Thursday, 31 May 2007

Don't be afraid to discuss racial issues

In the book Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Maharaj cites his father’s comment that “the Englishman would stab you in the back while embracing you”, while on the other hand, “(t)he Afrikaner … was transparent about his hatred, so when you engaged with the Afrikaner, he would punch you in the nose up front”. Apart from wondering whether such perceptions are important or can be proven – this led me to consider whether, through the widespread aversion to openly discussing race issues in South Africa, we aren’t stabbing each other in the back.

We are all influenced by racism. As a block white people were put into – and made used to - a dominant position over others over an extended period of time. Black people lost opportunities, own lives or lives of loved ones, resources and basic rights over that same period. Furthermore, as Steve Biko famously noted, black people internalized ideas and distortions about themselves and others.

The space for talking about race in South Africa has shrunk. There seems to be some kind of whitelash against that. It’s as if, for some, discrimination and racial inequality disappeared in April 2004. For such people, the day we christened ourselves “the rainbow nation” was an end point - rather than “a start” and reflecting an aspiration and something to strive for. Some also think, and crazily so, that discussing racial issues is the major concern - the bigger problem - as compared to the feelings and experiences (and perceptions, if you like) of many people of discrimination, inequality and marginalization.

I would like to make the following points about racial matters:

1. Many white folk think that discussion of race is just about them – about their behaviours, conduct and practices. Actually, it is as much about ourselves as black people; it is about dealing with our own issues, complexes, reactions and responses to power relations so that we can move beyond them. It is about the barriers we face at all levels and addressing them openly; for those who have become middle class, successful and affluent, the focus may be on unresolved trauma from past suffering. At another level (at the second level??), it is an issue that affects us all. So, to those whites inclined to muzzle free expression on this issue, I say: don’t be so self-centred to want to prevent others from speaking about race.

2. Discussing and debating racial inequality and racism is not about blame. Many white people, but blacks also, think talking about race issues means remaining in the blame frame. Yet, as Margaret Legum is wont to say, nobody came down the birth canal a racist. Social circumstances and influences, rather than something inherent in any person, shape discriminatory attitudes and the use/abuse of racially-conferred power. In other words, the emphasis should not be on past-related blame; it should fall instead on present understanding, on being aware and on working out what to do from here on. It should revolve around helping us understand how as persons we come across to others and, wherever relevant, to affirm transformed, positive relations between people.

3. We should discuss race precisely because we (or most of us) want to strive for excellence and to see our country moving from good to great. I am all too aware of how impoverished social relations – and seeing the world through racial lenses – hobble South Africa. If this country can remove the barriers and impediments on its people, it can fly.

4. We want to discuss and sort out racial issues because unaddressed racist or discriminatory views and practices undermine quality debate. If we drive the issue of race underground, it pops up – not always at the most appropriate times. And so, some South Africa debates sink to nonsensical levels. At a time when we are discussing measures to address the legacy of the substantial losses endured by black people over decades, a predominantly white political party is likely to jump up and complain about "the race card" or racism in reverse. Nonsensical, if you ask me. In other cases, good ideas and interesting policy suggestions are simply dumped because they were punted by white persons – this at a time when South Africa needs as many people as possible to keep depositing into the bank of innovative ideas that are so sorely needed if we are to find the breakthroughs that we need on so many fronts

I would like to make a couple of references that I hope would throw further light on the issues involved - and perhaps underline the relevance of continuing to bring the question of race to the fore.

The issue of race is not just a South African issue. In a recent Star article entitled Citizens, but still a dead people walking (May 28), reference is made to the lack of national reconciliation between mainstream white society and the Aborigines in Australia. The story is that – despite government spending on programmes for Aborigines – the divide remains mainly because the official government line is to focus on practical measures whereas Aboriginals want recognition of what happened and “healing for past injustice”. In 2000, 250000 Aboriginals marched in Sydney demanding some kind of an apology, but to date have received none.

The Centre for the Study of Violence claims that crime is reracialising society, which may be taken to mean that crime is giving racism new life and impetus in society. We have always had crime in South Africa – what is striking now is the levels of violence and brutality in so much of it. In the 50s, gangsters would injure and kill each other and they would carry out robberies at warehouses and businesses; ordinary people were affected mainly through pick pocketing or being caught in the crossfire. Today unnecessary violence is almost ever-present in crime. We may well ask: is the level of violence linked to the perpetrators’ (both black and white) experiences of growing up in a brutal and violent racist society, and to the dehumanization that has taken place?

There is also reracialisation in the form of “racial profiling” around crime. In our fear, it is easy to stereotype large groups of people, and in South Africa today young black men bear the brunt. They often suffer a new form of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of people in the upmarket malls and the suburbs – unfairly so, given that all population groups are involved in crime and only a tiny minority of any population are criminals.

It is not just black people who are keen on probing the extent to which race still bedevils society. Recently commentators such as Theresa Oakley-Smith (see Anger brewing among blacks in The Star, May 15) and Bryan Rostron (see Joining the dots between alarm systems, scavengers and SUVs in Business Day, May 9) have surfaced their concern. Rostron comments on life in the suburbs and how black people are viewed; he laments the pervasive habit of “appraising people from the colour of their skin, not as an individual, but as an incarnation of an aggregate …”

I believe that there is only one human race and I shun the idea of “races”. At the same time, I believe the phenomenon of racism is all too real. I further hold that cultural differences and diversity (something essential and valuable for the survival of the human race) have often been poisoned by perverse power relations and by unjust economic arrangements. Taking the view that there is only one race – the human race – allows us to understand our ultimate inter-dependence in striving for a better society, better social cohesion and positive inter-group relations.

Finally, I believe our society is not so fragile that we cannot afford to open up discussion on racial injustice and unresolved racial issues. Despite fierce debates and occasional clashes, there are strong bonds between people of different backgrounds. (This is the case even in conservative rural areas; there are always real human linkages between the hard dividing lines.) The social capital in South Africa, although eroded, is not depleted. Our robust debates, spats and constant sparring are like family life; despite the “fights” and heated arguments, South Africans know they belong together and remain united on many major issues, and as we face the world. This is what leads me to believe that we have no need to be terrified about mention of the R word; that on balance, we are strong enough to embrace, rather than flee from, debate on racial issues.

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