/ 23 November 2009

Confessions of a racist

She looks like an ANCYL spokesperson and is probably from Durban. <i>Verashni Pillay</i> wonders if that makes her a racist.

Did you know I’m a racist? It’s true. A commenter on my last column told me so. You see, I had the temerity to take on the racism allegations around the Eskom leadership crisis using the facts. I was summarily told I was so as I was obviously from a certain province (read: KwaZulu-Natal) where ”my people” treated black people with absolute disdain. Thank God — for once — that I’m actually from Pretoria. Does that mitigate my racial guilt?

Evidently not, for a commenter in my next column, where I argued we should not polarise political figures into heroes and villains, suggested I clearly have a hidden agenda, as I look like the ANC Youth League spokesperson. Magdalene Moonsamy, I assumed, though perhaps Floyd Shivambu and I have a certain similarity around the eyes.

So there you have it folks: five generations later I’m nailed by my Indian-ness. If my byline and photograph were more African I guess the person disagreeing with my point of view would have to resort to another convenient label. Perhaps I would then be termed a coconut? That would be more familiar territory for me at least.

You see, I’ve never been called a racist before. But here’s the twist in the tale; I was too busy using the term myself. I have insinuated as much against plenty of other people — white people. Try growing up in Pretoria leading up to and immediately after 1994. I used to think it was 10 years behind the rest of the country in terms of integration. Then I moved to Cape Town.

If racism wasn’t as real as it was for my parents, who were forcibly removed from their homes at the height of apartheid, an exaggerated racial awareness plagued my dealings with others for a very long time. If I laugh at race-obsessed commenters I must remember how often I resorted to pulling the race card in the mainly white circles I have found myself in throughout my life.

I interrogated their questions (no, I’m not from Durban), criticised their stereotypes and took issue with their friendship choices. (”Omo friendships!” I’d sarcastically note, on the outside of yet another social group — or the lonely token within. ”Keep your whites tight and your coloureds out of sight”). I faltered under the burden of my life as shaped by our political past: the segregated neighbourhood, the introduction to a formerly white-only school for the first time at age 12. I saw racial bias where there was only common rejection and mangled opportunities to enlighten when confronted with real racism. I’ve stuttered barbed retorts to stinging comments, refused to understand and chosen to malign and insult anyone and anything that hurt me.

It’s exhausting work, I can tell you. But the release of forgiveness, of understanding and acceptance, is a long road and one that literally took a divine intervention for me to embark upon.

We all have a similarly convoluted history to deal with. You don’t grow up in a country like ours without it. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon, endearing stories about five year olds not knowing ”what” their friends are, aside. The yawning race-aligned gap between haves and have-nots means we’re in trouble for some time yet.

I visited a ”Zulu assembly” at my eight-year-old niece’s school last week. She attends a top private school, where she literally has more opportunity than most people have their entire lives. A line of grade-seven boys before me was an allegory of the most depressing kind for the state of our nation. A series of white boys seated themselves on the floor from the wall onwards, with a handful of black boys following. But owing to the number of relatives watching there just wasn’t enough space.

The white boys had taken as much room as they needed to sit cross-legged. The black boys were completely cramped and barely able to sit. One lad refused to accept the situation. ”Ryan!” he shouted down the row. ”Move up!” The boy in question looked askance: he was using only as much as he needed. But he didn’t realise how much worse it was for the boys further down. The refrain went on for a good 10 minutes ”Ryan!! Move up!”, with the black boy getting increasingly resentful until a prefect intervened to ensure a more equitable distribution of space.

I could only think two words as I looked down on this scene. ”We’re fucked.” It’s an indication of how horrible that moment of clarity was if you knew I never swear.

I can only hope that it is not so. That we’ll be able to understand why we need to give a little, and understand a little, before we can all have enough to sit comfortably together.

Understanding the ”other” is never easy. But it’s critically important. For the nation? Perhaps. But mostly for yourself. If you’re resorting to the race card in every debate, hiding behind a pseudonym and leaving vitriolic comments on every article, take a moment and think about what you’re doing. The tenor of debate — and I use that term in the loosest sense — on articles on this and other local news sites is sometimes sickening. Instead of firing off malicious racially charged slander at people you disagree with, try understanding their point of view and engaging with them respectfully. You may find yourself far more successful in getting your point across.

  • You can read Verashni’s column on the M&G Online every Monday, and follow her on Twitter here.