Racist Rehab

This is an excerpt from my book Marrying Black Girls For Guys Who Aren’t Black (2013).

It is my contention that we are all racists, here in South Africa. It is the national pastime. And it is worth understanding that you can certainly be a racist without realising it. While explicitly not wanting to be a racist, it is still possible to be a racist.

Saying, “I’m not racist,” for instance, doesn’t automatically mean you’re not a racist. One of the founding principles of racism is ignorance, after all. Colonialism, that most racist of undertakings, was founded on the assumption that imperialism was in the best interests of the colonised/conquered subjects. It was the white man’s burden to uplift the unfortunate savages. Slavery was excused as a commercial venture mainly aimed at bringing religion to the spiritually bereft peoples of the dark continent.

Likewise, all modern white people have a stock reason why their racism isn’t racism. Why they don’t see race. They might say, “Oh, I was born in Botswana.” But this doesn’t automatically exempt you from our racist ranks. Sure, Botswana was freed from colonialism long before South Africa was. But if you learned non-racism between the ages of nought and seven, and then moved to South Africa and attended the most elitist private school in the country… In fact, one of those established to perpetuate colonialism and the idea that some people are innately better than others because of who they are… That was ample time to learn racism. Ample time.

Racism can be learned, sadly. In the same way xenophobia can. I’ve even experienced that bizarre moment where an immigrant tries to bond with me – also a recent arrival – by blaming “the immigrants” for all the country’s woes!

“I grew up on a farm,” is another common reason advanced for why someone couldn’t possibly be racist. Oh ja? But other farm dwellers were Eugene Terre’blanche, PW Botha and BJ Vorster – a man who hated the English so much that he supported the Nazis in World War II! After that he became an apartheid icon and eventually replaced Hendrik Verwoerd in systematically subjugating the blacks of South Africa. So don’t think a farm heritage precludes you from being a racist. Okay, so you probably speak an African language and well done for that, but you still need to check yourself for racism, as we all should.

Another way of exonerating yourself from any question of racism – and one I’ve used myself – is to say you’ve worked with black people all your life. Just ask Mzwandile, who was your driver for two months on that contract in Graaff-Reinet? Or Sam, with whom you worked in the newsroom for six years and your best party trick was to ask him to remind you what “Your arse!” is in isiXhosa? One of the basics of workplace racism and exploitation is that the people are working together!

Struggle credentials also don’t inoculate you against contracting the sneaky infection of racism. Life is a journey, and where you were in 1988 is not where you’ll be in 2014. Some highly prejudiced statements have been uttered by so-called liberals because they are disappointed by the current ANC government. Attending some marches in the Eighties doesn’t give you a free pass to evict farm workers, beat shoplifters or call corrugated iron “kaffir sheeting” with a little smirk.

Also, just because your recent racist utterance was also spoken by a black person in a similar context doesn’t mean it’s not racist. “Sentletse said the same thing on Twitter,” you might gasp. And he’s black! So it can’t be racist! Er, actually, it is if you say it. The same statement that is biting sarcasm uttered by a black person can become horrifically racist when spoken by a white person. You’re white, that means you can’t say Jacob Zuma’s current bedside reading consists of Hustler, Playboy and Penthouse. I know, it’s terribly unfair, but that’s racism for you. Same with the K-word, the N-bomb and anything to do with whether there were “proper blacks” at the Cape in 1652. Can’t say it if you’re white.

I’ve spent my entire life utterly convinced I’m not a despicable racist. And consistently, every time I look back at the person I was three years ago, I realise that, okay, I was a bit of a racist then.

Of course, one is in a state of constant improvement. A state of Racist Rehab, if you will. When things get messy on Facebook, and a bunch of us racists start dropping R-bombs on each other, I like to take the moral high ground and say, “I know. I’m also a racist, but I’m in recovery.” In fact, it’s hard to be anything else, having been raised in a country where race is the currency of any kind of success, where the class oppression common worldwide is so closely grafted to skin colour.

The concept of racism is based on the idea that there are races. A fair case can be made for race being a figment of our imagination, seeing as all humans are genetically identical. Unfortunately, when it comes to doggedly inventing racial categories, South Africans are highly imaginative. For centuries, we’ve stubbornly clung to the idea that there are vastly different complexions, identities, cultures, languages, physiologies and more. Blame the settlers, the Voortrekkers, the Zulus, the imperialists, the mining cartels, the Afrikaners, the Africanists, the nationalists, the capitalists, the Youth League or the Freedom Front Plus, but all of us believe there are races. And the minute you believe that, you start making generalisations, comparisons and value judgements. Ta-dah! You’re a racist!

In countries like the UK, where everyone speaks the same language, with an overwhelmingly urban, first-world culture, similar literature and folklore, similar income levels and similar cultural reference points, to talk about racial differences seems churlish, childish, unsophisticated and, by definition, racist.

To insist that, for instance, Chelsea footballers Ashley Cole and John Terry are of different races is to totally miss that point. They are millionaire footballers, Londoners and Englishmen first, and black or white people a distant eleventh or so. Distinguishing appearance characteristics aside, they have just about everything in common. Including, some would say, that they are a couple of massive cocktonsils.

Of course, on the football field, John Terry can whip out the racial slurs with the worst of them. But an FA commission of enquiry found that despite calling QPR’s Anton Ferdinand a “f****** b**** c***”, he was not a racist. A twat then?

He was supported in his case by the aforementioned Ashley Cole, who initially testified that he only heard Terry call his opponent a f***** c***. Later, he asked for his testimony to be amended to include the word “black”. En route he also tweeted that the English FA were “a bunch of twats”.

Charming, no?

