Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Non-racism in a racist South Africa – the opiate of the chattering class

In Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes: “Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organisations, few whites (in the United States) will claim to be racist. Most whites will claim that they don’t see colour — just people; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities life chances; and finally, like Martin Luther King, they aspire to live in a society where people are ‘judged by the content of their character – not by the colour of their skin’.”

This is the new non-racist discourse that contains implicit racism but never once admits to it.

In an increasingly globalised world where neoliberalism has taken hold, this new discourse of “non-racism” exists in a system that pays lip service to multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this “non-racism” is clearly not a global reality, as incidents such as the Trayvon Martin case exemplify.

As understood from Bonilla-Silva’s writings and bringing this into the South African context, the contemporary discursive trend appears to be to downplay the race element in the master narrative and rid the public discourse of the possibility that racism is still the problem. It is now all about race denialism and it is very clear how the discourses of power, social discourses and media discourses seek to soften, circumvent and even ignore the issue of racism in contemporary societal narratives.

But the thing about racism is that it will not vanish simply because some people insist that in a rainbow nation it does not exist … other than over there on the lunatic fringe of course. Racism is like a terminal virus and it will continuously erupt even when society insists it is in remission.

Like any viral disease it is tenacious and has the ability to replicate and proliferate into new neo-colonial neo-liberal strains, much as it did in a post-independence South Africa. In a transitional South Africa when it dawned on the moderate white population that it was inappropriate to speak of black people in explicitly racist terms — whites that harboured racist feelings soon learned a new language that no longer made use of apartheid labels or used distasteful descriptions about racial groups … at least not in public.

What replaced this though, was coded, implicit language that somehow still “evoked” offensive racial stereotyping, but that disturbingly omitted “the possibility of modern-day discrimination” as Bonilla-Silva puts it in relation to contemporary America.

This has become the new form of non-racist yet racist discourse of whiteness. Neo-racist language is now a colour-blind rainbow nation discourse that has a friendly ring to it though it is possibly even more insidious and harmful because it is very difficult to prove that racism resides within it.

Liberal discourse has, however, become synonymous with racism that wears a polite smiling façade. I’ve heard it and witnessed its affect, often facilitated by the most well-meaning people. In fact it is so normalised in our “rainbow nation” that sometimes the recipient will accept it as verbatim kindness. The bearer of this discourse is most often unaware of the implicit racism inherent in their delivery as it is learned but not reflected upon and contains an invisible privilege that is deeply embedded in his/her being. This becomes the mirror for unconscious racism that is inherent in the language and recognised by the recipient but not recognised by the purveyor.

But it is this discourse that is eruptive and disturbing to the recipients who recognise it — as it is felt but often not named. It becomes an uncomfortable and unresolved space that forces the recipient into a state of denialism as it allows no room for questioning. It is brutal in that it is a form of passive aggressive abuse that leaves the recipient feeling destabilised and unsure of their intuitions. This is liberal fascism and it raises its ugly head when it plays out in spontaneous racist social spectacles that many whites do not recognise as racism.

One such example is the attack on the One in Nine protestors at the gay parade in 2012. Here one of the organisers shouts out to the protestors, “this is my route”. The inference is that she has ownership of the streets and the black lesbian bodies do not have the right to be there. The racial implications here are enormous but these organisers to this day insist that race had nothing to do with it — even though the words “go back to your location” rung out loud and clear.

The thing about the whiteness discourse of this neoliberal epoch is that it is expedient. It can accuse black people of being racist and deny its own racism. It is couched in liberalist terms of individualism and contains within it the refusal to acknowledge systemic damage of current and historical white supremacy. This new form of insidious “liberal” racism is perhaps even more oppressive to non-white citizens of the world than outright racism. It shows itself in what white people choose to get publicly outraged by and what they choose to ignore. It often implicitly blames all the ills of the country on black leadership and only admits to this in public outcry over “black racism” or “corruption” or an “utterance” that is perceived as a slight to white “integrity”.

It is the type of racism denialism that has well-meaning white people talk about how Red October, “gives them the chance to distance themselves from right-wing racism and that we should be grateful to them for this”. As if the act of distancing has any impact on anyone and does anything useful in deconstructing or challenging racism. As if the heinous racist hate-speech of the right wing is about us, the white population, and now we can use it to make ourselves look and feel good since we are “not like them”.

This is the anti-racism “activism” of the chattering white class and it is impotent and self-involved.

Surely anti-racism is about on-going activism that seeks not only to challenge, but to dismantle, obliterate and rid our society of a toxic discourse by feeding into an alternative discourse that refuses to let this patriarchal whiteness narrative dominate. Surely this is done through actions and interventions and full-frontal challenge and not through mere “distancing”. It is about never accepting the false construct of the whiteness narrative, whether insidious or right wing, and reflecting on how the two discourses feed into each other.

It is about recognising the aftermath of a white upbringing and constantly being reflexive about how much of ourselves is reflected back to us in racist disruptions, in media narratives, in representations in our schools, universities and institutions. It is about never missing an opportunity to call out racism no matter what guise it wears. In my view unless you are attacking, challenging or agitating against the systemic viral and violent nature of global white supremacy, an entire system that seeks to dominate and destroy all that falls outside of its race-based ethos, I fail to see how you can claim to be anti-racist.

Being anti-racist is not simply distancing yourself from the “lunatic fringe” — or looking for approval from black friends — or showing your “appreciation” for diversity. Anti-racism is about never accepting the status quo — the western patriarchal system of capitalism that seeks to dominate and destroy some “races” and plays out in the corporate hold over governments of developing countries. As feminist activist and author Vandana Shiva has said: “The multiple wars against the earth, through the economy, through greed, through capitalist, patriarchal domination, must end, and we have to recognise we are part of the earth.” That means all of us.

Being anti-racist is being consistent in calling out the supporting discourses that uphold and feed into this capitalist construct, which is one that relies on racialised and gendered divisions and the false construct of whiteness for its survival and proliferation.

White supremacy is not about the right or the left wing in the end. It is about an entire system of domination by one race over others — a system that has been in the making for over 500 years, and it lives in all of us who are born into this construct. We cannot distance ourselves from that — we can only hope to recognise it and abolish this outmoded yet enduring system that was built on falsities to begin with. We can only stand in opposition to all the cogs in this system that seek to uphold racist and sexist forms of oppression, and this means looking way beyond your group of interracial friends or black lovers or biracial children as proof of your “non-racist” views.

In the words of writer Junot Diaz:

“How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you down play its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or the Voldemort name, which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: If a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: The devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.”

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