to acknowledge that they are unfamiliar, reflect on them further, or seek more information.”

You’re a patriot. You work hard. You’re nice. Now be a truly great South African.

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