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Don’t trust people who say they’re not racist

There just aren’t any racists nowadays.

I know, I was shocked too. It would seem to me that if you take to Facebook to call black people k*****s or monkeys, or believe that raping children is part of black culture, you are as racist as they come. But this accusation is categorically denied.

White people are shocked at being called racist when they have black friends or they’re just stating facts.

I don’t trust people who tell me they aren’t racist because frankly I don’t think they’re the best judge of their own ideology. So I have a suggestion: Let us just assume that everyone* is a racist until proven otherwise.

I don’t mean consciously or “proudly” racist, like using the K-word. Because so much of this attitude is unconscious, like being surprised by a model C English accent.

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

This will happen even if you consider yourself a progressive liberal, even if you have your woke vocabulary down pat or your best friend really is black. It will happen because if you are a white person in South Africa, you have internalised racist attitudes, conscious or unconscious, since the day you were born.

Here, I’ll start. My name is Louise and I’m a racist.

I have close black friends. I’ve taken Zulu lessons. I read articles and engage in discussions about privilege and wokeness. I try to address my own problematic thoughts and behaviour.

Despite all of this, sometimes a thought will pop into my head, something that does not align with my conscious politics.

It usually happens when I’m driving, especially if I’m running late (in other words, often). I’m impatient, I’m irritated, I make assumptions about the people around me who just can’t fucking drive. I see a taxi block an intersection to pick up a passenger and my angry assumption is vindicated.

Do I consciously believe these thoughts? No. I find them shameful, but there they are.

To clarify, I don’t truly think I’m racist, and writing that statement was uncomfortable. It rankled. But as a white South African I have to acknowledge that at the very least I have a capacity for racist behaviour and it is not something I can ever completely exorcise.

There are many people whose racial politics I find questionable, who would be as offended at being called racist as I would. What is the difference between us, exactly? Where do you draw that line?

Instead of knee-jerk defensiveness, take a deep breath. If someone accuses you of racism and you truly don’t understand, ask if they would mind explaining why they think so. Try to view your actions from outside the lens of your white privilege. Educate yourself. You have to do the work.

Remember: You do not get to decide if you are a racist. The people who are affected by your behaviour do.

* Yes, I mean white people. There is a wealth of resources available about the relationship between racism and power, but in a nutshell, white people cannot be on the receiving end of racism from people of colour. Bigotry and prejudice, yes, but structures of power and systemic oppression underlie racism. Sorry, white folk, this legacy is ours and we have to deal with it.


  • Louise is a freelance journalist and writer living in Johannesburg. She is particularly interested in topics surrounding social justice and gender rights. She's on Twitter as @frrlou.


  1. Walter Pike Walter Pike 13 May 2016

    Nobody ever has asked white people to beg for forgiveness, except guilty white people. Your argument is so full of excuses and guilt.

    What people want is for you to embrace your history, your privilege and who you are and use it to try fix the system. Do it from a stance of “africa first” not out of guilt.

    Overcome your guilt and be proactive.

  2. Walter Pike Walter Pike 13 May 2016

    Yes Rory – but where power hierarchies are based on race they are racist, If they are based on gender they are patriarchal. We don’t live single issue lives and they all intersect.

    Rape culture is a huge issue in South Africa that can’t be neatly packaged as a race issue.

  3. Walter Pike Walter Pike 13 May 2016

    Rory the basis of my comment on white people being racist, I have been through that same journey – I was also bitterly opposed to Apartheid, I was fiercely liberal – but I recognise exactly the insight you describe. That’s why I call myself a racist in recovery.

  4. Walter Pike Walter Pike 13 May 2016

    Biko suggested that the task of white people was to educate white racists, it’s a hard task because like the vast majority of people on this thread white people are in denial.

  5. Piet Vorster Piet Vorster 13 May 2016

    You are being disingenuous when you say blacks have no power, they control the government, are you saying that forcing AA and BEE on companies is not a form of power?

