Let's not paint all people with the same racist brush

One of the questions I always get asked when I host discussions or workshops on racism is whether it is possible for black people to be racist. This, of course, provokes a discussion about what racism is because who has the power to be racist needs to be understood within the context of the definition of racism.

I have always maintained that it is possible for anyone to be racist because racism is an individual action often based on perceptions of group identity. People who think that they are superior to people who might not look or sound like them have the potential to be racist. It is possible for black people to think that they are superior to white people, and act on it, as is the case with the reverse.

I have serious problems with people who want to attribute values to groups as opposed to individuals. By doing this, they can create perceptions that everyone who has certain perceived attributes in common have the same values, hold the same opinions, etc. This is of course blatantly untrue.

You cannot say that all white people share the same views on everything, just like you can’t say that all black people share the same views. You could replace black or white in this statement with any description of a group you can imagine. So, do all gay people share the same views, or all old people, or all left-handed people?

Racism is often based on ignorance combined with prejudices about characteristics attributed to certain groups. Based on our perception of these groups, we react to them in ways that could be deemed to be racist.

I thought about black racism this week when I noticed on social media how some people, mainly supporters of President Jacob Zuma, attacked Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom for daring to ask the President to step down from office. Many supporters of the President started attacking Hanekom on the basis that he is white.

Knowing Hanekom, I don’t think he possesses most of the attributes that would normally be ascribed to whites by people who peddle in prejudice. But that should not matter in this situation. Hanekom, as a legitimately elected member of the ANC’s national executive committee surely has the right to raise whatever motions he feels will take the ANC and the country forward. Those who disagree with him have the right to oppose that motion.

Hanekom was not elected to the ANC NEC on the basis of being white even though his appointment to the Cabinet by the President might have been influenced by this in some way. In a country like South Africa, with a history based on racial oppression, it is important for the President to make sure that he reflects different demographics in his Cabinet.

But if we disregard Hanekom’s contribution because he is white, then are we also going to disregard the contribution of people like Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg, Bram Fischer, Ric Turner, Neil Aggett, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, Jeremy Cronin, etc. All of them contributed to our society as patriots and not as “whites”. This applies to Hanekom too.

It took a remarkable amount of bravery for Hanekom to propose his motion against the President knowing that he could be relieved of his ministerial duties if he failed. After all, he serves at the pleasure of the President in who he has just expressed no confidence.

But the issue is about much more than Hanekom.

I am concerned about some of the comments on social media by young black people who say things like “I don’t trust whites” or “I hate whites”. I have also been concerned by some people who, when they are attacked because of their incompetence or because of corruption, say they are being attacked because of being black. Very senior members of government are guilty of doing this recently.

Incompetence and corruption are bad and have nothing to do with skin colour. Using the race card is often the last defence of people who realise that the criticism aimed at them is valid or who have inferior arguments.

Trying to reduce everything to black and white is not helpful because you cannot paint all white or black people with the same proverbial brush. This is dangerous and could polarise our already fragile society even further.

I agree that whites still benefit the most from the economy and in general could have done more to contribute towards the equalisation of our society. But we should rather look at this from an economic perspective rather than a racial perspective.

We should rather look at ways in which we can reduce the gap between rich and poor rather than focusing on race and missing the big picture.

Racism in any form is bad, whether it comes from whites or blacks. We can only really fight it if we realise that all of us are capable of practising and perpetuating it.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 3 December 2016)