Racism is so much more than words

When it comes to something as insidious, old and dangerous as racism, it may be wise to pause and consider the eloquence with which some victims of racism have been silent or silenced, or both.

Sometimes the unsettling outcome of the unbearable urge to scream one’s lungs out in anger and exasperation is a deafening sound of utter silence. This is the first example of silence.

Another type of silence is that of the beneficiaries of racism. Consider the fact that, for more than 21 years at least, we have had a severe drought of outspoken people, black or white, who champion the strug-gle against white racism. Gillian Schutte is an outstanding exception in this regard.

But the compelling message and meaning of persistent incidents of racism may lie not so much in the eloquent articles or social media postings of the chattering classes, but rather in the loaded silences of the victims and the tenacious silences of the beneficiaries. As well as reading and interpreting the textual subterfuge that often erupts (alongside genuine commentary) after incidents of racism, we ought to learn to read the silences as well.

There is a problem of an inability to appreciate racism in its historical context. Racism against African people is a global system whose roots go back to the approximately 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade – a global economic system built on African people as property. To facilitate the trade, Europeans constructed what Chinua Achebe calls “a vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa” and Africans, essentially suggesting that they were less than human.

Classical chattel slavery may no longer be here, but the reservoir of derogatory images remains to facilitate modern forms of slavery.

No sooner had slavery ended than colonialism started, unleashing the next stage of the global economic system built on the subjugation of peoples of colour. If the main rationale for slavery was that Africans were less than human, the main rationale for colonialism was supposedly “scientific”, based on the theories about various and hierarchical species of human “races”, as well as Social Darwinism. In terms of these, black people were not only supposed to be a different species but, in line with a bastardised form of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, they were alsopart of the “dying races” to be naturally selected for elimination on account of their unfitness.

This was the main idea behind the “colonial shows” staged in many European cities in which Africans, such as Sarah Baartman, would be paraded “in their natural habitat” before entranced European audiences. Members of these soon-to-be-extinct savage species had to be seen and even preserved in museums.

Scientific racism has since been thoroughly debunked, but its effects continue.

A terrible consequence of Social Darwinism was the German genocide of the Nama and the Herero of present-day Namibia. Ironically, part of the reason for their extermination, was that the Nama, especially the Witbooi Nama, and the Herero showed no signs of being either unfit for survival or eager to surrender to an allegedly superior race.


Given the terrible history of racism, to reduce racism against black people to words and phrases is a gross travesty. Racism is not just what people say, it is what people do to fellow human beings with a view to diminishing their humanity in order to facilitate either their exploitation or their extermination.

Schutte has pointed out that, once verbal racists realise that it is inappropriate to speak of black people in explicitly racist terms, especially in public, they quickly establish a “new linguistic code no longer peppered with derogatory apartheid terms”. The result is a “new form of non-racist yet racist discourse … manifested in a colour-blind Rainbow Nation discourse [that] … insinuates racism rather than blurt(s) it out”.

Although racism lives on in the hearts and heads of individuals, its most productive habitat is in social and economic structures, practices and cultures. Once it is well embedded, it can proceed on virtual autopilot for hundreds of years. Policing racism in the verbal statements of individuals is inadequate as long as the structural, economic and cultural incarnations and incubators of racism are left untouched.

To put it differently, if the social media racism of the Penny Sparrow kind existed only in her mind and was expressed only on the social media, she could be roundly and justifiably ignored. The problem is that, in this country, there is resonance between online white racism and real-life white racism.

Look around you and you will see that, despite the overhyped growth of the black middle class, despite the rhetoric of transformation, racist apartheid social and economic structures remain largely intact: white men and white women remain on top, followed by the rest, with black women at the very bottom.

Contrary to a recurrent sentiment most eloquently expressed by Mbembe in a recent article, it will not be enough merely to make the lives of individual racists in our midst uncomfortable. We must disrupt the deeply embedded and automated processes of racist institutions that ration out economic and other forms of advantage. We must unmask what Schutte calls “the veiled racism that wears a polite smiling façade”.

Current racist outbursts must be understood against the backdrop of a country, having emerged out a divisive and racial past, that has opted for a cultural model that privileges whiteness in a hundred and one ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in matters pertaining to languages, English accent, education, dress and economic opportunity, to name but a few.

Twenty-first-century racism is mutating and not dying. Nowadays, racism seldom drives alone. Sexism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, classism and other forms of exclusion often accompany it. To understand and track racism, we must not look only at places in which it once lived but also at intersections between racism and other forms of exclusion.

We must maintain a critical albeit courteous regard for everyone who suggests we deal with the problem by ignoring it or by not prioritising it.

Journalist and author Martin Plaut is a good example of such an approach when he responds to the Sparrow and Velaphi Khumalo sagas with anger over what he regards as the penchant of South Africans to engage in the “endless probing into the disgusting things that

stupid people say”. According to

him, South Africans should perpetually celebrate the ending of apartheid, instead.

Plaut further suggests that there are so many more important things to worry about such as unemployment, corruption, the falling rand, violence and failing schools. “Forget the idiotic ramblings of a minority. Stop pulling down statues,” he says.

His failure to consider the possibility that there may be connections between the problems he lists and white racism is astounding.

The optimism intended in the statement that racism is a problem of the minority is misleading. It is rather indicative of the problem of racism denialism. Instead of putting anti-racism structures, programmes and initiatives in place, many, including the government, appear to think that, if we can downplay racism and pretend it is no longer a problem, it will go away.

Though we have largely spoken about racism as something done to humans by fellow humans, and something done to humans by external forces and structures, there is a dimension to the blight that is underestimated. I refer to internalised racism.

The first victim of internalised racism is its bearer. These are the people who, despite appearances, may have believed and internalised the lie of racism about the inferiority or superiority of races, including what they consider to be their own “races”.

Last year, Nobel Peace literature laureate Toni Morrison was asked what, in her view, will signal the end of racism in the United States. Her response was as instructive as it was disturbing. She said: “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then, when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”

Go on, pick your own South African equivalents of things that would signal the end of white racism.

Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on twitter @ProfTinyiko

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