There's only one race, the human race, Ms Marais

There is an old saying, used often in Islamic circles, that the intention is as good as the deed. Of course, this is not always true because deeds often differ from stated intentions.

Take the case of Paula Marais, who claims she set out to produce a book “intended to encourage interactions between cultures”. Instead, what she produced has been widely criticised for being racist, insensitive and full of stereotypes.

The book Marais published, Rainbow Nation Navigation: A Practical Guide to South African Cultures, looks at supposedly different cultures in South Africa. One of her offensive chapters lists a few examples of things “coloured” people are supposed to do, such as women worrying about whether their hair would “mince”.

Marais was quoted this week as saying: “It is a true tragedy that the intention of the book has been lost. My brother came down from travelling through Africa and felt inspired to try to get to know his fellow countrymen. I did too. We both had, or were expecting, children and we wanted them to grow up in a more tolerant country.”

I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, although it is really difficult to see her book as anything other than a botched economic opportunity.

Similar but different sentiments guided me when I launched the “One City, Many Cultures” project at the Cape Times in 1999, except I would never refer to Africa as if it is on some other continent. We need to refer to it as “our continent”. This, I have learnt over the years, is a mistake South Africans, and particularly Capetonians, tend to make.

The difference between what we did at the Cape Times and what Marais did in her book lies in the execution. But execution is informed by a worldview and if your worldview is based on ignorance, then you are bound to make mistakes, especially when it comes to unpacking different religions, races and cultures.

This is a very complex area of study and not something that can be entered without a great deal of sensitivity.

Readers with long memories will remember “One City, Many Cultures” attempted to debunk the myth that we are all so different.

We showed through our almost daily articles that, while we think we are different, we have far more in common. This was driven by a belief that we are, after all, human beings and part of one human race; race is a construct meant to divide us and culture is also often used as a way to justify keeping people apart.

Every week, we looked at how we related to what I call the important things in life, but which are never really reflected in the mainstream media, such as birth, growing up, teenage years, becoming adults, how we look after our elderly, and death and remembrance.

I will never forget bumping into the person who was writing about death and remembrance. He told me that he had just returned from a Jewish funeral and how remarkably similar it had been to a Muslim funeral he attended the previous week. This was precisely the impact that I, as editor, and everyone else at the Cape Times wanted to create.

In short, we wanted to unite people, rather than divide them, and we used the method of investigating what we have in common. We are all born, grow up, become teenagers and adults, grow old (if we are lucky to live long enough) and eventually die. And all of us, irrespective of our cultures, religions or supposed race groups, mark these life events in some way, often in similar ways.

Marais, on the other hand, seems to have gone out of her way to explore the differences between what she perceives to be cultures and this approach was always going to be a problem.

When you do what she did, you end up “otherising” people (if there is such a word). You end up creating or reinforcing perceptions of differences between people which is often used as an excuse to create mistrust among people.

This is one of the problems I have with anthropology. It seems as though anthropologists go out of their way to find differences between groups of people, and sometimes those differences don’t exist.

Apartheid was premised on the fact that blacks and whites look different and that they were not supposed to mix, and we saw the damage this caused.

Donald Trump’s attempts to keep immigrants out of the US are based on the same premise, and we can see the damage it is causing.

It appears there is a thin line between wanting to do good and what could be perceived as racism or other forms of discrimination. Let’s hope that Marais and others like her learn from this experience and do not make the same mistake in future. Hopefully then, their deeds will reflect their intentions.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 18 February 2017)