The whiteness of racism

racism:
noun: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Growing up and growing older in South Africa, has given me plenty of opportunities to see racism in all it’s ugly forms. I was born in the 1960’s, and have benefitted from white privilege.

I got my first job at age 18 with ease, because of job reservation. I went to a decent school, because whites didn’t suffer under the apartheid Bantu Education policies that provided a second class (or worse) education to people of colour. I lived in a pleasant, if working class, suburb with all the amenities I took for granted. Running water, electricity, safety – the things we should be able to take for granted but many couldn’t.

I am not here to arrogantly speak for the experience of people of colour under apartheid, or even in post apartheid South Africa. I just don’t know enough. Every so often, I think I understand another part of the issue, but it’s at an intellectual and emotional level – I can never really know how bad it was, and still is.

I can speak about my experiences, and 3 things that I particularly feel should be spoken about. These are white privilege, “reverse racism” and calling out racist behaviour.

Many of my white friends and acquaintances bristle at being told they benefited from white privilege. “I worked hard for everything I have achieved” is the commonest way this plays out. Sure we did. But white people generally start out several steps higher up the success ladder than people of colour.

An analogy is the way that rich kids have benefits over poor kids. Maybe they go to better schools, or have extra tutors or sports coaches, and their shoes always fit, and their nutrition is as good as money can buy. They might work super hard, pushed to achieve by A type parents. But their hard work is only part of their story, because they had advantages from the start.

Same with whiteness in South Africa, and many other countries. Where racist attitudes prevail, and a black kid can be shot by the cops because he’s in the “wrong” neighbourhood, whites must see and acknowledge their privilege. I just don’t understand why this simple principle is denied so vehemently by so many whites. Guilt? A subconscious fear that acknowledging this simple fact would somehow diminish their own sense of achievement?

I know I, and many other whites, didn’t ask for any privilege. I know I worked hard, and I’m sure you did too. But I have to open my eyes and look at other hard working women of my age, and see the disparity between most middle aged white women and most middle aged black women. That is privilege, and it stares us in the face daily.

Awareness precedes finding a solution. Denying white privilege just delays us from moving forward to being better people, and delays us from helping to improve our society.

Then there’s “reverse racism” or what-about-ism. “What about policies like Black Economic Empowerment that favour blacks over whites? That’s racist!”. There are many similar examples that are trotted out, with a disapproving look, as though that proves that racism is an equal opportunity offender from all sides of the racial spectrum.

No. No it’s not. Read the definition again, and let’s sort out our language. Racism is prejudice based on the idea that one’s own race is superior. It’s not just ordinary prejudice, as bad as that is – it’s prejudice because someone thinks that their skin colour means that they are superior. There are hate crimes, hate speech, ignorance, intolerance and prejudice in many walks of life, but unless these actions are due to the mind bogglingly stupid idea that my skin is better than your skin, they are not racist.

Hate speech is an interesting, and contentious, example. The South African legal system has moved swiftly to charge outspoken white racists such as Penny Sparrow with crimen injuria, yet has remained mute and inactive over the many cases of hate speech from black South Africans. Because, very simply put (read the preceding paragraph if you’re still confused), hate speech is not racist unless the speaker feels superior due to their race. I’m not agreeing with hate speech, but I can understand why black people would be angry, and why hate speech exists and is still not racism or “reverse racism”.

I’ve put “reverse racism” in quotes wherever I’ve used it, because I don’t believe that it exists. I think it’s used as a poor attempt to exonerate white racists by allowing them to think that racism is to be found in all races. It does not. The deep roots of colonial racism that still cling to white interactions today, are peculiar to a time and belief system that is very white and very Christian.

Religion brought the idea of heathens (non-believers) as inferior people, and instilled a sense of superiority in its believers. The language of religion is clear – the chosen people would get to heaven, and the non-believers would not. With god apparently on the side of the colonialists and slave owners, the white man trod roughshod over Africa without a second thought. White kids were brought up to believe they were superior, and the clues in their environment supported this idea.

The white kids lived in the best houses, white kids could read and write, black kids couldn’t, and black people clearly deferred to their parents, so whites must be superior. These clues didn’t show the kids the violence necessary to keep this system going until the racism was so deeply ingraining in them that they could take over the subjugation of black people without feeling remorse.

We’ve been passing down this kind of thinking from one generation to the next, for hundreds of years. It’s not as overt as it used to be, but it’s still very much there. Like religious beliefs, racist attitudes are instilled in kids at a young age. For all the progress we’ve made as a society since 1994, there is still a horrid amount of entrenched racism in the predominantly white spaces of homes, work cliques, and friends around a braai.