A nation of twats, one might speculate, and who knows? But today the British are, generally speaking, not a nation of racists.

Their distinguishing social categories are class-based, descended from the ancient “estates of the realm”, where social castes were determined by birth.

Today one can rise out of the class of one’s parents, or sink below it, but it’s bloody hard. As Andrew Gillingham notes in The Telegraph, Britons today are far more likely to suffer from class discrimination than racism.

So, for instance, British Pakistanis tend to be working class, poor or unemployed, but their fellow diaspora from the subcontinental colony, the British Indians, are often better educated and more affluent than whites.

Why? Because British Indians are the descendants of traders and merchants, while Pakistanis and Bangladeshis came to Britain to work in factories. The class of the immigrants from half a century ago has largely determined the fortunes of their descendants.

Working-class Pakistanis and blacks are joined in their straitened circumstances by millions of white people descended from the working classes of the industrial revolution and recently betrayed by the collapse of British manufacturing. Immigrants to Britain are also likely to join the ranks of the working classes, and these are as likely to be white-skinned Polish people, Portuguese, Czechs or Greeks as Africans or Asians.

Any discrimination in Britain is today more likely to be against immigrants as a class, than any particular so-called “race group”.

The think tank “British Future” found in a survey that most Britons see immigration as the biggest problem facing their society.

But enough about Britain. Back home in South Africa, we certainly believe in the existence of race and we have let it shape the very destiny of our country for centuries. Despite the arrival of democracy 20-odd years ago, race and class are practically synonymous. To be black is to be poor, while to be white is to be, if not rich, then gifted with a set of social advantages unknown to most of our black compatriots.

That would be the aforementioned set of circumstances that equipped me to type up this weighty tome of scintillating analysis, while my contemporary Thembelani today languishes in the same Silvertown township he grew up in eRhini.

It’s a kind of systematic racism, where the system itself perpetuates the prejudice. There’s democracy and freedom of opportunities, technically, officially. But to take advantage of those opportunities – sending your kid to the best school, say – you need money. To get money you need a job. To get the job, you need education. To get the right education, you need to stay in the right area. To stay there, your parents need money. And where does that come from? From the past several generations of the same system being in place.

You can change the legal system, but the economic one is slow to budge.

Witness the case of me and Baby. My folks are white, Baby was raised by a single black woman. Both families are in Port Elizabeth. Baby’s mom and my parents have the same rights, and “opportunities”, but the reality is that after 20 years of that, a retired teacher lives in Motherwell township NU5. Retired civil-engineering contractors live in leafy, affluent Walmer.

When the oppression of black people has been in place for so long that it’s soaked into the fabric of the economy, you no longer have to legislate racism for it to still exist. The injustice persists.

You do need to legislate to get rid of it, though. I guess that’s where Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) comes in.

Systematic racism aside, though, I personally am a racist in recovery.

We try to embrace the liberal values, or the Africanist ones, or whichever are the best ones. But every now and then, my PFP genes shine through.

You know when you start a statement during a dinner debate and as it comes out of your mouth, you realise you haven’t quite thought it through and you’re about to say something so un-PC you’ll take months to come back from it? But it’s too late to take the sentence in any different direction, and everyone’s looking at you, so you just have to follow through and pretend you really do believe that?

Well, that’s me.

“I spend a lot of time in Alexandra township and the streets are just filthy. You’d think the people, well, you’d think they’d take pride. You know, they should do something about it.”

To which my long-suffering wife will say, “Well, when last did you clean the streets here in Sandton where we live?”

The truth is I never have. I don’t know why the streets of Sandton are a hundred times cleaner than Alex, which is two kays away. But I know it’s not coincidental that the people here earn more money. It could be that Ward 91 is a DA ward. But then parts of Alex fall into the same ward, so go figure.

The black-led ANC has improved black people’s lives enormously, but not to the point where they are as good as white people’s. So there’s got to be some systematic racism at work, if a party geared to using all the levers of state power to reverse inequality still can’t do it. It’s the system, man.

And the system is there for me! So I’m a beneficiary even though I have no clue how this thing runs. You cannot for love or money find out who exactly is running this system. It’s not like there is a shadowy cabal of white illuminati holding monthly meetings where they discuss the management of the systematic economic racism system.

Unless that’s what the okes at the Free Market Foundation do, but I don’t think so.

So I’ve come up in a racist system, I’m a beneficiary of a racist system… My mindset and set of values were created in a racist system I benefited from… There’s no way I’m not a racist. The best we can do is accept that we need work and try to change.

Until that happens – if it ever does – don’t be too hard on yourself.

I’m a racist, and I’m pretty sure my black wife is too.

I know Steve Biko would disagree. He said racism is discrimination by one group to enforce subjugation of another, and therefore blacks cannot be racist. But for our purposes here, I think everybody can be racist. Especially if it means copying someone’s accent badly. And I’ve heard Baby doing coloured accents big time when Ashwin Willemse comes on the TV. Or when we’ve just come from a comedy show.

My coloured accent’s better than hers, though. That comes from hanging out with coloured people at jazz night at the Golden Fountain in Salsoneville. It has made me a better racist than her.

But it’s a close-run thing. We’re both pretty bad. The lingua franca in our household these days is an ironic township-English patois. We sit in front of TV mocking the accents of every single person who comes on the screen.

We totally believe in the creation of a free, democratic, non-racist and non-sexist South Africa. But until we get there, we’re a couple of racists and we deserve each other.

If you’re a racist too, don’t be too down on yourself. Acceptance is the first step to changing. You can also date a black girl, marry her, and have a whole lot of coloured children. It might help you learn not to be so racist.

That’s what I’m hoping happens to me!

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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