All of us are racists

Race is not a subject that South Africans talk about easily and readily, and I think that this particularly the case with white South Africans.

The other day I was presenting a lecture on race at what used to be known as Pentech but now is known as the Bellville campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Most of the students in class were generically black, with only three white students in class.

We had what I thought was a good discussion, but I noticed that the white students did not say anything.

Afterwards I was walking to my car and the white students walked in front of me, unaware that I was behind them. One of the white students, a young woman, said to her friends: “I am sick and tired of race. I am sick and tired of people complaining about race. I have also been discriminated against, but you don’t find me complaining.”

I wished that she had said those words in class and then we could have addressed her concerns.

However, she was doing what most of us do in South Africa today: we only speak our minds to people who look like us. As soon as somebody who looks a little bit different joins the conversation, then we change the subject or we review, in our minds, what we want to say.

I have a simple policy: I do not believe in saying behind your back what I will not say in front of you. This means that if I have something uncomfortable to say about you, I would much rather say it to you then behind your back.

Of course, most people are not like that. They harbour feelings about people who are different to them and never let those people know how they really feel.

This is probably why we have not properly dealt with the issues of race and racism in this country. We are too scared to tell each other how we really feel about each other.

When I started writing my book, Race, I thought about the approach that I would use and I realised that if I wanted be effective in dealing with the issues of race and racism, then I would have to deal with the fact that all of us are racists.

But I would not be able to call other people racist without admitting to my own racism. So I start off the book with an admission of guilt, so to say. In the introduction, I say that I am a racist and that most South Africans are probably racists. I then outline how our racist history has groomed all of us to become racists.

It is a long introduction and the following is just a small excerpt:

But if I am a racist, I am not a passive acceptor of my racism. I am prepared to admit to my racism and I am doing my best to fight against it. Like the people in Alcoholics Anonymous, I believe that it is important to admit to one’s faults, in this case racism, before one starts to deal with them.

Failure to admit to one’s faults will mean that one will probably die with those faults.

The difference between me and the people who are not prepared to admit to their racism is that I will probably overcome my racism at some point in my life. The people who are not prepared to admit their racism will probably remain racists until the day they die.

I realised that I had to take this step, make this confession, to create a comfort zone for people to begin a conversation about race and, in some ways, to reclaim the term “racist”, a term that has too often been used as an intimidating, threatening and abusive weapon.

You cannot have a conversation if one party is threatening and intimidating the other. However, you can have a conversation if both parties are prepared to admit to some faults.

I saw how effective this approach could be in my interactions, particularly with white people. Whenever I have admitted to my racism, they have also been prepared to admit to theirs. And then we were able to have a conversation about why we were all racists.

At a Centre for Conflict Resolution event in Cape Town the other day, one of the members of the audience asked me why I thought it necessary to create a safe space for whites to engage in this debate, bearing in mind that whites have oppressed us blacks and benefited so much from apartheid.

I agreed that whites have benefited from apartheid and were the oppressors under apartheid, but we cannot have a discussion about race in post-apartheid South Africa and exclude whites from this conversation.

And I believe that whites will not join this conversation unless we create a safe environment for them to join in.

If we continue to accuse and intimidate them, because of their racist past, then they will just retreat into their laager and sulk.

In the locker room of the gym the other day, I heard two young white men talking about BEE and lamenting the proposed exclusion of white women from disadvantaged groups under employment-equity targets. The one said: “I am just going to stay in South Africa until 2010, make as much money as possible and then leave. I can’t continue to live in this country.”

I decided not to confront them in the gym locker room, but this is precisely why we need to talk.

There are too many misperceptions out there, not only among white people, and those misperceptions will continue to influence the way we interact with each other.

If we don’t deal with it now, race will continue to haunt our society for many generations to come. And what better way to start the conversation by admitting that all of us are racists?

(This first appeared on the Mail and Guardian Thoughtleader site in October 2007)