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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.