There’s more to racism than meets the eye
Academic and political analyst Sithembile Mbete taught me a simple but crucial insight into the true cost of racism. There is a lot intuitively wrong with racism that can easily be described in some detail.
The obvious harms of racism can, however, also lead to us stopping short, inadvertently, of accounting fully for the total cost of racism. Racism, Mbete reminded me and an audience at the Apartheid Museum in 2017, constitutes a waste of human potential.
I think it is necessary for us to pause over this insight, flesh it out and allow ourselves to confront the full horror of the total cost of racism.
When racism’s victims are not allowed to reach their fullest human potential, that is quite literally an inefficient use of human resources from a societal perspective.
This is, for good reason, not foremost on our minds when we describe the loss of dignity that racism’s victims suffer. It makes sense that the psychological and moral harms inherent in racism be central to any acceptable account of the nature of racism.
Talk of “human resources”, in this context, might even strike one as peripheral at best, and as callously misplaced at worst.
But it isn’t misplaced to reflect on lost potential. I have fond childhood memories of my father teaching me new words from an English dictionary as I was lying on the bed next to him; he would flip through the dictionary with me reading out some words and their definitions.
That, in turn, helped to build my vocabulary. I have fond memories of him teaching me how to tell the time on a clock, role-modelling an interest in the news and current affairs, and more.
My father was a deeply curious man, and still is. He, however, left school in standard six, and had to go join the army and learn a practical skill set. He ended up in the construction sector years after leaving the South African National Defence Force.
To this day, my father’s experiential knowledge of building is as good as any degreed professional. Indeed, his affable business partner, a younger but affluent white man with better formal education, cannot do business without the magisterial knowledge of my father when it comes to everything from engaging engineers on critical structural questions about a building to negotiating with customers in Port Elizabeth about the costing of a project.
Why am I telling you this? Because, although I am enormously proud of my dad for not needing a matric certificate or a degree to have my intellectual respect, his story is, unfortunately, typical of literally thousands of black South Africans who could not reach their full potential, because of the deliberate effect of racist policies during colonialism and apartheid, which were there to ensure that racism’s victims do not reach their full potential.
I have a painful memory of being told by my standard one class teacher that my sister, two years older than I am, was smarter than me.
It isn’t painful because I am competitive and wish that the teacher had said that I was the smarter sibling! It is painful because my sister did not complete school and her academic potential was therefore squandered.
Now, let’s be clear here about a cluster of complexities we can and should hold all at once. Of course, this is partly about the violence of poverty in poor communities, resulting in some siblings having a chance to have dad and mom invest in them whereas other siblings must have their interests and potential sacrificed. My dad, for example, could not afford to send all his children to good, fee-paying schools.
But poverty in South Africa is not unconnected to the structure of racism. If you were born into a poor or working-class coloured community, such as the one I grew up in, a community that was set up in direct compliance with the racist Group Areas Act, then you are less rather than more likely to have access to opportunities to reach your full human potential.
Who knows what my sister might have become in her life, absent the effects of being born into a racial enclave with resource deprivation flowing inherently from the racist architecture of apartheid?
The wasting of human potential is a silent but enormously negative consequence of racist societies.
First, most victims of prejudice enjoy a smaller range of life experiences and activities. I, the lucky one, have travelled the world, completed school and have three degrees; I read books weekly, live a complex, rich and cosmopolitan life away from the homogenous racial enclave into which I was born. But the exception does not disprove what is typical.
I now have to keep survivor’s guilt at bay with the privileged suburban help of my therapist here in Johannesburg.
All of this has been on my mind recently as I watch too many beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid failing to check their unearned historical privileges.
When you call out and criticise a racist you are sometimes made to feel guilty for possibly ruining their career and their life’s work.
You may even be called a “race merchant”, as journalist Barry Bateman brazenly did in a tweet attacking people who sympathised with former Springbok Ashwin Willemse, sympathy that flowed from recognising in Willemse’s brave act of walking off a television set, a familiar sense of being fed up with the cumulative effects of a barrage of daily micro-aggressions from colonialism’s beneficiaries.
But we are terribly misplaced in only bemoaning the fallen racist hero with no regard for how the victim of the racist must live with reduced or lost potential because of the effect of the racism that they suffered.
The impact of the victim being silenced, being bullied, being threatened, do not figure enough in our overall considerations about the true and total cost of racism.
Racism is quite literally an inefficient human resource management system.
The second effect of this inefficient system is that society is deprived of the full benefits of victims reaching their fullest potential. So, when we call out and ostracise and punish the racist, we need to render the victim visible in the same conversation in which we are tempted to feel bad for “ending the career” of the racist.
The same applies to sexual predators. I have seen so many citations of the brilliant CVs of men accused of sexual harassment, including rape. “But he is a gifted young filmmaker that the world still needs!”
It may be true and tragic that the world could henceforth be, sadly, deprived of the creative genius of a filmmaker who had shown promise and who had already achieved a hell of a lot.
Isn’t it shameful, extending the application of the framework I am borrowing from Mbete, that we do not speak about the opportunity cost of the filmmaker’s sexual predation?
What about the wasted human potential of the women who exited the creative industries because they walked away fearful of a powerful, popular man’s reprisal?
What about the woman filmmaker who might have, but for the sexual violence, in another universe, gone on to become the country’s most celebrated filmmaker? Why is her lost human potential ghosted in the discussion about the “sadness” about a brilliant man’s career being ended?
I don’t think any of us men are better than any other men, by the way. We are all implicated in patriarchy. There are perhaps degrees of toxic masculinity, but we all have it in us, myself included. Just as all white people are implicated in the history of white supremacy, even if only as beneficiaries of the choices made by their forefathers, so I cannot and do not claim any moral high ground about the themes explored here.
I am, for example, genuinely conflicted about what constitutes adequate retribution for racism or misogyny, especially the most violent and most criminal variations of these ideologies.
Should punishment come to an end, as many liberal theories of punishment demand? Should punishment be lifelong, or is that excessive? Should someone never again have the chance to live a productive public life? Can we fix conditions for when society will show grace to offenders?
I have no answers because, although I am no moral relativist, I think it would be foolhardy to deny complexity on such a clear, yet also messy, set of questions society is grappling with imperfectly, in real time and without the critical distance future generations will have in examining how our generation responded to increasing revelations of racism and misogyny, both here and elsewhere in the world.
The central appeal of this essay, ultimately, is that we make right by the victims of racism and patriarchy by not only expressing sadness at the lost potential of the perpetrator whose life has now been rudely interrupted. What about the lost potential of the victims?