Racism morphs, takes new forms
White people must face up to their prejudice, then stop themselves from sliding into paralysing guilt, writes Judy Connors.
Ebrahim Harvey in “Racist rants expose [Andile] Mngxitama” (February 5) makes the valid point that we cannot talk about racism without “unambiguous clarity about [the definition of the term]”. He then chides Mngxitama for labelling all white people who took part in the anti-Zuma protests as “racists” and “fascists”.
I did not march in an anti-Zuma rally, although I wanted to. I too would like a president whose integrity, courage and visionary statesmanship could inspire me. The reason I didn’t join is that I am wary of associating myself with other white people who may have different motivations for calling for Zuma’s fall.
I am especially cautious of linking myself to a public campaign that carries a not-so-subtle subtext of: “See, we told you so – the black man does not know how to govern.”
It seems to me disingenuous for we whites to protest against something in this country, particularly when it is against someone of another race, if we’re not also prepared to march with the people of that same race to achieve greater equality, justice and fairness in all sectors.
I’m sure there were other whites who feel the same as I do and who still marched. So, indeed, it would be wrong to call all whites who participated in the #ZumaMustFall march racists or fascists.
But what Harvey calls for he does not do himself. He does not unambiguously define the term “racism” and the examples he gives (Chris Hart, Velaphi Khumalo, Penny Sparrow) are all forms of what might be called “old-fashioned” racism expressed on an interpersonal level.
Yes, there is still a great deal of old-fashioned racism that we need to face in ourselves and our country, but racism has morphed and has taken on new forms now.
The work of Dr Valerie Batts and Dr Julian Sonn is seminal here in that they comprehensively describe the forms of “modern racism” that have emerged and that play themselves out – not just on the interpersonal levels, but on the institutional and cultural levels too.
The concept becomes even more nuanced when we consider Harvey’s assertion that both black and white people can be racist. On the interpersonal level, yes, anyone can display racist behaviour.
But we define modern racism here as manifesting from a sense of internalised dominance, which by its very nature can only emerge in those who were part of the historically included groups. This does not mean that those who are from historically excluded groups are exempt from this conversation.
With these groups, the notion of internalised oppression can be very helpful in that it invites those who were targeted as “less than” to examine the conscious and unconscious ways in which they have taken in this belief of inferiority and act out of this belief, often by subtly devaluing those of their own group who may be perceived as having less power now.
But my invitation is more to us whites to reflect honestly on ourselves. So let us return to the discussion about modern racism.
One such form is dysfunctional rescuing. An interpersonal example of this would be the white motivational speaker who comes to speak to a group of township children: “If you just put your mind to it, you can achieve anything you like in life!”
An example on the systemic level could be: “I think we need to accept this as a pass, given that this student comes from such a difficult background.”
Another form of modern racism is blaming the victim. Again I give two examples, one on the interpersonal level and one on the institutional or systemic level: “A higher incidence of HIV among black people is due to risky behaviour,” and “Township schools perform worse than town schools because the teachers are less committed in the townships.”
Avoidance of contact is a third form of modern racism: “We are not teaching isiZulu because we are still looking for an isiZulu teacher,” and “RDP houses are still today being built along apartheid urban spatial geography lines in our country.”
The denial of difference is another: “We don’t have black and white in our church; we are all children of God,” and “Sorry, these forms are only available in English and Afrikaans.”
Finally, the denial of the significance of difference is a form of modern racism: “We are now 21 years into democracy – when are you going to get over apartheid and move on?” An institutional example could be: “There shouldn’t be quotas in rugby.”
Not all is lost, though, especially if we whites do not allow ourselves to slide into paralysing or shameful guilt.
Batts and Sonn provide us with alternative behaviours to each of the forms of modern racism listed above: functional helping, solving the problem rather than blaming the person, making mutual equitable contact, noticing differences and asking about the impact of difference.
Concluding this piece about how to think about racism, dominance and oppression would not be appropriate without a word on power. The concepts of power, rank and privilege deserve much greater attention in our country at this time.
But one of the trends that disturbs me is how quickly we whites say: “Oh, but that’s reverse racism.”
By definition, racism stems from a deep sense of internalised superiority by those who traditionally held power, and who very often still do in many spheres, even if not politically.
We would do well to ask ourselves: “What do we need to do, in humility and courage, to address the imbalance of power we have created, that has given rise to what now looks like reverse racism?”
Judy Connors is the director of Phaphama Initiatives, a nongovernmental organisation working in conflict transformation, diversity coaching, gender reconciliation and youth mentorship