Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

The intimate and unbearable shackles of racism

You know this scene all too well: you’re in a supermarket and the person in front of you whispers a racist epithet under their breath. Apparently black shop clerks are to blame for shopping rush hours.

Or you stumble into a serious debate where accusations of racism are used as a distraction to shut down any further meaningful engagement.

These scenes are all too common and hardly outline the extent of the problem. The perpetuation of this subtle bigotry (and the more overt, aggressive racism) in a post-apartheid context speaks to two issues: firstly, we need to frame racism as something more negative – poisonous even – than ignorance or mere misconception; and secondly, we need to start talking about identity in a meaningful manner – by creating space for a radical individualist narrative, we can combat the worst effects of racism and racial collectivism.

Race, like all forms of identity, is complex. Identity isn’t just about what society labels you as, but also what you consider yourself to be. A free society doesn’t shackle its citizens to the labels attached by others in supermarkets or petty debates.

Societal labels inform the kind of story your skin tells another person. These stories aren’t centred on our personal journeys, values or beliefs. Instead, this narrative is founded upon the voices and prejudices of others – of the collective. Racism exists comfortably within the confines of these stories – telling us who to fear, what we can do and how we should live our lives.

Racism must be seen as an assault on the freedom of a person; every time someone launches into telling someone else’s story through racism (or any form of bigotry for that matter) we rob the victim of the right to define who they are, and what they consider themselves to be. Decisions regarding our identity cannot be left to the vagaries of others.

That’s why we need to reconsider seeing racism as the fringe behaviour practiced by ignorant people we don’t agree with. Instead we must recognise it as an assault on the freedom of an individual. This is an assault which leaves everyone infinitely poorer, even the perpetrator. Instead of allowing ourselves to experience the other, we experience what we erroneously expect from the other.

Racism, like other forms of prejudice, can only exist through the perpetuation of these impersonal stories and narratives. When we see racism as an intimate assault that removes choice – for all parties involved – we may better understand how this behaviour conflicts with the notion that all have inherent dignity and rights.

Racism isn’t just something practiced by the drunken right-wing uncle you see each Christmas, or the parent who taught you never to trust certain types of people because of the colour of their skin. It’s not just something we vilify on Twitter every now and then. The stories of racism and racial collectivism deny us the right to forge our own future – free of preconceived notions and expectations.

That’s why we need to create the space for a radical liberal approach to race in our continued national dialogue on race. We can erase the stories embedded in our skin, and begin to talk to each other about our own unique experiences.  These personal stories will likely recount a history of fear, feelings of inferiority and privilege bestowed on some. These stories are intimate and could break down some of the barriers that have been created by the people who want to recount our stories for us. There are far too many people – from Apartheid apparatchiks to our current President – who have spoken and continue to speak the stories of our skin.

It’s time we took ownership of our identities.

The problems of race and racism will exist as long as people are shackled to identities they never had a chance to define. When people are truly free – free to shape their individual selves as they see fit, and are judged only by their lived realities – then we can laugh at the memory of that racist uncle.

Until then, racism is no laughing matter.

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    • Ghandi

      Some very valid observations. There is often much emotion and very little logic in combatting the scourge of racism. The point around an assault on individual freedom is valid – effectively racism is one of the bluntest forms of collectivism, which defines people as members of ‘communities’, rather than individuals. Perhaps unfortunately, this thinking is ingrained in most of SA’s current social engineering programmes, which are inherently aimed at destroying the freedom of the individual, which aim for ‘representation’ based on identity rather than freeing the individual from any form of stereotyping, and which see people at some kind of collective or community first, and never as free agents. A radical liberal approach may ironically have more positive results than the blunt and heavy handed social engineering currently practised. However enables, getting rid of all forms of racism and inequality of opportunity (note this word) remains an essential goal.

    • Llewellyn Kriel

      Having hoped – in vain – for a balanced and accurate perspective on “modern racism”, the hackneyed stereotypes perpetuated in this all-too-predictable and eminently unhelpful meandering monologue leave one in a minefield of ambiguity. Racism, in all its manifestations, nuances and convenient political correctness, and from Lapland to South Africa and from Cape Town to Crimea, demands courage not ambivalence. It demands educated insights not cliched regurgitation of the inaccurate and one-sided mythology that is the radiation shadow of apartheid.

      Better luck next time, young one.

