/ 15 March 2019

Not a racist? Then do something

If you think it is annoying to talk about racism, try being a victim of racism. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


You could have sworn that singer Danny K had started World War III this week when he tweeted that not enough white people call out racism.

It is mind-boggling that people still refuse to consider privileges they do not deserve. Instead of reflecting on this call to action, many simply raged at him instead of introspecting.

Of course, it is not actually that mind-boggling because we know what drives this refusal by beneficiaries of hegemony to be drawn into dialogue about their unearned privileges. It is motivated by an unsubtle desire to simply hold on to privileges that have been passed down intergenerationally.

When you benefit from the status quo, any potential disruption of that can cause anxiety, anger and resentment, and result in trolling and fighting back against anyone who dares to raise questions aimed at achieving a more just society.

This is true not just of the history of racism but also of the histories of other forms of oppression such as patriarchy. I tire of men who needlessly obsess about being recognised as morally outstanding allies in the fight for gender equality before they can entertain generalisations that, although not literally true, are reasonable.

We saw, for example, many men’s responses to #MenAreTrash obsessively being about exceptions to the dominant patterns in our society. If you know that you are not guilty of misogyny, then why is your first response to be extremely angry at the general formulation of the claim that men oppress women?

READ MORE: Men are trash … end of discussion

I do not think someone can be regarded as a genuine ally interested in bringing about gender equality if they obsess about punting the refrain #NotAllMen as their first or their primary response to #MenAreTrash.

A committed and genuine ally must focus on the big picture. He listens to women speak to the realities of patriarchy, and he listens generously, closely and with a view to understanding rather than simply waiting to speak.

In the real world, it is true that men, in general, oppress women. This should not get your patriarchal blood boiling. You should not demand recognition as an outlier before you are willing to speak to fellow men and boys about ending rape culture and ending other forms of gender-based violence.

What we get angry about the most, and what we get angry about first, can be revealing about what we care about most deeply. And, frankly, men who spend most of their energies demanding that general descriptions of the nature of patriarchy should always be qualified with recognition of exceptions reveal a kind of narcissism at work rather than showing true commitment to social justice, activism and substantive equality.

The same is true of racism. Of course, it is true that some white people do a lot to root out racism in our society and that some black people are also racist. It is nevertheless unhelpful and false to pretend that there is moral equivalence between race groups when it comes to experiences of racism. By this I mean the pedestrian historical and contemporary reality that most victims of racism are black and the majority of perpetrators and beneficiaries of racism are white.

On what basis can any thinking South African dispute this? Other than, of course, in the racist echo chambers of Twitter, where the beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid can create their own realities aimed at affirming false claims about life in South Africa in 2019.

We should not be deterred by these narratives and continue the demands for racial justice and a more egalitarian and just South Africa. This fight for justice is a political and moral burden we must discharge. Indeed, we have been too tardy for too long in marching towards a more inclusive and fair society.

One of the most laughable responses to Danny K asking of fellow white South Africans to call out racism when they witness it must be those responses from people who say that white South Africans are gatvol and implying that they are under siege, that they are the big losers in democracy.

Two points are worth making in response to this balderdash. First, white people are the biggest beneficiaries of democracy, not black people. Whites, by way of example, still enjoy, as a demographic, single-digit unemployment. Black people have never known what it means to belong to a racial group that is loved so intimately by the labour market.

The anecdote of that one laaitie who went off to find a job in Australia or Canada is no substitute for aggregate data about how assets, wealth, land and jobs are disproportionately distributed in favour of white South Africans. It is lekke to be white.

Second, it is sheer and unjustifiable emotional abuse to say you are gatvol with talk about racialised privileges and racism. If you think it is annoying to talk about racism, try being a victim of racism. It is poor black people who have the biggest reason to be gatvol and not the few middle-class black people or the majority of white people who live decent lives.

I wonder how many of these gatvol white South Africans would last a week living under the conditions of poverty that most black people still live under, while remaining quiet, dignified and getting on with surviving racialised inequalities, without editing the spelling errors of people who challenge their ideas on Twitter.

This is why introspection matters. Your reality is not necessarily the reality of your domestic worker, your gardener or even your colleague, who seems to be your equal at work but whose familial burdens speak to a connection to poverty that you may be unaware of.

And, for me, that is the generous way to interpret the thought that Danny K wanted to spark. He simply wanted fellow white South Africans to recognise that being silent while the remnants of racism prevail makes one complicit in injustice.

The same is true of patriarchal violence. It is not good enough not to beat your wife. What are you actively doing to dismantle patriarchy as a man? Similarly, what are you actively doing to eliminate anti-black racism as a white person?

There is an uncomfortable element to this discussion that we have to

lift to the surface. Many of us think that it is sufficient that we do no direct harm. That, I am afraid, is not morally good enough. If you are implicated in the history of injustice, for example by benefiting from injustices you did not create, then you have an ethical duty to actively eliminate the prevailing injustice.

The minimal burden of not doing direct harm cannot be the acceptable standard in our context. The bar must be raised higher if you want to be considered a morally decent person interested in justice.

Of course, you may not care about a just society. If you don’t, then at least do not pretend you care about justice by abusing the language of activists when your attitude and behaviour demonstrate otherwise. Simply come out and admit that you only care about not directly harming others and for the rest of the time you care about preserving your privileges.

Being an ally in the fight for a just society isn’t easy. If you want to deserve to be regarded as an ally then you need to reflect on and meet the positive duties you have as an ally, such as calling out racism and not simply doing nothing, like not being overtly racist yourself.