This is where white voices are really needed. We must call out racist behaviour immediately and wherever we find it. But for all the pontification that well meaning white liberals do, there’s a deafening silence around other whites. Suddenly white fragility rears its head, and no one wants to offend the bloke with a beer, who’s just told an absolutely-not-funny racist joke.

This I can speak about with authority. This is behaviour I experience far too often. I can even see it coming: the quick scan of the group to check that we’re all good ol’ white buddies here, then the dropping of some nasty, prejudiced, racist comment, and the range of responses from enthusiastic acceptance to embarrassed laughing along, because even if you’re embarrassed by the racist, calling them on it might offend them.

Please call it. Every time. Sometimes by asking them what they mean, and waiting for them to explain. That kills the laughter, at least. And the embarrassed ones might speak up, might find some backbone in solidarity with someone else speaking up. And soon, in my experience, everyone is backing down and proclaiming that they’re not racists, and admitting, maybe, the joke was just in bad taste. It’s as hard to find a self-proclaimed racist since 1994, as it was to find a Nazi after 1945. But they’re there, all the bloody time.

I want something from each white friend of mine who wants to be a better person. I want you to commit to calling out racism around you. Be offensive if you need to be, and take courage in the fact that you’ll never be as offensive as the racist.

Look for the micro-aggressions, in yourself as well as others. Black people still serve white people far more than the other way around, so be explicit in being polite to your servers. Look them in the eye and greet them. As you practice this, you will become aware of the invisibleness of black people to white people. You will notice how many white people talk over black people as though they didn’t exist or are of no consequence. That’s ingrained racism at work.

Teach your children to show respect to all people. This is not negotiable. Never expect a black person to make space for you where you wouldn’t expect it of a white person. Take up your space, but no more than your space, in this world. If you feel the need to be heard being a “good” white person, do it by calling out white racism, not by drowning out the voices of people of colour.

To my black friends, help me when I fail. I will listen.

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5 Responses to The whiteness of racism

  1. David chaplin says:

    Nicely thought out piece. I have one quibble though: the dictionary definition is too narrow. Racism goes beyond the belief that one race is superior to another. (Remember ‘separate but equal?’). Racism includes ascribing behaviors, attitudes and moral beliefs to any membe of a whole group of people defined on the basis of their skin color and/or ethnicity, without regard for his or her individuality.
    Every statement starting with ‘blacks are……’ (or ‘whites are…’ for that matter) is very likely to be a racist statement, whoever’s mouth it comes from.

    • lor342 says:

      Thanks Dave. I think it’s important to keep the dictionary definition in mind, else any prejudiced behaviour gets ascribed to racism. And separate but equal grinds on my nerves because it’s so patronizing: -women are good at social skills, just leave the logical thinking to the men; or -blacks are so musical, but…; and the compliment is ruined by the fact that it was only given to soften the blow of the superiority about to follow. So I’m sticking with the dictionary definition.

      • David chaplin says:

        It’s but a subset of bigotry.
        I actually object to being placed in the ‘white’ bucket, as if it’s the defining feature of my makeup and place in society. On any given issue, I’m lukely to disagree with 80 % of other white people, so what makes them and me an identifiable grouping on those grounds. And besides, as a capetonian, I probably have more in common with my capetonian neighbors of any color than I do with, say, a Free State farmer?
        And I’d warrant I have more in common with my black colleagues at work ( same LSM band, same suburban concerns, kids at same sort of schools, same commuting gripes….) than I do with any whites of other LSMs higher or lower . Or Russians or Germans who are the same color as me for that matter …

  2. Juil Yoon says:

    I don’t have any personal experience with the situation in South Africa, but I’m sure most if not all your points are valid and good.

    I take issue with your use of the rhetoric of American academia.
    Talking over someone already has a name: it’s being rude. “Micro-aggression” is an unnecessary and confusing word. The actions most people would categorize as a micro-aggression are not aggression at all.

    Perhaps there is more white privilege in South Africa than in America, where it is mostly just political rhetoric. However, most of the points you describe as white privilege would be more accurate to call wealth privilege. I get the feeling that most black families with a similar level of wealth would receive the similar benefits to the one you described.

    Again, I have no personal experience in this area so correct me if I’m wrong.

    • lor342 says:

      As I’m not familiar with the rhetoric of American academia, can you explain what issue you have? I agree that “rude” covers a lot of this behaviour, but it’s insufficient to describe our South African situation, as would be simply looking at wealth, and not at the barriers that exist to acquiring wealth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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