    • Aluta

      Interestingly, when it comes to social engineering, racism is one of many forms of collectivism where noble intentions to eliminate unfairness sometimes result in unintended consequences. Another similar example from sociology is gender equality. The bluntest of instruments are tools like the Gender Bill in SA, which requires quotas of 50% of women in all bodies. On the face of it, this sounds noble and idealistic. However the consequences may be pernicious – does the airline pilots or cardiac surgeons association really need gender quotas? What if fewer women want to be airline pilots? Does this mean 50% of all child care staff and hairstylists must be men? If not, why not? The opportunity is that when laws focus on removing any discrimination against the individual based on any deterministic grounds, the freedom that results should automatically eliminate any forms of unfair outcomes. Quota laws unfortunately may create discrimination of their own.

    • Cyberdog

      Exactly what Aluta said ….

    • Brianb

      Or Creator ( for those of us who are not arrogant enough to believe that we just happened) consciously created mankind to consist of many races creeds and back grounds.

      A significant change has taken place in South Africa during the past two decades being the ability of people from different backgrounds to live in closer harmony.

      Yes, there are racists in our midst you paint the situation as a national disaster waiting to consume is is a farce.

      There is a growing brigade of journalists and self appointed political annalists who would have us believe that racism is the single most daunting problem confronting SA.

    • nguni

      @ LK Godhino doesn’t even attempt at a balanced approach to the problem, he’s getting as predicable as the fat blonde, can’t recall her name – oh, Schutte.
      He’s perhaps too young to realise that stereotyping comes from experience..

      @ Aluta Some valid observations on rigid social engineering. The programs are well-intended but are not thought thru properly.

    • bernpm

      @Aluta: you are right. As long as no government can regulate the amount of babies born in quantities of male/female, black-white-indian-chinese-or any mix of these, preferred skin/eye colour, this whole quota thing is doomed to fail and irritate more than it achieves.
      Picking up conversation tendencies: BEE has chased competent whites out of SA, hence the economic down turn, Gender equality obligations cause friction between competent candidates in multigender jobs …….With all these incompetent blackies in government positions…no wonder all goes wrong….

      We have all heard them.
      I have once opened one of my projects with a multi shaded team with a speech describing to the complete meeting the best know prejudices of all the shades around the table, starting: “we all now that a “colour” is stupid, lazy,cannot be trusted….you name it. I then added the prejudices between the 4 Europeans in the team….German, Dutch, Scottish and white South African.
      In closing I suggested that they use those terms freely amongst each other. They did and the atmosphere became one of camaraderie and light hearted racial references. The project came on time and within budget.

      A sense of humor and openness in this racial stronghold could do wonders. Luckily, I have seen examples of this on the streets between workers of all colors and at schools with a mixed population. There is hope!!

    • Barb Eh

      To Llewellyn Kriel # – the author’s point is clear and is one part of a solution. Your end comment – “better luck next time, young one” is also an ‘-ism’ – ageism. I can see why, based on a previous post, you mention the need for courage. I am sorry for what you endured. There is no one complete solution and if Thorne’s point carries to other youth, and to those older who know he’s right so that they rethink thoughtless references, this is a step ahead.

      To Thorne – what you say is worthwhile and I hope to see more of your writing efforts.

    • Momma Cyndi


      If this is a regular occurrence in your life, whereby you are constantly bombarded with racism, and you are quiet about it at the time, then YOU are a major part of the problem. If, however, you are like Gillian and are making things up to get a column, then you should really get out more.

      I have no trouble calling out a complete stranger on their bigotry (any form of bigotry) so I suggest you rather encourage people to ‘grow a pair’ and do the same.

      The abuse of the ‘race card’ is also becoming a problem. The cries of ‘racism’, when it has nothing to do with race, demeans and cheapens the very real horror of racism. It has gotten to the point where the boy has cried ‘Wolf!’ so often that, most people probably cannot even remember what a real ‘wolf’ looks like and they have certainly forgotten how vicious that particular ‘wolf’ can be.

    • Rory Short

      @thorne you make an excellent point. The reality is that we are each of us unique and valuable individual human beings and what we are having to deal with is historical, and sadly, also current attempts for others to define us. This is particularly pernicious when the attempts are enshrined in legislation.

    • JJ Pretorius

      Thorne, you make excellent points.

      As for myself I have banished any racist words leaving my mouth.

      You will never end racism in this country as long as laws discriminate against certain groups. It is not easy to adjust your mind about race while being discriminated against, however fair it may be perceived by other groups.

    • Jeffrey Jones

      @Brian. You mean it’s not arrogant to believe that you’re “created” by a “God” who takes a personal interest in what you and everyone else does? To me that’s the epitome of arrogance.

    • Arthur

      @Jeffrey Jones. To tell someone what he may or may not believe, or even to judge him for them, is just not arrogance either, is it? I really don’t get your point. Besides are you telling us God isn’t all that? How on earth could you know?

      Meanwhile, racism needs to be examined from all angles and we need to make conscious and deliberate decisions about the choices we make and in turn examine those choices from all angles.