Will humanity one day look back on the days when people were regarded as greater or lesser beings because of their racial origins in the same way as we now look back on the era of witch hunting? This question assumes that at least some progress has been made in eliminating racial prejudice, and certainly that can be said to be the case. Having a darker skin in a society where light-skinned people predominate is not nearly as great a disadvantage as it was a few decades ago. That being said, traditional prejudices persist, even if they are largely unspoken and of a lesser degree of virulence than in bygone years.
A Talmudic lesson often invoked by the current Chief Rabbi is that the reason why the human race was made to descend from a single man and a single woman was to prevent one person saying to another, “My ancestors were more illustrious than yours”. More than anything else, this teaching has motivated me to confront my own lingering prejudices, which were always there even in the days when I hopped and bopped with my fellow protestors in anti-apartheid rallies. It certainly helps to realise that racism is not only ugly and stupid, but a heresy as well.
Racial differences are irrelevant when it comes to showing an individual the kind of respect and empathy that one is expected to show to anyone else. However, knowing this at an intellectual level is insufficient; it also has to be felt to be true at the very core of one’s being, which in turn must be reflected in one’s actions
Laying bare the material harm that apartheid did is comparatively easy. It is largely a matter of trotting out all the key pieces of apartheid legislation and showing which particular aspects of daily life this or that one negatively impacted on. Freedom of movement? Check out the influx control laws. Economic mobility? See relevant colour bar and wage level legislation. Ditto for education, political rights, access to public utilities and places of residence.
Far less easy to get a handle on, especially for some like me who never personally experienced it, is the emotional hurt that apartheid, and indeed the whole era of white on black colonialism as a whole, must have inflicted. The underlying justification for this kind of oppression was the belief that those being subjected to it were lesser human beings. How much this must have undermined the fundamental pride, dignity and self respect of those on the receiving end can hardly be under-estimated.
While overt acts of racial prejudice have long been outlawed in South Africa, covert racism by definition is harder to rout out. Take as an example how a white person might become angry and abusive over what is perceived as poor service from a black person. Only he/she can say whether, and if so to what extent, that irritation has an underlying racial basis. The test for someone in that situation would be to ask whether he/she would react to another white person’s actions in the same way.
Without creating an eternal albatross of inherited racial guilt to shlep about day after day, I believe that whites need to be aware of the continuing psychological damage that racism inflicted, and strive to reflect this awareness in how they interact with black people. This doesn’t mean being unctuous and patronising, which obviously would just cause resentment, but rather making a genuine effort to being warm, open and respectful. In the end, whites themselves will surely be the greatest beneficiaries of this kind of basic sensitivity.