Trying to explain this thing of 'racism'

2014-11-25 03:54

Hey howzit,

You have probably noticed how things become racialized even when they seem not to be about race at all. You probably remember Gareth Cliff’s tweet (which some people thought wasn’t racist at all. Shame). You’ll probably recall how the whole Oscar verdict was labelled as a triumph of white people over the law. You also probably saw on Twitter how some people were irked at the fact that when a black CEO is found to have lied about his credentials, the nation comes out guns blazing demanding his head; yet when his white counterpart is found guilty of the same thing, we are coy and “understanding”. Who would have thought all these things and more, really, could become case studies of race relations in South Africa.

Well, the above examples may all seem to be far from being an issue about race, but if you dig deeper (which is something I wish to help you with today) you may very well see the link.

The first thing we must appreciate is that there’s more to race than colour, particularly in South Africa. For the longest of time, every aspect of our lives has been defined by what one’s race is: our education, our economic and financial standing, where we live, which doctor we see (if at all) and our safety and security (for some, the lack thereof). So before I move forward with this letter, I need you to understand that race is not just about black and white and that there’s a whole world of grey in between.

Let’s start with the “grey area” in Gareth Cliff’s tweets about Senzo Meyiwa’s funeral costs. Firstly, the tweets were crudely insensitive because his they did not just cast doubt over the legitimacy of the funeral (which we all know was obviously paid for by the State as in all provincial funerals), but it also cast a shadow over a black person who many South African looked up to. He then added salt to the wound by comparing Meyiwa to Lionel Messi (an Italian-Argentine white person) in his bid to further delegitimize Meyiwa. Later on that day he publishes a blog piece on his website titled: “On the wrath of Black Twitter and being called a racist” and further goes on to describe this “Black Twitter” he speaks of as “a horde of the least eloquent, most furious, marauding lunatics”.

These are the reasons why this episode was racist: Firstly, you don’t ask financially-related questions on the day of the funeral in our culture as black people; it is disrespectful to the family and the mourners and refusing to apologize is even more insulting. Secondly, you don’t get to call Black users of Twitter a “horde of lunatics”. I mean, really. The original intention may not have been to be racist, but the implications of his actions are cutting.

And what of the Oscar verdict? Why do people see the need to involve race there? Well, black South Africans don’t really know what “equality before the law” is. For many years, they were subjugated to second-class citizens who did not deserve the same justice accorded to white people. The verdict of the Oscar case, where it was common cause that the defendant killed and murdered Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood, was a stark reminder to many blacks of how white South Africans can get away with murder (so to speak). The trial was racial from the beginning; it was the first time the country got to really see how a white person will be treated by the courts and the masses stayed glued to their screens to watch what will happen. And we all saw what happened: he all, but walked off scot free (excuse the irony) with cakes and balloons for his birthday in prison a day or two ago. For many, who admittedly have very limited legal expertise, the trial was not fair and the white man won. Again.

Let us consider the last example of how race plays itself out. When it transpired recently that SAA CEO Nico Bezuidenhout had lied about his qualifications, the leading headline was “SAA acting CEO 'overstated his qualifications”. Contrast this to a little while back, when it was discovered that Ellen Tshabalala, SABC Board Chairperson, had lied about her qualifications, the headlines were “Tshabalala failed badly at Unisa”. Same set of facts just a different image being portrayed by the media. (I’ll tell you now that “overstated” sounds tons better than “failed”.)

I’ll concede that this is one isolated example of race in the media, but this is precisely the problem. There is a subliminal, almost insidious, trend in the media lately that seeks to portray blacks as fraudsters and liars and failures. Because of this trend, there is now a shadow, almost imperceptible, lingering over the head of many black intelligent women and men as their credibility is eroded day after day by sensationalist reporting. You see very little of the collusion and corruption that happens in the boardrooms in Sandton (largely populated by white people) in our papers, but will see headlines blaring out accusations of the very same crimes against black people. This assertion is very hard to quantify into objective facts, but it’s also very hard to miss.

You see, my friend, you have privileges (and I really hope you don’t deny that so-called White Privilege exists) on your side and a pretty secure life (save for one or two of our white friends who are sort-of kind-of poor). I, on the other hand, have to contend with white people who disrespect my values on Twitter, white people who delegitimize my heroes by showing me that there are better, white heroes out there, a justice system that seems largely unchanged and still favours you, and a media (owned by you, no?) that is relentlessly showing me what a failure my people are. Added to this, you and your family and our other white friends own the economy and all the juice in it and, while a handful of black people thrive in it, it is still firmly in your hands. (You really don’t seem to be letting go, are you, buddy?)

While I may not necessarily blame you, I do blame your fathers and I do blame the system that allows this inequality and racism to prevail. Our society is grossly unequal and it is precisely because you’re white and I’m black. Really, we have evolved from the days where racism was just the k-word. Our society is racial. Everything about it is racial.

Let that sink in.

Well, you take care now,

Your friend.

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