Martin Young
Martin Young

How do we fight racism properly if we still can’t define it?

It is easy to recognise overt racism when practiced by a white person as in Penny Sparrow’s now infamous “monkeys” incident over New Year. But when a black university student wears a “Fuck white people” T-shirt there will still be many people, predominantly but not exclusively black, who will say that that is not a racist statement because racism can only be action by an oppressor against the oppressed, and the oppressed can therefore never be capable of racist thought or action.

This sentiment is still being widely debated. I don’t think that debate alone without consensus is good enough for South Africans facing a time where the process towards racial harmony and cohesion if we are to thrive as a country is being severely derailed. We need a consensus that does better than at the present give one group free licence to practice offence that is (deservedly) heavily condemned when done by the other.

There have been statements by prominent South Africans to say that racism, practiced in any form by any group is just as bad. Mmusi Maimane used the topic in his now famous “If you are racist don’t vote for us’” address. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela made an unambiguous statement on Twitter. Eusebius McKaiser has written a well-argued blog post on the topic, saying that a statement that black people cannot be racist is itself a racist remark that denies blacks the same human failings as whites.

There can be no doubt that people of colour have suffered the majority of hurt under racist policies, but as Lovelyn Nwadeyi says so eloquently in her speech to the University of Stellenbosch convocation (essential watching for white South Africans hoping to understand the basis of the interest of young black people in the present racial debate) apartheid and colonisation dehumanised all of us, white and black.

If I read white sentiment correctly by the comments on social media platforms in response to articles dealing with race, equality and politics in South Africa, whites are worried about being victimised in revenge for apartheid, that the new South Africa will have a role reversal. In this sense of victimhood arise the accusations of a planned and systemic genocide against white farmers, whereas a view of the problem using simple logic suggests farmers are more vulnerable to crime simply because criminals find it easier to get to them and to get away ie they are soft targets. This progressive adoption of the role of whites as “victims” is not helping us as a country.

When racist actions by people of colour are seen to be protected or deemed acceptable, the most likely response by affected whites (and who of a population group is not affected by every racist action?) is to entrench, to dig in, to resist making the concessions that are so essential if we are to move forward as a country.

Here is where I see the biggest threat of not having a national consensus on the definition of racism, that there is an allowance for anti-white rhetoric which will have the opposite effect in a time when whites have to give something up in a move towards equality.

For example, when our children apply for jobs and are not considered because they are white, it is too easy to allege that this is colour-based and sanctioned racism when in fact it is simply an attempt at redress, a move towards equality to get more black people into jobs. As long as whites believe anti-white racism is condoned or acceptable, these actions, necessary for the good of our country in my view, will never be seen as they are intended. A necessary sacrifice will be rejected on the grounds that it is itself racist.

I asked the young lady who for a while taught me isiXhosa whether she saw any intentional racism at the school where she worked. She said she did not. I then asked her whether she saw examples of unintentional racism. “All the time,” was her answer, in the way her friends would say to her “We don’t think of you as black” or “But you’re different to other blacks” or the assumptions that she would be able to do and afford the same things as her white friends, when the reasons she could not were based on her situation as a young black person swimming in a sea of white privilege.

We whites still have a lot to learn about our unintended actions that are felt by black folk as racism, and have many concessions to make before South Africa moves nearer a truly equal society. An absence of clear definitions of racist behaviour, thought and actions, practiced by either colour group, increases the chances of further racial tension and paves the way for both sides to dig in, rather than to move out and truly integrate.

Our future as a country relies on a shared prosperity. No population group can thrive on its own. We need each other. By defining carefully what hurts us most and spelling racism out so that there is no longer any case for confusion, a huge obstacle to our mutual prosperity will be removed.