  6. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 13 May 2016

    Read this:

    Now, let’s for one moment assume that maybe they were louder than the rules allow.

    “He said he questioned his children about the noise and they denied the allegations.” Wouldn’t be the first time children hide the truth from parents. Of course it could also be a disgruntled white racist, but we simply don’t know.

    So, what would you call this then? We cannot use the words race card, so please what is this? Like our Mantashe, it seems better to blame a faceless white person with no evidence, than to admit own fault.

    That’s the problem with hard static rules as the ones above when it comes to humans: most of them are in themselves a prejudice. Fighting prejudices (including racism) with more prejudice? Just not going to work…

  7. chris chris 13 May 2016


    noun [mass noun]
    The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

  8. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 13 May 2016

    Yup and Zuma is the way to go….lol.

  9. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 13 May 2016

    But who decides the ‘other people’ are not misrepresenting? What if others decide you are stupid because they disagree with you? What if the passengers are bad drivers or don’t know the difference? And if other people decide you are a racist, then it follows you as part of ‘other people’ to them must decide if they are. People make judgments from their point of view. This writer thinks she’s a racist herself. That sounds convincing to me.

  10. anon anon anon anon 16 May 2016

    I agree Mr Pike. Many South Africans of all races is angry with Zuma. But many ppl have been against and angry with Black govt since the beginning.

  11. anon anon anon anon 16 May 2016

    Lets rather get Verwoerd back? LOL! I dont get this way of thinking and imo it speaks of being racist to the core. There are good and poor leaders, of all races. Zuma is a very poor example of a leader, who happens to be Black, Verwoerd was a very poor leader who happened to be White. In both cases the ppl who had voting power made the mistake of voting them into power.Whites and Blacks, which again emphasizes that across all races we make the same mistakes. That said, factually Zuma is an angel compared to Verwoerd.

  12. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 16 May 2016

    I am not comparing here nor did i in thought or word mention Verwoerd. I did not even mention race. That was all you .Generalisation such as yours deserve general answers…and look how quickly you got upset. But no problem doing onto others what you wish others not to do on you.
    Apart from that a statement like “thank God they are only 10%” is absolutely Let me see, since only 13% of the population in the states is black, according to you “they are irrelevant really”. Lol…

    All this hate, no real solutions, and best you can do is Verwoerd and statements that have neither substance nor help, dripping with prejudice. And you call me the racist…

    At least you are not blindly defending Zuma…

  13. anon anon anon anon 16 May 2016

    As a Christian I respect all races, I am not angry at all, because anger will do nothing but consume who I am. I am stating the facts. I am 100% honest when I say I thank God there are not more White ppl in SA because looking at the comments 22 years later it is clear to me that we would not have been able to overcome the struggle as we did if there were more White ppl. Unless we went to war. And even then….. I also dont think non White ppl would have a future in SA if they were the minority.When you said “Yup and Zuma is the way to go….lol.” What on earth did u mean when posted that comment? No where did anyone support Zuma, we are talking about racism in White ppl and ur reply is “Yup and Zuma is the way to go….lol.” Regarding relevance, 80% of the country is Black, its a democratic country, it really doesnt matter in the end whether White ppl choose to reform themselves from Apartheid. In the end if u dont confirm to the new SA u will be forced to conform by law. You do not have the moral ground or the numbers. Its basic logic.All you doing with your denial is hurting yourselves.

  14. anon anon anon anon 16 May 2016

    Regarding America, Black ppl are still struggling, harassed and shot by the police for no reason. Film stars are still boycotting award ceremonies in order to highlight that no Black ppl are receiving awards etc.

  15. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 17 May 2016

    Well, the comment came from your: “We only need ourselves to change things.”

    And that’s where you are just plain wrong. History repeats itself in different nuances, like what happened leading up to and after world war 2.

