RACISM


Hello.

Today I'm specifically talking to my white readers, because I think there are some things white people need to see about themselves, their actions, and people of races different to theirs.  

Some of you may share my home country of South Africa, some of you may not. I'm sure everyone, though, would have heard of Apartheid - a system of racial oppression that existed in South Africa from the 40s through to 1994, when the country held its first democratic elections, and the vast majority of the country was finally 'allowed' a vote. 

Since the end of that system in 1994, there have still been widespread instances of racism and hatred towards South Africa's black population. That being said, the racist attitudes of Apartheid do not always operate quite so openly. So, although there have been many reports of violence and aggression towards black people by white people, there are also quieter ways in which racism works to harm and demean people of colour. 

You might not call yourself a racist.  You have never said the 'k-word', and you have friends who are black. