Structural racism: the invisible evil
- Pierre de Vos
- 27 Nov 2013 01:13 (South Africa)
On a recent trip to Thailand I was struck by the fact that every single model in advertisements on billboards and on television was far lighter of complexion and far more “European” looking than the average person in the street. (I deliberately use the contested, racially loaded, and deeply problematic term of “European” to allude to the often-invisible but prevalent assumptions in most societies that have been economically, culturally and socially colonised by the West that white “Europeans” are the norm against which all others are implicitly measured – and often found wanting.)
It also reminded me of a visit to India when I pored over the personal adverts for prospective spouses in the Sunday edition of Times of India, fascinated by the fact that many of the adverts extolled the virtues of the potential marriage partner because of his or her Harvard degree, Green card, and, most importantly, “wheatish complexion”.
These anecdotal examples hint at the dominant normative assumptions about white superiority that are so deeply embedded in modern society in our globalising world that they can easily appear to be normal and natural when, in fact, they are nothing more than a manifestation of structural racism.
If you care to look with a critical eye, you quickly spot the myriad of ways in which popular culture, workplace rules and practices, academic discourses, social norms and standards, rules that validate certain types of knowledge and discount other types of (often indigenous) knowledge, and commercial advertising send out (sometimes explicit and at other times concealed) messages that normalise and even celebrate the superiority of white Western ways of being in the world.
If you happen to be white, it may be more difficult to become aware of how your view of the world and of yourself is held up as the norm and as superior to other ways of being in the world. You might find it difficult to accept that this helps to validate you and prepares you for success in the world.
This is so because when you experience the world as an insider, as someone who does not really have a race or a culture that is systematically denigrated and held up as inferior, you may not realise that you are lucky (one should say privileged) enough to have your general disposition and belief system (if not always all individual traits and actions) held up as normative, as ideal, as “just the way the world is” or “ought to be”.
You might not realise that this position of privilege grooms you for success, signals to you that success is nothing less than your due. It creates a world in which others assume that you are competent, hard-working, honest, intelligent, socially well adjusted and appropriately ambitious.
This bestows enormous privilege on all white people – regardless of their class, educational background or personal characteristics and attributes. Us white people are immensely privileged in that the monstrous actions of fellow whites are almost never imputed to us as a race. Few people would argue that white people are inherently dangerous, violent, duplicitous, greedy or dishonest because of the actions of an individual who happens to be white. When we walk into a job we are almost never required to prove ourselves and unless we fail spectacularly we are assumed to be competent and well suited for the job.
Think about this: white people are absolved of being judged collectively because Hitler killed 6 million Jews or because Stalin killed between 20 and 60 million of his countrymen and women. When a citizen of Germany, or Poland or the United Kingdom is unhappy with the actions of his or her government, you are hardly likely to hear them exclaim (thinking of the Holocaust, Bosnia and the Gulags): “this is Europe, so what can you expect?”
Political activists in Greece or Italy or France would never dream of warning that their country runs the risk of turning into another Putin’s Russia or another Bosnia. Because Putin is white, few will assume that his despotic actions sends a warning about the general disposition of white politicians all over Europe to become despotic.
Few people impute greed and dishonesty to white people as a group because Brett Kebble was a crook or because Barry Tannenbaum allegedly cheated investors out of more than R12 billion.
When the so-called Modimolle Monster was convicted of masterminding the rape of his wife and the murder of her son, no one made assumptions about the murderous nature of white people in general and started profiling middle-aged white Afrikaner men as family murderers. And when a 17-year-old white farm boy from Griquatown is charged with the murder of his younger sister and his parents, few people wring their hands and talk about the violent nature of white youth.
And despite the fact that the vast majority of white South Africans actively or passively supported and benefited from Apartheid, there is no master narrative embedded in our culture – despite tentative attempts by anti-racists to create such a narrative – that characterises white South Africans as inherently evil, prejudiced, arrogant, greedy and heartless. It’s a bit of a miracle, really, brought to you courtesy of structural racism.
Yet it is striking how often the action of one black person is explicitly or implicitly imputed to black people as a group. Despite living in an entirely different country with different dynamics, a different political economy, a different social reality, the warning often rings out that we are in danger in South Africa of turning into another Zimbabwe. And be honest, fellow white South Africans, have you ever encountered a bad driver, an unhelpful government official, an incompetent colleague and (at last for a second) thought that this is not surprising because the person happens to be black?
I would contend that because of structural racism, white people are almost always viewed as individuals who are assumed to be competent and virtuous until they prove otherwise, while black people are almost always viewed as representatives of their race who have to prove themselves to be thought of as being “as good” as their white colleagues or fellow students.
By structural racism I mean the entire system of white supremacy described in anecdotal forms above. I am not talking here of gross forms of individual racism in which a person knowingly and flagrantly displays racial prejudice. I am talking about the assumptions about white superiority and whiteness as the assumed norm of goodness and competence that is diffused and infused in all aspects of society, including our history, culture, politics, economics and our entire social fabric.
As such structural racism is the most profound and pervasive form of racism – it is not something that could possibly have disappeared in 1994 when political power was formally handed over by the white minority. Because of the way in which structural racism normalises white dominance and superiority, it entrenches and perpetuates inequalities in power, access, opportunities, and treatment. This is not necessarily done knowingly and intentionally: the power of structural racism is exactly its ability to make itself invisible. This allows its beneficiaries to deny its existence (and genuinely believing in its absence) while benefiting from it.
Structural racism is more difficult to locate in a particular institution because it involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually producing new, and re-producing old forms of racism.
If you accept that structural racism still permeates our society (as I do), then it is impossible to view race as an (inexact) proxy for disadvantage. Instead, you are forced to accept that structural racism continues to operate in ways that disadvantages all black people regardless of their class, educational background or social status. You may be – as the cliché has it – the child of Patrice Motsepe, but you are still required to operate and become successful in a world in which the rules are made by and for the benefit of those who do not look like you and speak like you; for those whose experiences prepared them for success in ways that your experiences could not.
Of course, your chances of success as a black person in a world in which structural racism is a defining characteristic will be far better if you happen to be middle or upper middle class, if you were at least partly “assimilated” into the dominant white norms by having attended an exclusive private school or having attended an elite University like UCT. But your life will still be a relative struggle compared to the life of a middle or upper middle class white child whose culture, world view and race is the embedded norm in the society.
Because of structural racism, race is not a proxy for disadvantage – it is always and remains a form (if not the only form) of disadvantage.
You do not address the consequences of structural racism merely by creating opportunities for black people to “assimilate” into the normative white world. Instead, you transform the society and challenge the basic meaning-giving assumptions according to which society operates and in terms of which goods, services and opportunities are distributed. In short, you attack and dismantle white privilege, which is the flip side of the coin of structural racism.
Some of us call this transformation.
For most of us whites, this prospect is both scary and threatening. We stand to lose not only our relative and unearned advantage in the world (which we enjoy solely because of the cultural, social and economic assumptions of superiority linked to our race), but also our sense of well-being, our sense of being inherently virtuous and superior, of never being judges collectively for the evils done by others who happen to be identified as white.
But the corrosive effects of structural racism poison a society, make it more difficult for people of talent to thrive merely because of their race. Structural racism makes the society less successful because it fails to harness the talents of all members of that society fully. Even white South Africans not convinced of the ethical or moral necessity of dismantling structural racism, must understand that in the long term it is in their own interest to challenge structural racism in order to ensure that our society will benefit from the full talents of all and will reach its full potential. DM
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