Achievements should not be reduced to racial issues

One of the things that have always irritated me, even when our democracy was still very young, was the labelling of achievers as “the first …”

It was not unusual to refer to someone as the first black pilot, the first black woman engineer, the first black train driver, or the first white beggar (ok, the last one was just to mess with your mind a bit).

Almost 20 years ago, when I was still with the Cape Times, I used to discourage such descriptions because, instead of celebrating achievements, they tend to cast aspersions on the person who had achieved.

But, I also believed, and still do, that labelling people in this manner, probably says more about the person who is doing the describing than the person who is being described. It indicates to me that you are not able to accept what the other person has achieved and feel the need to reduce his or her achievements to race and, by invoking race, you invoke all the negative stereotypes associated with race.

But you can also create the perception that the person does not deserve his or her achievements and that they would not have had that achievement if it was not for their race.

I argued with my reporters that, if they thought it was necessary to describe the person as “the first black”, it needs to add value to the story and it should not be the first thing that is mentioned about this person.

I have always been nervous about racial descriptions of any kind in the media. For instance, I used to agonise every time we referred to a wanted criminal by his or her race, because if your main descriptor is that the wanted person is “a black man”, then you could effectively be pointing a finger at every black man in South Africa.

It is not a good descriptor and as journalists, I argued, we should rather find better ways to describe people. I’m not saying that race should not be used as a descriptor, but it should never be the main or overriding descriptor.

Imagine my surprise this week when I read a story about the appointment of Springbok player Siya Kolisi as the new captain of the Stormers, the Western Cape based rugby team. In the headline and the opening paragraphs, Kolisi was described as “the first black African captain” of the Stormers.

I could imagine all the people who think that blacks should not play rugby – and there are still many of them around – thinking that this was the beginning of the end of the world. Then there will also be the people who will hope that he does not fail because, if he does, they might never appoint a “black African” captain again.

I remember when I became editor of the Cape Times when I was in my mid-30s, the newspaper articles all mentioned the fact that I was “young”. By using that word to describe me, they tried to conjure up all the negatives that some people would normally associated with being young, such as being reckless, impetuous and immature.

I realised that a year or two before that, a white person who was younger than me had also been appointed to edit another paper and none of the articles referred to him as “young”. Instead, they called him a “whiz kid”.

The same reporters who happily write about the “first blacks” don’t ever write the race of someone who has achieved if that person happens to be white. It is almost an unwritten rule that white people are expected to achieve these things while for black people it must be an exception.

For how long must we tolerated stories about “the first”? And how deep will these divisive descriptions still go? “The first black”, “the first coloured”, “the first Indian”, “the first Xhosa”, “the first Muslim”, “the first gay”, “the first disabled person”? I must admit I have yet to read stories about “the first Christian”, “the first straight person” or “the first able-bodied person” to achieve something. Maybe they are considered to be the norm and everything else, well, abnormal.

I have no false illusions about how deeply entrenched race, racism and other prejudices still are in our society. We struggle not to see people in race terms because it sometimes helps us to determine how we should react to certain people or what we should expect from them.

All I am asking is for us to think twice, maybe even thrice, before we decide to apply racial labels to anyone. It might not be your intention to cause harm, but they harm that you cause could run quite deeply.

Even if Kolisi does not mind being referred to as “the first black African Stormers captain”, I am sure he would prefer to be known as the Stormers captain and a very good rugby player, which is what he is.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 February 2017)