Let's try a Kumbaya approach to racism

Roses for justice: The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in the United States laid bare the distrust between races. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

Roses for justice: The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in the United States laid bare the distrust between races. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

An incident like the recent coffin assault, as horrific as it was, serves certain psychological purposes for the nation.

Black South Africans point to it as validation of the view that white South Africans remain unreconstructed bigots. “Best” whites use it as a way of differentiating themselves from the bad whites. Disgruntled white South Africans seize on the media furore as evidence that bad things that happen to white people are not taken as seriously. Political parties scramble to be the most vocal in denouncing it: the ultimate racism slayers.

Amid this outpouring of sound and fury, relatively little time is devoted to asking: What can we do to prevent this stuff recurring? Is there any practical way to create a less racist society? Even typing these words, I feel a bit foolish – like the type of middle-aged white woman who wears dangly earrings and has a dubious degree in conflict resolution. In reality, my ears aren’t even pierced. Please bear with me.

Discussions about public racism at the moment are dominated by the best ways to punish it. How much should the Penny Sparrows pay in fines? How many hours of community service should the Penny Sparrows perform? Should the Penny Sparrows go to jail?

I understand this punitive discourse. People are tired of dealing with this shit, and it’s not going anywhere. Why should white racism endlessly be given a pass in a black majority country?

I’ve become interested in whether this technique works to create a less racist society. My gut feeling is that it doesn’t. For one thing, it individualises racism; it narrows down the lens to a few rotten apples rather than considering wider conditions. For another, what happens to the Penny Sparrows after their public shaming and potential criminal prosecutions?

Is anyone seriously suggesting that Penny Sparrow now understands why her views are so ignorant? Does anyone think that Penny Sparrow painstakingly read her way through all the think pieces explaining the offensive history of simian metaphors applied to black people?

My suspicion is that the only lesson the Penny Sparrows take from this recent crackdown on public racism is the following: don’t say those things in public. Save them for the inner circle you know shares your views. Keep them for the braai. In this way, racism now simply simmers and bubbles just ever so slightly under the surface.

Is that preferable to a society where everyone feels free to spew racism without self-censoring? Yes, in my view. But it doesn’t do anything to address the underlying racial hatred.

The United States is wrestling with this matter, now that liberals have finally woken up to just how racist many of their fellow citizens appear to be. A study carried out by researchers at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, looked at how to reduce another person’s bigotry and came up with one potential solution: a short, nonconfrontational, face-to-face conversation. In their trial, voters’ attitudes to transgender rights shifted fairly significantly after such a conversation.

  The Vox website published a partial transcript of one such chat. It went like this: canvasser Virginia asks voter Gustavo whether he supports transgender rights. Gustavo says no, because “I’m from South America and we don’t like fags”. Virginia responds: “I’m gay”, in a friendly, conversational manner, rather than immediately denouncing him for his homophobia. That proves key: the two go on to have a civil, interested discussion. At the end, Gustavo says: “Listen, probably I was mistaken.”

Listening to people – asking them to explain their views and the fears that undergird their prejudice – turns out to be potentially a lot more effective in shifting views than instantly dismissing them as bigots.

Simply labelling people as racists doesn’t magically stop them being racists – in fact, it often causes them to double down on their views out of anger at being insulted.

Here’s the problem with all this feel-good stuff, though: it requires superhuman amounts of time and empathy. Sitting down with South Africans who hate black people and talking through the subtleties of their prejudice is nobody’s idea of a good time. Least of all black South Africans, I imagine, who are tired of consistently having to take the high road.

These thoughts have been percolating in my head for a few weeks. I’ve been playing with them in an entirely hypothetical fashion. Last weekend, however, something happened to jolt me out of my dreamy liberal bubble. I was caught up in what rapidly escalated into a kind of racial brawl, sparked by unsolicited racist comments by a white man to the people of colour I was with. Things got very nasty very quickly. I pleaded with my companions to leave. “It’s not worth it,” I said.

Easy for me to say. I wasn’t the one being targeted with words dripping with poison and hate. In the face of such provocation, how could I possibly propose Kumbaya chats?

When it comes to shifting racist views, there are no easy answers – but I still think the questions are worth asking.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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