That's Racist

2013-11-07 14:56

If you are South African, you would have, probably, heard this, or a variation of it, being used to describe a variety of things, be it people, places or events.

Our national association with race is as peculiar to us as being litigious is to those from the United States of America.

And it is no wonder why: South Africa is, by-and-large, the product of, often unfortunate, race relations. And the generational impact of those relations can continue to be seen. It is, thus, a virtually forgone conclusion that race is ingrained into our personal and national consciousness. Even those proclaiming themselves to be ‘colour blind,’ or similar, are, in fact, illustrating this aspect of South African identity: race is evident even in the attempt to reject it.

(Note, I pass no judgment here on the ‘colour blind’ debate. This article, to a degree, is located within that debate but it does not attempt to definitively answer it. For the sake of brevity, it is sufficient to suggest, for me, that it is as foolish as it is insulting to pretend that race does not matter in present-day South Africa. It is an issue that we must be alive to but which cannot become the sole determining factor in any decision-making process)

The term ‘racist’ enjoys special privilege in our national lexicon. It is, probably, the most loaded and deliberately misused term in our discourse, whether on a micro- or macro-level. And it is by far the most damaging. An unsubstantiated claim of racism is an effective strangler of discourse for it destroys the freedom to engage for fear of risk that comes with it.

First, it is a useful way to silence criticism. No one, whether white or black, wants to be identified as a racist, given our fractious past. A quick application of the racist label manages to shock, awe and subdue. Especially where not being dissuaded by the use of the label is directly proportional to the invective used. Usually, the issue at hand is lost in the melee: the accuser hijacks the narrative of the argument and the term then obfuscates between the underlying issue and that of the accusation. More often than not, non-racists in particular, seek, desperately, to rebuff the accusation – mostly at the cost of the issue. Being wedged into defending oneself from such an accusation or pursuing the argument means that something has to give. And when it is a matter of defending one’s virtue, even from a spurious attack, or one’s objection, virtue, understandably, wins.

Secondly, especially when accusations are prevalent in the narrative of national debate, the more people self-censor. No one wants to be labelled in that way, for the stigma alone can ruin them. Thankfully, a few brave souls continue, impervious to such attacks (they know the tactic and want the issue to be highlighted). Sometimes they are successful, others less so. A lot more cave in. Remember the response of FNB and the City Press to the ANC’s fury? They are not alone. Many people, in all walks of life, self-censor. Avoiding the conflict and the stench of being a racist is the easier thing to do.

Racialist narrative is not only pernicious, though, when it comes to inter-race disputes. These narratives are more often than not coupled with nationalist or ideological creeds where race, by default, is used to harness people, irrespective of their individuality, into one hegemonic bloc. Thus, those who challenge the prevailing norm are often equally abused on the grounds of race, albeit for not conforming to the construction attached to it (whether that be cultural practise, political belief, etc).

In many ways, rightfully or wrongfully, this is linked to the racial solidarity many people feel, perhaps automatically, for someone who is an alleged victim of racism. Given our past, it is understandable why this is the case.

Some break out of the group think, others don’t. What we must guard against is the engendered or innate belief that racial solidarity should be the go-to response. Group identity and solidarity is important and it should not be undervalued. People derive a sense of utility from belonging to a larger collective with which they and its members have much in common. But, such a sense of belonging can often come at the expense of being an individual and treating issues on an individual basis.

The practise of racism is not confined to one group, nor is victimhood as a result of it. We need to recognise this so that our discourse may be better along the lines of engagement with issues, irrespective of the identity (or colour) of the actors. When a white person is fired by a black employer, it should not be our first assumption that his race was the cause. Likewise, if a white person questions a black person, we should not so easily assume that they do so as part of some racial agenda. That is not to say that these racial agendas may exist, for blacks and whites. Indeed, at times they may be carefully and cleverly disguised to appear non-racist on the surface. The point is that we should not engage in this kind of black/white reductionism as our instinctual reaction.

Racists deserve judgment. Victims deserve solidarity. Hopefully, we will move into a state of being where or ability to determine what is and what is not racist happens through critical engagement rather than seeing whether the accused, or the accuser, happens to fit one of our preconceived ideas (about who is and who is not racist).

Race is a real issue. But not everything is necessarily racist.


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