Why white peo­ple don’t talk about race

CityPress - - Voices - Ernst Roets voices@city­press.co.za Roets is deputy CEO of AfriFo­rum Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @Ern­stRoets

For­mer UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral Kofi An­nan said that tol­er­ance, in­ter­cul­tural di­a­logue and re­spect for di­ver­sity were more es­sen­tial than ever in a world where peo­ple were be­com­ing more closely in­ter­con­nected.

There is grow­ing con­cern that many white peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly Afrikan­ers, pre­fer not to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic dis­cus­sions about race.

About a month ago, I did just that at the Univer­sity of the Free State (UFS). There were about four white peo­ple in the room, of whom two were pan­el­lists. As I have wit­nessed be­fore, whites were lam­basted for their ab­sence at these dis­cus­sions.

This is not to say that white peo­ple do not talk about race. The topic is dis­cussed so­cially, but not at pub­lic events where the bat­tle of ideas takes place.

Racism is ob­vi­ously a prob­lem for all of us. The real­ity is that many white peo­ple re­frain from par­tic­i­pat­ing in dis­cus­sions on race be­cause such dis­cus­sions are of­ten so onesided that it leaves no room for con­struc­tive en­gage­ment. For ex­am­ple, af­ter I spoke at the UFS dis­cus­sion (which I was in­vited to do), I was told to “shut up and lis­ten”, and the fact that a white per­son had been in­vited to talk in front of black peo­ple was ag­gres­sively ques­tioned.

There is re­search to sup­port the no­tion that racism is not South Africa’s big­gest prob­lem, but a symp­tom of other big­ger ones. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about race, how­ever. There are sev­eral rea­sons many white peo­ple re­frain from such dis­cus­sions. I will men­tion five.

1. “Blacks can’t be racist”

Black race mer­chants ar­gue that black peo­ple are the only peo­ple who have been op­pressed and that, as a re­sult, it is im­pos­si­ble for any black per­son to be racist. The idea that black peo­ple are in­ca­pable of racism seems to gain ground among so-called pro­gres­sive com­men­ta­tors. The claim is glar­ingly bank­rupt of philo­soph­i­cal thought and can eas­ily be re­futed. My con­cern, how­ever, is that those who make these claims ap­pear to be too scared to have their views scru­ti­nised, and there­fore sim­ply re­spond to any crit­i­cism with in­ten­si­fied ac­cu­sa­tions of racism.

2. Sin­gle nar­ra­tive, dou­ble stan­dards

About a month ago, a black stu­dent coun­cil mem­ber at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria pub­licly ex­pressed his urge to mur­der white peo­ple. This didn’t cause much of an out­cry, as the main­stream me­dia and so­cial com­men­ta­tors were fo­cused on lam­bast­ing Pre­to­ria High School for Girls for its “racist pol­icy” on hair­styles. Judg­ing from the level of pub­lic out­cry that we saw, telling girls that they can­not have Afros is ex­po­nen­tially worse than en­cour­ag­ing the mur­der of white peo­ple. The only nar­ra­tive that seems to be ac­cept­able is one in which black peo­ple are vic­tims and white peo­ple are of­fend­ers.

3. Codeword Jus­tice

“Jus­tice” has be­come the buzz word of the decade. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery de­mand that has some­thing to do with race is framed as be­ing in the in­ter­est of jus­tice, whether it is ex­pro­pri­at­ing land owned by white peo­ple, van­dal­is­ing stat­ues, shut­ting down uni­ver­si­ties or as­sault­ing white stu­dents. While we all be­lieve in jus­tice, that no­ble term has been hi­jacked to jus­tify an­ti­white racism and, in some cases, even crime.

4. Black pain, white guilt

Dur­ing a re­cent TV de­bate on racism, one girl from the #MustFall move­ment al­most burst into tears when some­one men­tioned the name of Nel­son Man­dela. “Don’t men­tion that name,” she ar­gued. “It makes me suf­fo­cate. I can’t breathe.” She was try­ing to ex­plain how Man­dela had been a sell­out for be­ing too kind to white peo­ple. The ar­gu­ment is that no white per­son can un­der­stand black pain, and any crit­i­cism to any­thing that black racial­ists claim is seen as a de­nial of their pain. There is, of course, no such thing as white pain and speak­ing of it is im­me­di­ately de­nounced as racist, or so the ar­gu­ment goes. This is de­struc­tive to di­a­logue.

5. Sil­ver bul­lets

Iden­ti­fy­ing South Africa’s prob­lems is fairly easy; the dif­fi­culty lies in find­ing so­lu­tions. Let’s take the cri­sis of poverty and un­em­ploy­ment. We would have to ad­mit that there is noth­ing that we could do to­day to make this prob­lem dis­ap­pear sus­tain­ably within a year. The only so­lu­tion is in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing – mak­ing sure that peo­ple are equipped to en­ter the labour mar­ket and to par­tic­i­pate in the econ­omy. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, the dis­course at dis­cus­sions about race usu­ally steers away from sus­tain­able so­lu­tions to sil­ver bul­lets or quick fixes. There is no sil­ver bul­let that will solve these is­sues, and those pro­posed (such as “ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion”) would only ex­ac­er­bate these prob­lems.

In light of the cur­rent stu­dent un­rest and re­newed calls for “rad­i­cal change”, con­struc­tive di­a­logue is now more im­por­tant than ever. The only way to achieve this would be to en­gage in frank and hon­est dis­cus­sions, where we ac­tu­ally lis­ten to each other with the in­tent of test­ing our own pre­con­ceived ideas and find­ing sus­tain­able so­lu­tions.

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