Whites must get with the #Woke pro­gramme

Whites need to un­der­stand how con­stant in­dig­ni­ties ex­pe­ri­enced by black peo­ple chip away at their sense of self, writes Me­like Fourie

CityPress - - Voices -

To be white in South Africa is to have the lux­ury of choos­ing to be in­dif­fer­ent to racial is­sues. Brian Draper, a prom­i­nent au­thor on spir­i­tual in­tel­li­gence, de­scribes any kind of per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion as con­sist­ing of four tan­gi­ble steps. Firstly, we need to re­spond to a mo­ment of awak­en­ing. This leads us to step two: cul­ti­vat­ing a deeper self-aware­ness which, in turn, en­ables us to see the world afresh. Step three in­volves re­spond­ing cre­atively to this new aware­ness in our own unique way. Fi­nally, step four in­volves pass­ing it on to oth­ers.

When it comes to racial trans­for­ma­tion, many white South Africans never make it to step one. That is, they have yet to awake from their slum­ber to no­tice the ran­dom, and of­ten bla­tant, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and de­hu­man­i­sa­tion of peo­ple of colour that is wide­spread in our so­ci­ety.

More­over, they have yet to wake up to their own jus­ti­fi­ca­tion thereof – to con­front the beast of racism ex­tant in their own man­i­cured lives, while smugly point­ing fin­gers at gov­ern­ment.

Let me be clear: I, too, am dis­mayed by var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions un­der way in our coun­try – by the vi­o­lence of some stu­dent protests, by the way Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma runs his gov­ern­ment, by the cor­rupt­ness of some state-owned en­ter­prises, and by the vil­i­fi­ca­tion of those who dare to stand up for truth.

I am dis­mayed by th­ese things for the ob­vi­ous detri­men­tal ef­fect they have on build­ing a bet­ter fu­ture for all, and es­pe­cially the poor, in South Africa. But al­most above all, I am sad­dened by th­ese things be­cause of the power they har­bour in fu­elling racism all over again in our coun­try. And be­cause it ap­pears far eas­ier for many white South Africans to jus­tify their racial bias – al­beit im­plic­itly – than to sep­a­rate what hap­pens in pol­i­tics from our obli­ga­tion to re­hu­man­ise the other, and by im­pli­ca­tion, our­selves.

So, how does one wake up? How do whites be­gin to em­pathise with the de­sire of thou­sands of stu­dents to lift them­selves from the shack­les of poverty and struc­tural vi­o­lence? How do whites be­gin to recog­nise the way they stereo­type peo­ple of colour by put­ting them in boxes la­belled “en­ti­tle­ment”, or “lack of am­bi­tion”, or “cor­rup­tion”? And, how do whites stop re­fer­ring to black peo­ple as “them” and the way “they” do things?

Many white peo­ple stub­bornly turn a blind eye to the way in which peo­ple of colour ex­pe­ri­ence our pub­lic spa­ces. Sto­ries abound of the dif­fi­cul­ties black peo­ple have in mak­ing din­ner or ho­tel reser­va­tions, sign­ing lease agree­ments or con­firm­ing school place­ments. Whites need to start un­der­stand­ing how such in­dig­ni­ties, ex­pe­ri­enced daily by thou­sands of black peo­ple, chip away at their hu­man­ity and sense of self.

Sci­ence and our own re­search point to the no­tion of “per­spec­tive tak­ing” as a crit­i­cal el­e­ment in re­hu­man­is­ing the other. It forms a core com­po­nent of em­pa­thy, and can be de­scribed as the men­tal process of put­ting one­self in the shoes of an­other to see the world from their per­spec­tive.

In one of our re­cent stud­ies, in which black and white South Africans em­pathised with each other’s emo­tional dis­tress while in a brain scan­ner, we found that the brain mech­a­nisms that sup­port this process of self-pro­jec­tion – men­tally pro­ject­ing our­selves into the al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity of an­other – were much less ac­tive when par­tic­i­pants per­ceived an out-group mem­ber in dis­tress, com­pared with when they per­ceived an in-group mem­ber in dis­tress. Thus, it ap­pears as if white peo­ple, in gen­eral, are much bet­ter at un­der­stand­ing the sub­jec­tive re­al­ity and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of other whites than they are at un­der­stand­ing the re­al­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence of their black coun­ter­parts.

I be­lieve this is be­cause whites are not try­ing hard enough. Var­i­ous pre­vi­ous stud­ies on in­ter­group re­la­tions have shown that the ten­dency to favour one’s in-group dis­ap­pears when in­di­vid­u­als are specif­i­cally in­structed to take the per­spec­tive of a racial out-group mem­ber. In other words, ef­fort­ful per­spec­tive tak­ing has been shown to de­crease the use of stereo­types, to in­crease pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tions and car­ing be­hav­iour to­wards the out-group, and to fos­ter in­creased will­ing­ness to en­gage in mean­ing­ful con­tact with the out-group.

More­over, tak­ing the per­spec­tive of a stig­ma­tised in­di­vid­ual has been shown to gen­er­alise to pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tions of the whole out-group.

Per­spec­tive tak­ing can work, but it is a skill that – like other men­tal or phys­i­cal pur­suits – needs train­ing. And, the more one is open to it, and re­solves to prac­tise it, the bet­ter one be­comes at it.

Per­spec­tive tak­ing is what is needed for us to form a uniquely in­di­vid­u­al­is­ing view of an­other per­son, as op­posed to stereo­typ­ing and gen­er­al­is­ing.

But trans­form­ing one’s in­ner view of the other re­mains a jour­ney. It is a process of small, in­cre­men­tal suc­cesses in­ter­ceded by slip­pages back to old habits and thoughts. It is a tan­gen­tial process that may feel daunt­ing and un­com­fort­able at times – es­pe­cially when con­fronted by peers who have been lulled into com­pla­cency or who sim­ply choose not to see.

Draw­ing on our own re­search, we can iden­tify at least three types of white South Africans on the path to racial trans­for­ma­tion and restora­tive jus­tice.

The first type re­sides at the bot­tom of the spec­trum, and can be de­scribed as a “vic­tim iden­tity”. This per­son feels they are bear­ing the brunt of racial trans­for­ma­tion and af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. In re­sponse, they re­sist any form of racial in­te­gra­tion.

The sec­ond type can be de­scribed as a “saviour or res­cuer iden­tity”. This refers to whites who con­tinue to em­brace their su­pe­ri­or­ity while wel­com­ing black as­sim­i­la­tion into their cul­ture.

Fi­nally, at the top of the spec­trum are peo­ple who have at­tained crit­i­cal self-aware­ness. They find trans­for­ma­tion dif­fi­cult, but are gen­uinely com­mit­ted to erad­i­cat­ing any trace of racism in their lives. Crit­i­cally self-aware peo­ple do not have all the an­swers, but they are will­ing to go in search of them, take re­spon­si­bil­ity, have the dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, and not shy away from black pain.

As stated above, to em­bark on this trans­for­ma­tive jour­ney, many whites first need to wake up. To quote Pumla Go­bodo-Madik­izela, a se­nior re­search pro­fes­sor in trauma, mem­ory and for­give­ness at the Univer­sity of the Free State, whites need “to take a piv­otal turn to per­spec­tive tak­ing and gain­ing an in­te­grated view of both the self and the other”. In so do­ing, they will ar­rive at a new level of con­scious­ness about race. Fourie is a se­nior re­searcher lead­ing the neu­ro­science in­ves­ti­ga­tion of em­pa­thy in stud­ies in his­tor­i­cal trauma and trans­for­ma­tion at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity

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