How do we end racism?

2016-03-20 20:31

Racism unfortunately, remains the elephant in the room that many don’t want to acknowledge nor address. South Africa’s romance with racism dates back to the Apartheid State which distinguished between the different races but more importantly, promulgated the idea that white people were superior to other races and resultantly got preferential treatment, services and status. While the Apartheid state was dismantled with the advent of democracy in 1994, or at least theoretically, the legacy of its racial divisiveness remain an ever present threat to the Rainbow nation.

In just the first three months of the year, racial tensions are simmering more than they have in the last four years combined thanks to the efforts of they that shall remain unnamed.

Just what is racism?

Not only are there many types of racism , there are also varying definitions that have been given for it but generally, racism entails discrimination, oppression, hatred, acts of intimidation, violence, hate speech or marginalisation of a person or group of people based on their race. The most obvious type of racism is blatant racism where one is insulted, attacked, violated on the basis of their race by another in no uncertain terms.

The more complicated form of racism (and also the most difficult form of racism to identify) is institutional/structural or systemic racism. The advent of democracy in South Africa did not dismantle this form of racism, in fact this form of racism has outlived Apartheid. Systemic racism refers to racial discrimination structured into political and social organisations. It’s the type of racism where organisations (both private and public) pursue policies that empower one race to the detriment of others but more importantly, creates, builds and maintains a sense of privilege, to the exclusion of others. This is quite key to note because there is often a lot of tension around ‘white privilege’ in South Africa. Being privileged is not to say one is racist. At the most basic level, privilege speaks to the fruit of an oppressive system. While on this point, being born into privilege is not one’s fault and at some point we have to stop attacking people on the mere basis that they were born into privilege. Privilege then becomes a problem when it is used to oppress others or condescendingly dismiss the struggles of a marginalised group. When this happens, privilege should definitely be addressed and not dismissed. Ultimately however, a country that is built on values of equality and non-racialism must make strides to eliminate continued privilege by one group. It is government’s primary role to eliminate the gross inequalities that Apartheid established. The longer the government takes to even out inequalities, the longer racial tensions will simmer.

There is no better example of systemic racism than the current education structure that has failed to integrate different races. As a result, we have many schools that are still referred to as ‘white schools’ or ‘black schools’. The racial integration in South African schools remains very problematic. I observed the effect this failure has had at university level where students often group themselves according to their race. Even though Apartheid was formally dismantled (again, at least theoretically), segregationism survived. The failure of the education system to encourage and foster racial integration in the last 22 years of democratic South Africa’s existence is in part what makes today’s South Africa no different from Apartheid South Africa with the only difference being the segregation is not legislated for. Racial integration is key for young minds to be exposed to different races and create a better understanding of the people around them.

So what’s the solution… How do we end racism?

From the outset, we should all appreciate that racism is deeply rooted and entrenched in society which makes it difficult for it to end overnight so we need to be realistic about plans to speedily end it. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. This however does not mean we should fold our hands and do nothing.

The first way to end racism is not to wish it away. We need to agree that it does exist before we can address it. Alcoholic Anonymous meetings always start with the confession ‘I am an alcoholic’ and the reason for this is that this is the first step to resolving an issue. It may well also be useful for individuals and groups enjoying ‘privilege’ to stop telling marginalised individuals and groups to get over it or to downplay racism’s existence. If you enjoy any form of privilege, listen to those who don’t when they say they have encountered racism. Go further than listening and avoid treating any complaints of racism lightly. Nothing can be more frustrating than being told that the racism one experienced is in their mind and should be forgotten.

I was once approached by a student who said that I lectured really well for a black man. I was initially chuffed (as most humans being would) but when I thought about that statement I felt violated and insulted by the deeper meaning of her words. You can deduce the insinuations of her statement for yourselves but even though she may not have intended to insult me, her words revealed her racial bias and worldview. This kind of aversive racism is a reality many have not reconciled themselves with but as individuals, we should take time to ask ourselves hard questions that may reveal our own racial bias.

Another way to end racism is to step in and intervene when you see it being played out. To be silent is to be complicit in the continuation and perpetuation of racism. Usually when an offender sees someone else of the same race displeased with their racial onslaught, he/she is forced to rethink and withdraw.

If we want to end racism then we need to also be prepared to talk about it and deal with it. There is need for us to constructively and maturely discuss racism in social, political and professional circles without being overly emotional, defensive or apprehensive. On this score, Gareth Cliff got it right when he said we need to have more open conversations on racism so we can avoid tensions and hatred. This kind of open, respectful and constructive engagement will help restore the trust that Apartheid broke between the races. Religious leaders have an important role to play in this regard, much like the religious leaders in the United States of America played a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement. As it stands, there is a lot of mistrust, suspicion and second-guessing that exists and in this regard, the legacy of apartheid has not been done away with.

On the legal front, while there are existing legal tools to handle racism as a manifestation of hate speech and harm to one’s dignity (crimen injuria), a more focused legal instrument is needed. There is thus a need to enact an anti-racism law. The penalties under our existing hate speech framework are hardly sufficient for the violations. Countries like Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom already have designated pieces of legislation that cater for the specific offence of racially discriminatory and offensive conduct. It is because of the lack of adequate legal measures that ‘black twitter’ has grown to become a court of social justice. In fact 2016 has taught us that for every act of racist conduct that organisations refuse to confront and condemn, the open court of justice now commonly referred to as black twitter will continue to effect change ...one tweet at a time.

In the final analysis, there is a lot of pain from the past that has not been dealt with and a great deal of inequality that stirs the pot of racism. The challenge to remedy this although difficult, rests on government taking the lead but also on ordinary citizens to make South Africa an uncomfortable place for racists to stay. It is possible to make South Africa an undesirable destination for racist bigots but there must be a willingness to change from our past but also a willingness to be forgiven coupled with a willingness to absolve and reform and that starts with every one of us.

Happy Human Rights day!

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