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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