Analysis

Racism is not ignorance – it is an assault on our freedom

Thorne Godinho

Racism will exist as long as people are shackled to identities they never had a chance to define, writes Thorne Godinho.

Racism must be seen as an assault on the freedom of a person. (Reuters)

You know this scene all too well: you're in a supermarket queue and the person in front of you whispers a racist epithet under their breath. Apparently black checkout assistants are to blame for the snarl-up.

Or you stumble into a serious debate where accusations of racism are used as a distraction to shut down any further meaningful engagement.

These scenes are all too common and hardly outline the extent of the problem. The perpetuation of this subtle bigotry (and the more overt, aggressive racism) in a post-apartheid context raises two issues: first, we need to frame racism as something more negative – poisonous even – than ignorance or mere misconception; second, we need to start talking about identity in a meaningful manner – by creating space for a radical individualist narrative, we can combat the worst effects of racism and racial collectivism.

Race, like all forms of identity, is complex. Identity isn't just about what society labels you as, but also what you consider yourself to be. A free society doesn't shackle its citizens to the labels attached by others in supermarkets or petty debates.

Societal labels inform the kind of story your skin tells another person. These stories aren't centred on our personal journeys, values or beliefs. Instead, this narrative is founded on the voices and prejudices of others – of the collective.

Racism exists comfortably within the confines of these stories – telling us who to fear, what we can do and how we should live our lives.

Racism must be seen as an assault on the freedom of a person; every time someone launches into telling someone else's story through racism (or any form of bigotry for that matter) we rob the victim of the right to define who they are, and what they consider themselves to be. Decisions regarding our identity cannot be left to the vagaries of others.

That's why we need to reconsider seeing racism as fringe behaviour practised by ignorant people we don't agree with. Instead we must recognise it as an assault on the freedom of an individual.

This is an assault that leaves every­one infinitely poorer, including the perpetrator. Instead of allowing ourselves to experience the other, we experience what we erroneously expect from the other.

Racism, like other forms of prejudice, can only exist through the perpetuation of these impersonal stories and narratives. When we see racism as an intimate assault that removes choice – for all the parties involved – we may better understand how this behaviour conflicts with the notion that all have inherent dignity and rights.

Racism isn't just something practised by the drunken right-wing uncle you see at Christmas, or the parent who taught you never to trust certain types of people because of the colour of their skin. The stories of racism and racial collectivism deny us the right to forge our own future – free of preconceived notions and expectations.

That's why we need to create the space for a radical-liberal approach to race in our continued national dialogue on race. We can erase the stories embedded in our skin, and begin to talk to each other about our own unique experiences. These personal stories will likely recount a history of fear, feelings of inferiority and privilege bestowed on some.

These stories are intimate and could break down some of the barriers that have been created by the people who want to recount our stories for us. There are far too many people – from apartheid apparatchiks to our current president – who have spoken and continue to speak the stories of our skin.

It's time we took ownership of our identities.

The problems of race and racism will exist as long as people are shackled to identities they never had a chance to define. When people are truly free – free to shape their individual selves as they see fit, and are judged only by their lived realities – then we can laugh at the memory of that racist uncle.

Until then, racism is no laughing matter.

Thorne Godinho is an editor of the Pretoria Student Law Review.

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