Am I a racist?
May 24, 2012
The article started appearing on my timeline last night sometime. I use facebook’s subscription options generously, which helps me to see that which I actually want to see. This allow me to bypass most of the blatant racist rhetoric on news24 comment sections.
It’s an article which I usually would have skipped, were it not for the friends who shared it. I know these people. They are not the right-wing type. Many of them aren’t even the “good-ol’ middle-of-the-road, let’s love our neighbours and not get involved in all this political mumbo-jumbo Christian”-type. Many of them are active voices for the acceptance of Belhar. They are people for whom church unity is non-negotiable. They are the people whom I want to spend the future of this church with. So when they share an article titles “I am a racist”, particularly if 3, 4 or more of them start sharing the same article, I follow the link.
My father had a fascination with etymology. He has one of those “Etymological dictionaries” next to his computer, and like to check random words in it. My Greek lecturer told us etymology cannot really provide you with the meaning of words (if I remember that class correctly), since meaning is constructed by how words are used in the present, not by finding some pristine untainted past meaning. Nonetheless, sometimes etymology is interesting. And when someone claim that, mostly due to the actions of the ANC, “the word racist has lost it’s original meaning and now only get’s used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like”, one have to wonder about etymology and the meaning of words.
What exactly is this “original meaning”. Truth be told, few people walk around with etymological dictionaries wondering about the “original meaning”. And I doubt that the author is actually concerned about the fact that the word ‘recently’ started moving away from its Nazi roots, insisting that ‘racism’ should remain used only as it was originally intended: as a system of scientific thought which had the intent to proof that those of European descent were superior due to biologically reasons.
Truth is that, although this kind of scientific racism was active in South Africa, that was never the most dominant approach and sometimes actively rejected (read Samual Dubow’s brilliant analysis on this topic). Apartheid and Nazism might show certain similarities, but they were not the same.
But I don’t think that the “original meaning” the author refers to is apartheid either. Making racism and apartheid synonymous (something which is not uncommon in South Africa), imply that racism is a legalized system of classification and exclusionary laws privileging those who are categorized as “white”. Is that the problem, that we dare use “racism” in any way apart from such a definition?
Many who are comfortable with the author’s thoughts, will shout out against DJ’s and FHM models who dare call someone a “kaffir”. Although derogatory names is obviously not the same as a legalized system like apartheid, we easily recognize their use as “racism”.
Here is our problem, I think: Beverley Tatum tell the story of the response of a white teacher when she was asked how it would feel if someone called her a racist: “She said it would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a “low-life scum.”” We have found a general consensus that racism is wrong. In particularly more liberal circles (and I think also most Church circles regardless of theological position), we have found a general consensus that racism is not only wrong, but that it is like calling someone a “low-life scum”. For those white people who actively oppose Nazism and apartheid, who like Obama and Mandela, who might even have had a black person sleep in their guest bedroom (or even been in the Black Sash and written the first article on the death of Steve Biko) to be called a racist is like being punched in the stomach. But we don’t know what the word mean.
The author doesn’t really define racism. Or does she? It seems like the author concern racism to be any kind of action which someone doesn’t like in which the one doing it clearly stated that aspects of these categories which we call race influence this action. So if a company states that they will hire a black person rather than a white person, because they want to get their BEE scorecard right (not a very good reason in my mind, I would prefer if people do stuff for ethical rather than legal reasons, but let’s leave that for today), then it is “racism”. When UCT set different standards for entry into courses depending on race, then that is racism (honestly, the comparison between the white student who had 8 distinctions and was refused and the black student who barely passed is getting a bit old, the UCT example is somewhat more realistic). I do believe the author would agree that if someone actively states that they refuse to hire black people that would also be racism.
But if me and my black boss, who frequently travel together, and have both read one or two books on racism in the past, point out patterns in how security personnel at airports treat us differently, can we call it racism? The personnel are mainly black, and most probably not aware that their is a pattern where he has to show proof of identification more often than I have to.
And if I continue to have a sense of fear when I get the impression that I’m trailed by a black person in Sunnyside, but I don’t even recognize when I’m trailed by a white person in Hatfield, is that racism?
And if I have different emotions when looking at photos of white squatters than I would have when looking at black squatters, is that racism?
And if I find myself listening more intently to the white speaker than the black speaker, somewhere deep inside myself assuming that the white person know what she/he is speaking about, assuming that they did their research with the required precision etc, is that racism?
And if police (also black policemen) just have a tendency to assume that black people was responsible for a crime, and therefore end up finding more of the black criminals because that is where they look, is that racism?
And when a global economic system and educational system is structured so that is “just happens” that white people tend to have more capital, more businesses, more degrees, is that racism?
One response in a context such as this is to refuse any talk about racism. To insist that any reference to race is not allowed. The article took a different route. Irritated with the difficulty of discussion this topic, the difficulty that we don’t understand what is meant by the term, and the perception that it has become a “political card”, or a vague reference used when no other critique can be brought into an argument, the author attempt to make it absurd by presenting certain situations which would then be “racist” under this absurd understanding. Perhaps its just another attempt at saying: “let’s stop all this talk about racism, it’s absurd” (although their is a message in the article that the biggest problem or racism today is reversed racism against white people, not an uncommon thread in white rhetoric).
Given the fact that their is no real biological grounds for grouping people into the races we do, and even less grounds for pointing out qualities which is inherently connected to these biological markers, some prefer to say that we should rather just stop any reference to race. It doesn’t help us to speak about race at all (says these voices that heard some vague Marxist critique on the topic somewhere).
I believe two things should guide us:
First, what we have as “races” today is something that was constructed historically over the long period of time. Its development is complex, and is intertwined with class, gender, culture, language and many other aspects. I am stuck with constantly being given an interpretation of what it would imply to be “white”. I find myself in a community which consist primarily of those who reinforce this same racialized ideas. To break with it is not impossible, but will take generations of hard work on various levels: on our minds, on our societal structures, on the language we use, on the images found in the media, on the habits deeply ingrained on an unconscious level.
Second, we will have to learn to use the word “racism” responsibly, and to define what we mean when we use it. I think it is am important word. It is a word which remind us of a history to which we never want to go back to. But it is a dangerous word. It is a word that can be misunderstood. And it is a word which the popular use of has lead to various reductions, various attempts at scapegoating while portraying others as innocent.
What is racism? Racism is that which cause me to see that which I identify as “white” as more important, more correct, more trustworthy or more moral, than that which I identify as “black”. Racism is that which cause those who are identified as “black” to suffer more through the structuring of society than those who are identified as “white”.
Am I a racist?
The image which help some of us, is to say that I am a racist like a recovering addict.
I am a recovering racist. I struggle with the ideas I have internalized. I struggle with turning a blind eye towards, justifying, or even supporting policies and systems which end up harming black people more than white people. I struggle with assuming that a white life is worth more than a black life. I struggle with sometimes revolting when I see black and white people in romantic relationships. And my struggle at times become most visible when I want to convince myself and the world that “I am not a racist”. I don’t have a problem.
So I am a racist. A recovering racist. It’s a painful process. And sometimes I need a support group where I can share my struggles, because without this, I find myself either denying that I’m struggling with this, or making jokes or absurd statements about this.