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.

A Generous Orthopraxy?

August 3, 2011

Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.

A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).

In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.

Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:

During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.

This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.

Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.

Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:

During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!

Edit (3/8/2011)

Continuing from the post on spatial power and whiteness

After noticing how race in many instances continue to mean that white people has the privilege (right) to move anywhere, while black people (and today I use black to refer to all people who are pushed out of the dominant normalized racial position) are in various ways bound to specific spaces, there is a second part which we have to notice:

Because white people in South Africa had the right to move into any space they wanted to, they decided to not move into every space, but limited themselves to white spaces. Because black people had no control over which spaces they moved into, they were forced to move into all spaces, those designated as black spaces, but also those designated as white spaces.

The apparent contradiction rests on the distribution of money and work. White people controlled (and in South Africa continue to control) the financial resources, which in many instances meant that they controlled the working environments. In it’s ultimate form it meant that they had the ability and privilege of appointing someone to work in their homes as cleaners. Black people thus had to learn the knowledge of moving into these designated white spaces in order to gain access to money and work.

This meant that black people gained knowledge of “both sides” of the Apartheid world because they didn’t have the privilege to control money and resources, while white people because of their privileged position, learned knowledge only of those spaces which they had control over. Black people had the ability to translate between these spaces, while white people did not.

Whether my assumptions about black people is correct I cannot say, but I see this with white people. There is this whole world which white people don’t know how to navigate. Think of the townships, the public transport system, and yes, today I guess the inner-cities as well. Most white people I know carry no natural knowledge which can help them navigate these spaces. But at the same time black people have been moving into and our of those designated white spaces (suburbs, malls, business) and they know the rules, both written and unwritten, by which these spaces are governed.

Thus, in spite of my argument that the decision to move into various spaces is already a reminder of the privileged position I am in, it is making exactly the decision which we have not been making thanks to the privileged position our racialisation has ensured white people. And with this, it is making the decision which causes the discomfort of not knowing: Not knowing the unwritten, and many times the written, rules of this space I am moving into. This does not take away the important critique that my move can also reinforce white privilege if it is used to “take back the city” – to broaden the “area of control of white people”, which it can become, even for those coming with good intentions (mission history should teach us at least this).

What it does help me with is understanding that experiences of discomfort because of my lack of knowledge is caused by my own privileged position and the ways in which it was unpacked and used in the past. The task is therefore not on black people to do things in such a way that I don’t experience any discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, but on myself to work through these moments in which I am confronted with the fact that my past has kept me in exclusively white spaces.

In Steyn’s work, Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, which I’ve been writing about in the previous two posts, all the narratives she identified accepts that Apartheid oppressed black people, and that what happened to black people under Apartheid was in some way wrong. Even the hardliner colonial approach (probably the most vocally and blatantly racist in her spread of white narratives) she describes as acknowledging this:

Whereas a nod is made to the deleterious effects of Apartheid on black South Africans (“they were definitely MORE affected”), the major effect of Apartheid was to provice nurturing ground for the innate spitefulness and vengeful nature of the “others” (p60)

However, as I’ve mentioned last week, I believe things have changed since Steyn did her research, and one of these is that I experience a growing group of people who seem to deny the atrocities of Apartheid, and a group that are describing the current government as much worse for black people than Apartheid. Maybe these can be called a hard and soft form of a similar trend, both denying that Apartheid was really as bad.

As time seem to pass, it would seem that white people, at least a certain group among them, seem to reconstruct their whiteness by making the current government and the international press the culprit in depicting the Afrikaners and Apartheid as much worse than they were, and furthermore by implying, or stating out front, that continued Apartheid would have been a much better deal for black people in South Africa.

Maybe this is a trend only among younger people who talks from total ignorance. But it would seem that a group that is even more hardline than what Steyn described seem to be growing parallel with the hybridization that is also becoming more and more common among white people. It’s worrying trend, and a reminder that simply letting time pass is not necessarily going to guarantee reconciliation.

The hope that a next generation would automatically become “color blind” is totally shattered when we find young people that become even more racist than their parents were, and also when we find people over time growing more and more blatantly racist, and appreciative of Apartheid, instead of slowly working through the evil, and bit by bit acknowledging it and actively deciding to move even further away from it.