    Statements that serve to generalise race lead to very bad things. Apartheid is proof of this, but so is your 10% statement. That’s how things started in Germany so many years ago. A strong but warped leader, a lot of rhetoric, lots of prejudice based on a race/ ethnicity, statements scap goating all problems real or unreal to a minority, albeit a strong minority with financial strength.

    The Germans in those days that were not ideologically identifying with nr 1 disappeared, rule of law became just another tool, media was used for propaganda…wow it all sounds so familiar. And yes your average German, an started to believe or at least shut his eyes to what happened after.

    Do I think SA will start a world war now? Noooo, do I think a variant of reaction based history is possible. Absolutely
    Only as a people as a whole do we even have a chance to ever heal.

    To get back my Zuma comment. Since you believe that only you and the “we” in your “We only need ourselves to change things.” Coupled with your 10% can imply a great variety of things. Above all it is just as careless and much worse from a racial perspective than: “yup and Zuma is the way to go” I doubt of course you will agree with me, better just accuse me of being racist right?

  16. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 17 May 2016

    I do not think Africa needs white people to “fix” their system.
    What I am trying to tell you is that I am doing what I am asked to do, pay my taxes, and remain part of society. Nothing to be proactive about.
    I do not need people telling me I owe debt to society because of apartheid, because I do not agree.

  17. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 17 May 2016

    If you argue that racists do not accept well meaning actions of other races, you would not have used “white people” to qualify said racists.
    The qualification itself is exactly what I am reacting to. Singling out a particular race, then assigning negative attributes to it, is racism.
    To suggest that racists, in general, are their own worst enemy, is an acceptable argument, but you did not say this, and did not correct it in your response when questioned.

  18. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 18 May 2016

    I was angry with the white government too …. I don’t care what colour incompetence and stupidity is wrapped in

    ‘They’ were a pair of old WHITE women who seemed to want their groceries packed in alphabetical order. I humbly apologise for being racist towards white people

  19. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 18 May 2016

    Racism is simply a sub division of bigotry. Just like homophobia, xenophobia, religious bias, etc. They are ALL specific subdivisions of bigotry.
    If I call you a bigot, I am saying that you are prejudiced against ALL people who are different to you (race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, place of birth, etc). If I call you a racist, I am saying that you are prejudice against anyone who is not of the same race as you are.

    PLEASE stop making up your own definitions of English words!

  20. Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw 19 May 2016

    That is because in this case we are debating, it is specifically white racists that are the subject matter, hence the term ‘white racists’ – not white people. If I wrote ‘white people’ to refer to racists in general then it is a mistake on my part, not what I believe.

  21. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    Perhaps Louise, there is a simpler explanation: YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS.

    Your brain conjures up thoughts all the time, some good, some bad; the nice thing other parts of your brain evaluate them and dismiss them.

    No harm done, no racists need be introduced.

    Really simple.

  22. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    You seem to have forgotten genocide. Surely that makes it to the head of your list?

  23. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    You are just a happy little bunny – a real beacon of tolerance and good will.

  24. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    Here is a trick question: what if you think we should accept an apologiy from Judge Jansen for some nasty comments solely on the grounds that we accept President Zuma’s apology for abusing his oath to protect the constitution.

    You see Wally, on can [not that I did] come to a conclusion from multiple reasons. It is beyond arrogance to assume that I could ONLY forgive Jansen [not that I have] because I like her skin tone.

    Stop tying to make up the rules.

  25. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    “they” is a racist trigger word.”

    No, Wally “they” is a pronoun. Still trying to make the rules up as you go?

  26. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    “Just as it is not up to you to decide if what you said was offensive”

    Er, yes it is. At least within reasonable bounds.

  27. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    No Wally, from my reading, you have missed the thrust of the comments entirely.

    So, let me help, noting that you have no idea of my race, gender, or persuasion.

