The recent ugly manifestation of racism, by white people such as Penny Sparrow, and racial insensitivity by Chris Hart and Gareth Cliff have one, singular virtue. They have put this matter of racism firmly on the public agenda. Unfortunately, as with such emotional issues, the terms of the debate are not always that clear. The categories and definitions; race, prejudice, racism and white supremacy or whiteism that are at stake here, need to be clarified. Only then can we have a productive engagement, and find lasting solutions to this persistent and pervasive social disease.
Even the most simple minded person can understand that what these individuals, Sparrow et al, have done, is to make public what we all know takes place in the living rooms, sports locker rooms, bars and similar places. Racism is alive and well. Calling Black people monkeys, k***s, questioning their ability as sports people and politicians, assuming they are corrupt or dishonest; it happens every day. In the post 1990 period, up until recently, open racism was seen to be an aberration. It appears that with a weakened ANC, and a more belligerent Democratic Alliance, racism is on the rise. Yet, it was always there. The end of apartheid did not mean the end of racism. The ideology of white supremacy, whiteism, is pervasive.
But what is racism? The claim that black and white people can both be racist is simply, factually wrong. When black people express their prejudices, such as the case of the idiot who works at the Department of Arts and Culture in Gauteng, it is not racism. It is just that, prejudice. White people have prejudices, as do misogynist men, religious groups, xenophobes, etc. But racism refers specifically to the systematic denigration, oppression and exploitation of black people, originally in the colonial encounter that resulted in their permanent relegation to second-class status. Racism means that black people are always and everywhere regarded as inferior to white people.
In some cases they acquiesce to this analysis, in others they don’t. It is true that in our country, apartheid gave rise to second, third and fourth tier status for Indians, coloureds and blacks. But even when Indians and coloureds are expressing their prejudice against their fellow black citizens, this is not racism. It is the hegemonic discourse of whiteism being articulated through the politically backward prism of fear. Fear of being made worse off than the current reality. So insidious, so pervasive, so successful is racism that it even gets black people to police each other on behalf of the white master. This was experienced in all colonies-in Africa, India, Asia, the Americas and in the Antipodes.
The attempt to equate Black expressions of prejudice to racism is similar to that strategy which seeks to equate affirmative action with apartheid racial discrimination in the labour market. It is nothing more than a neo-conservative attempt to delegitimise the historical claims for social, economic and political justice black people have. While race is not a scientific category and exists only as a social construct, the effects of racism are manifest in their preponderance of black poverty, marginalisation, landlessness, inequality and so many other similar challenges. The real issue is simple-an expression of black prejudice against a white person, or as a group, is wrong, and should not be condoned. But that does not equal the effect of an expression of white prejudice.
In the historical context, this exacerbates real unresolved grievances. In the current context, it raises the political temperature and feeds a narrow African nationalism that argues that “whites will never change”. What white people fear, is the loss of privilege and advantage that the current neo-colonial paradigm grants them.
The choice for White South Africans is a simple one. Recognise the historical injustices perpetrated through racism, agree to support the redress against these, or leave this country. There is no room in South Africa for anyone who wants to continue to reinforce racism. Everybody must stop expressing their prejudices, go on diversity courses, whether this prejudice is of racial, gender, religious, sexuality or any other difference. But the onus is on White people to right the wrongs of racism. The Sparrows and Harts do nothing for white people, other than place them at risk in terms of the backlash that will certainly follow these racist outbursts, and the continued denialism of racism. The loathing of those who are powerless is simply an expression of the fear that we will one day be the same.
It is true that not all white people are aggressive or militant racists. But all white people, with very few exceptions, have a racist inner being or ego that has been interpolated, or created, by the 400 years of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, capitalism and prejudice, that is an inescapable feature of our country and its history.
Racism did not end in 1990 or 1994. These moments created the opportunity to build non-racialism. The question is: Did we grasp this opportunity? It is clear that we did not all do so. The fact that the vast majority of our population, who are black, live in poverty, face high unemployment, live shorter lives, experience manifest inequality, shows that we did not. The empowered, the landed, the wealthy, the mainly white privileged minority, chose to accept the neo-liberal paradigm that suggests that because people have an equal vote, they are all equal.
I have been one of those deeply offended by the crude manifestation of racism. I guess I should control my temper. Racism is an expression of ignorance. Denial of racism or any attempt to equate corrective discrimination with racism is either malicious in that it is a cover to try to protect the ill-gotten gains of racism, colonialism, apartheid and slavery, or it is the expression of the callous nature of such human beings who, in the face of all the overwhelming evidence of it, refuse to acknowledge the hurt, the indignity, the suffering of their fellow human beings. This not only dehumanises the one who suffers, but as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu have taught us, dehumanises the one who perpetuates this pain.
It is up to those of us enlightened enough to know better than to fall into the trap of engaging people who are psychologically damaged as if they are healthy human beings. The solution to create a society without racism or prejudice is to build a society in which there is equality, social justice and equal opportunities for all. We are a long way off from there. DM
Dr Phillip Dexter is a Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town and an activist. He is a former Member of Parliament, a trade unionist and a political leader. He is a member of the ANC. He writes in his personal capacity.