I had these two pictures in my sermon yesterday, and asked the congregation to recognize them.

I wondered whether anyone would recognize the first. But within a few guesses one of the high-school girls had it: Auschwitz.

Later the second was shown. But no matter what, no one could recognize this. My colleague, had to point it out: The Apartheidmuseum.

We seriously need to get in touch with our own history…

Apartheid ended in 1994. Yes, I know. And the voices who reminded me in the past that I must remember that things were much worse under Apartheid, and not downplay this by making as if nothing has changed have a point. But to say we are post-Apartheid, fails to recognize that neither our hearts nor our systems have gotten rid of this legacy completely. Much has changed, and we can thank God for that. But much didn’t change for many South Africans.

I am white. Sibitiwe might have complimented me with a black heart. But I remain a white theologian in Africa. Less and less European as the months go by. More and more being baptized in the water of Africa as transformative experience after transformative experience, as relationship after relationthips, and relationships over time, is deepening my experience of this country, this continent. With all it’s problems and questions. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is my home. I am from Africa.

My church may be irrelevent, in spite of the examples of really good works of development being done, for which we also thank God, and should not consider futile. I know that for the bigger part of South Africa we won’t be missed when we are gone. They might miss our help, but in very few circumstances will they miss our friendship. There are exceptions, but they are exactly that: exceptions.

The journey that Dutch Reformed congregations will have to go on is a long journey I know, it’s a difficult journey, and we will require a lot of help. But it is a journey which some of us are willing to commit to with everything we have.

I’m busy reading Knowledge in the Blood, and Jansen’s exploration of the knowledge of the post-Apartheid Afrikaner children had me thinking at one point that we really need more popular arts to help in the remembrance and and memories of Apartheid. Maybe it was Invictus that also got me thinking. I didn’t really follow the conversation about Skin until I went to watch it, but this exactly the kind of films that we need.

It tells the story of a girl, Sandra Laing, born of white parents, but of polygenic inheritance; meaning that there was black blood in their line, and although it didn’t show in her parents, it reappeared with her. She was a nobody. Officially white, but the older the got, the more she appeared coloured. Times Online has a good article on her story.

The film depicts the complexities of Afrikaner people trying to make sense of the laws which at times simply doesn’t work. It beautifully show how kids were indoctrinated at school, and the culture that taught white kids that only white people require respect. And it shows how powerful political voices can ruin the life of children. It also points out how some Afrikaner people started realizing that they were wrong, in this case the official that was responsible for Sandra’s reclassification from white to coloured.

The school from which Sandra got expelled was Piet Retief primary. The school that I attended as a child. A place that I really loved. The town that rejected her, was my beloved hometown, Piet Retief. The church that didn’t stand up for the voiceless, was the congregation that formed my faith maybe more than any other. Suddenly the perpetrators of Apartheid is no longer people by the names of Botha, Vlok, Malan. But a headmaster from this small school. That not only did what he had to do, but took the initiative to get rid of this kid with her dark skin. I know people who was living in this town at that time, I know a number of people who had to be kids in this school at the time this happened. These people were our friends, people I looked up to, and still look up to. This reality have me want to take the Klopjag route, simply trying to forget that Apartheid ever happened, because the reality of how my own people participated, is just to grave. This is the stories that we would need to work through if we are to develop healthy post-Apartheid cultures.

One thing that I believe the film beautifully portrays, and that I haven’t read anywhere, is the role of gender. Apartheid is a white-man’s system, and the battles are between white men and black men. The woman seem to find ways of overcoming their differences, even in these difficult circumstances, which men find impossible. Sandra and her mother can work on their relationship after she ran away with Petrus, but her father cannot accept this, and rejects his daughter. When the struggle gets bad in the 80’s Petrus continues to blame Sandra, even though she has totally become part of the black culture. But Petrus’ mother, a gogo to Sandra, can keep the relationship open. All over the story woman find ways of building relationships much more effectively than men. Even in the way Sandra two children react to the situation. The importance of woman’s voices in reconciliation is still underestimated! And the importance of woman’s voices in politics, economics and society, to help us in preventing similar atrocities, is still under-appreciated.