    So here it is: these kinds of social justice articles are inherently corrupt. One party intends to take part in the discussion as participant and as a referee. Which is to say they just go about making blanket, one-directional statements and demanding they be considered facts. Then they base their reasoning on these facts, which just so conveniently suit their constituency.

    Are you really going to argue that one constituency in a race debate get to make every rule, unilaterally arbitrate every position, and even hold viewpoints that would be incredibly offensive to them if held by anyone else?


  28. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    Are white racists different to say, mongolian racists?

    How many have you met, what are your criteria?

  29. hiiq hiiq 20 May 2016

    You have to admit they are doing quite well at the NBA and NFL though. [Which is by no means a refutation that American police seem to be bonkers].

  30. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    Please don’t accuse me of making up my own words. The definition of racism is clearly described in sociology. The definition I used is used by academics, researchers, activists and writers on the topic as well as all the political parties (except the DA – although by their leader)

    It’s useful to use that definition – If you want to call it a different word – maybe oppressor would work – it’s just that racist makes it clear that the oppression is based on race, so its more convenient.

    Personally I’m happy to stay with the definition that is widely used then most people (except you) understand what we are talking about.

    I quite frankly find this dispute just takes up time and adds no value.

  31. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    Your comment makes absolutely zero sense to me.

  32. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    “They” is a racist trigger word.

  33. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    afro – pessimism is a problem I agree.

  34. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    You are conflating issues.

    What is at issue is the judge’s impartiality. Whatever Zuma apologises for has no bearing.

  35. Walter Pike Walter Pike 23 May 2016

    If there was no racism there would be no BEE. It’s an anti-racism program

  36. hiiq hiiq 23 May 2016

    Says who? Hell, “trigger word” is itself a made up concept.

    BTW. I actually lean more to your side of things than not: I just find this player-and-referee mode of arguing otherwise righteous positions unacceptable, and unnecessary.

  37. hiiq hiiq 23 May 2016

    Actually on a re-read, I concede I did not take your “but judge Gillian…” qualifier into account. mea culpa.

  38. hiiq hiiq 23 May 2016

    Fair enough – its a tough concept to get first time.

    But I think you will concede that your prose: “the vast majority of people on this thread white people are in denial.” is hardly an example of quality English grammar.

    Yet I still took the time to figure out what you meant.

    As a similar courtesy, spend five minutes considering which arguments you and you like-minded friends would consider outrageous if it was inverted and said back to you.

    There lies the corruption – you enter a discourse not as equals, but from an echo-chamber that has one party already guilty and in need of education, and then when they resist, not merely allowed to hold a separate opinion but are deemed in denial or vainly holding onto some unfair privilege.

    I presume you can see why this could be irritating.

  39. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 24 May 2016

    The problem is that the default position when complaint about the ANC government, is that they (the ANC) are blaming every problem including the ones very obviously in their court, on everything from shifty white CIA, to white privilege. It is for this reason that so many South Africans are so cynical about what can only be called a witch-hunt feeding frenzy at the tax payers expense.

  40. Piet Vorster Piet Vorster 24 May 2016

    Not the way it is being implemented.
    The outcome of Renate Barnard Concourt ruling is a case in point.

  41. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 27 May 2016

    So uShaka was ‘racist’ because he had a bigger army and was, thus, more powerful?
    So if a poor white person calls a rich black person, by a derogatory name, they are not racist?

    That is just making up definitions to make conversation impossible – you may as well just speak a completely different language!

  42. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 31 May 2016

    To be fair, if you say (*think*) somebody is a bad driver because they are black, well, that is racist.

    If you say (*think*) somebody is a land grabbing monster because they are white, well, same thing really.

  43. hiiq hiiq 31 May 2016

    Nope, you can’t control your subconscious. So if you occasionally catch yourself thinking less-than-generous thoughts but know that in the cold light of day, you come down on the side of Good Thoughts, then the fleeting, ephemeral bad ideas just do not count.

    This realisation makes all this hand-wringing pointless.

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