“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
I found these words by author Toni Morrison very relevant this past week with the furore caused by Penny Sparrow’s racist comments. Morrison says these words in an interview where she talks about her efforts of writing outside the white gaze: writing in a world where whiteness doesn’t dominate her writing process. The reaction to the racist comments was swift and sharp and action was taken immediately to put these people on social media in their place. I decided to be an observer in the fray and contemplate if there are other ways I can respond to racism as a black person. I’m getting bored of the pattern that goes something like: racist comments are made in the media or social media, black people get angry and respond on social media, person gives a half-hearted apology, sometimes action is taken against the person or the story fizzles out until the next offender is exposed on social media.
The recent race furore caused a stir to the point where charges were laid against Sparrow, Chris Hart was suspended and his credentials were further exposed. This is meaningful but what happens in the meantime? Black people are currently on a high given the pressure on social media to take serious action against Sparrow et al but this is where the distraction comes in. While we’re focusing on individuals and using up a lot of time and energy to expose and vilify them the capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist system continues to thrive. Focusing on individuals is a distraction in a system rigged against black people from succeeding and thriving.
Further evidence of this distraction is the kind of response given to the matric results released a few days after the race debacle. Apart from a few articles and tweets about the students who succeeded against many odds and the remaining problems in our poor schools, these results confirm what we know about the history of Bantu Education Act and the ANC’s failure to take education seriously. There just wasn’t enough outrage.
Those working in education pointed out that the reaction to the race issue generated far more hype than the matric results. The education system (and a few other sectors) is the one time we can clearly see the damage of apartheid, which still hasn’t been rectified. The children of the wealthy always succeed and poor, black children are caught in a system that ruins their chances of succeeding by the time they are in grade four (with the exception of a few black students).
Perhaps we’ve become desensitised by the failures in the education system. I also suspect that those who have the loudest voices on twitter received a quality education. This has allowed them to distance themselves from the reality of black life and what a poor education system really means for many young people in South Africa. Perhaps we are so used to seeing the numbers we don’t really care what they mean anymore. The outrage on twitter about race by many privileged, middle-class black people is hypocritical in light of their silence when it comes to the reality of a failing education system.
There are many other examples of the distraction that race causes. While we’re huffing and puffing on twitter the unequal society continues to thrive. Some may argue that the work of the twitterati is work that seeks to address the problems we have in a racist society but is it really work if it focuses only on glamorous issues such as racism. The failures in the education system have been addressed by the #FeesMustFall students. As much as work has been done in the basic education sector by individuals and NGOs there hasn’t been an all-out campaign that takes seriously what is happening in foundation phase, primary and high school education.
Economic inequality in South Africa has not been contended with the same way race keeps getting attention. This is the case because black people with any kind of social capital have managed to access spaces of white privilege. Once in these spaces race — as an isolated problem — becomes the issue. This is not to suggest that class is more important than race but that the intersectionality between these two is constantly being ignored. Talking about race by focusing on individuals removes the opportunity to focus on the work that needs to be done to deal with racism and inequality.
The recent response to racist comments is probably no different to our previous reaction to Steve Hofmeyr, Sunette Bridges and H&M: It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.
If our freedom from apartheid and colonialism means anything we need to stop explaining our reason for being and do the work we need and want to do in order to live the lives we want. A life that doesn’t include discrimination and prejudice of any kind.