Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
31 January 2008

Talking about race (and Disgrace)

The previous post on race got some readers of this Blog going and, I am happy to say, talking about race. It is heartening to see people talking (but not shouting) about these things rather than pretending that we live in a Rainbow Nation where race is irrelevant. It clearly is not and will not be for a long time to come.

I find myself agreeing a little bit with both sides of this debate (see comments posted to previous Blog post), so maybe its worth talking about it a bit more. Race is everywhere in our society and we cannot escape it. What is required is to confront race and the difficulties that stems from race in a society in which race was used in the past to suppress some and advantage others in the most inhumane of ways. I myself have experienced my own racism a few years ago and was forced to confront it.

Several years ago my partner and I were held up and robbed at knife point in our apartment by three teenagers. We were tied up and locked up in the bathroom while the robbers made their getaway with most of our valuables. One of the robbers wanted to attack us with the rather sharp looking knife, but the leader of the group stopped him. The whole thing left me rather rattled.

A few days later, I was walking to the shops when I saw two teenagers walking towards me. Instinctively my heart started racing with fear and I crossed the road. Safely on the other side of the road, I reflected on what I had just done. I had no information about these two youths walking towards me – except that they were young and, yes, black. The teenage robbers were also black.

In all honesty, I know that I would not have been scared and would not have crossed the road had the teenagers been white. (And I probably would not even have done so if the robbers were white). I was obviously making a racist assumption about the danger posed by these two youths based on my experience with the black youths a few days before – and my judgment was only based on their race.

Instead of treating every individual as a unique person, I assumed because these two youths were black they were dangerous. This kind of racism happens every day in South Africa and if we deny that it exist we will never confront or eradicate it. It is a subliminal kind of racism based on experience (or prejudice) that is very difficult to confront because it seems rational and is defended as rational.

But it is not rational. I know many black youths – most notably thousands of UWC students I have taught over the years – who are not dangerous and would never rob me, just as I know many white youths who would not do that. Yet I crossed the road when I saw the black youths approaching. Why? Because I was making a racial generalisation, which is completely irrational because it is not even born out by my own experience.

It is the same kind of subliminal racism that still confronts black people every day in South Africa: when the waiter shows the wine list at dinner to the white person at the table or places the bill in front of the white person, assuming black people do not know about wine and cannot afford to pay; when rich people lock their doors when they see a black person approaching a traffic light; when white colleagues zealously scrutinize the work a new black colleague to see if he or she “is up to the job” because they expect the black person to be hopeless and therefore wait for that colleague to make a mistake (while the mistakes of white colleagues are often excused or not even noticed because the white person is “one of us”).

As white South Africans, we should take note of this kind of racism and we should fight against it in ourselves and in others. To deny that we are racists is not helpful because it means we cannot confront and expose and get rid of the racism that we have inevitably acquired – through osmosis.

Because this kind of racism is so invidious and seems logical, many white people deny that it exists. Black friends often speak about how angry they get when they dare to expose this kind of racism and are accused of playing “the race card”. They feel that their very experience and feelings are being denied and vilified. This is not the basis on which we can build a society in which we tolerate and even celebrate differences without disrespecting others.

President Thabo Mbeki has often spoken eloquently about this kind of subliminal racism and Afro-pessimism that permeates our society and Western society in general. He has often wrongly been vilified for “playing the race card” when doing so by people who say that we should forget about race. By this they mean we should forget about racism, because whites are not affected by racism so it cannot really exist except in its most harshest and cruel forms practiced by backward Afrikaners of the AWB. In a perfect white world, race does not feature because white people often see themselves as not having a race at all – they are just human beings – while “others” have a race that creates problems for “us”.

I do, however, agree that President Mbeki has also used this insight in a way that is not honest and not helpful. Because he is very thin-skinned and cannot seem to admit to making mistakes, he often equates any kind of criticism of himself or his government to subliminal racism by whites or by so called “coconuts”. This kind of approach is also not rational because it would assume that unlike a government led by white people, the South African government led by black people is incapable of making mistakes and is therefore perfect.

For example, when the President branded critics of the arms deal as racist “fishers of corrupt men” on his Blog in 2003, he used the general principle that many white people are far too quick to assume the worst of black people, to defend what has now clearly been shown to be corruption and incompetence. By abusing the race discourse in this way the President diminishes the importance of racism, using it to excuse the inexcusable and scoring cheap political points instead of actually starting a real conversation on the topic.

This allows white people never to have to confront their subliminal racism because they can point out – as a reader correctly did in his comment on the previous post – that racism is used to excuse corruption and incompetence. I would contend, quite controversially, that when the President uses this strategy he is close to becoming a racist himself. This is because he is justifying the incompetence and corruption of some black people based on the apparently racist assumption that black people are less honest and competent than white people and should therefore be excused for stuffing up.

In my book, no one should be excused for stuffing up if they had been given a fair change. To excuse some black people for not doing their jobs after they have been given a fair opportunity to do so, is to say that black people are inherently inferior to white people – which apart from being false and illogical – is also damaging to black people in general because it feeds the kind of racism we are trying to rid our society from.

It leads to people like Jacob Zuma employing white lawyers to defend him in his criminal trials when there are perfectly good black lawyers who could have done the same or even a better job.

In the end we cannot escape race but we sure can try and treat people as unique individuals whose race is not their destiny or does not tell the final and absolute truth about who they are. That is the kind of society I wish we could create.

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