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    • bobsled

      Maybe you need to distinguish prejudice from racism. Blacks are capable of the former but racism is systemic and is mainly the province of the dominant social group. I dispute your claim that by denying blacks can be racist one denies them the right to human feelings held by whites. You are actually trying to naturalize racism the systemic phenomenon that is not a “natural” or inevitable fact of human life, its a human creation that we are taught. It lowers human value and blacks lose nothing except unfair domination of others if they do not have it.

    • Danny Watkins

      Just the following remarks:
      1: From my perspective the issue at the university of Stellenbosch is the denial that it is an Afrikaans mother tongue university and the current fight is to keep it as such.
      2: The fact that farmers maybe easy or soft targets does not explain the excessive brutality of the crimes against them, why not plunder and steal only why rape, torture and kill?
      3: When a child is refused anything because of the colour of his/her skin it is racist because the discrimination is based purely on race and nothing else.

    • Daan Marais

      Arguing about the definition of racism is self-defeating. When somebody wears a T-shirt reading “F*** all whites” or “Kill all whites” we are talking about racial hate at its most extreme. (The fact that it is aimed at whites in this instance is neither here nor there, although I can just imagine the uproar if it were aimed at “all blacks”.)
      So my suggestion would be to call it by its name, and racism is not it – pure racial hatred, and to deal with it as such.

    • Daan Marais

      The motive for farm attacks may well be criminal in nature, but I believe that the nature of the attack then gets defined by a role reversal where the previously powerful is reduced to being powerless and vice versa. Racial hate then probably gets stirred into the mix as well, and the result is predictable. Urban attacks are similar in nature, where the attackers think they are not prone to detection or capture, but the close proximity of other people and law enforcement/security personnel reduces the number of these opportunities.

    • Rory Short

      When in any human relationship any particular characteristic of the other is given priority over the humanity of that other then you have a massive problem.

      Whether that characteristic is eye colour or skin colour, or language or culture etc. is irrelevant . The problem lies in the diminishment of the other’s humanity by according more importance to the particular characteristic than to the other person’s humanity.

    • david7

      Among the many problems that the confusion of racism brings is that people can argue simutaneously that racism is an institutional relation of power and that Penny Sparrow is racist. Racism is both things that people can do as individuals and power relations… and Penny Sparrow’s tweet is undeniable racist, and so too the offensive T-shirts worn at Wits and UCT by those two young men.
      Even before apartheid there were many policies and laws that were viciously racist, but the complexity of structural racism and appropriate strategies to deal with it must be clearly seperated from the constraints on free speech of individuals whose critical statements are spuriously construed as racist statements.
      It not only undermines the principle of equality before the law, a cornerstone of democracy and the democracy of the New South Africa, but it is obscenely convenient to label the #ZumaMustFall campaign as racist without any evidence of associated racist statement by the people responsible for the campaign.
      The deflection of serious and honest political debate through playing the race card whenever the poor performance of the ANC is criticised may eventually stop fooling all the people all the time:

    • terence grant

      Double-standards ?

      It is somewhat sad that hordes of people had an apoplexy when Gareth Cliff said a few words in support of someone who referred to blacks as monkey’s(which are highly intelligent, adorable creatures)but no-one seemed to blink an eye when Gerhard Papenfus- chief-executive of the National Employers Association- defended someone who went onto the internet and called for whites to be hacked to death This, basically, is what Papenfus did when he argued in an article printed by Cape Argus/one of our newspapers that it is understandable that people responded viciously to Penny Sparrows comments . Admittedly, he only implied that Khumalo’s response was understandable, but wasn’t that more or less what Cliff did when he stated in reference to Sparrows outburst that people don’t understand freedom of speech?

      Clearly, double-standards are at play.

      One wonders how the media would react if someone said it is understandable that Julius Malema’s supporters might be tempted to attack journalists who work for the Gupta’s/for the New Age? Or if someone said it was understandable that women who parade around half-naked get raped?

      Terence Grant

      Cape Town

    • Donn Edwards

      Thanks for expressing your thoughts so well. The notion that “blacks cannot be racist” is one of those classic oxymorons and needs to be debunked as such.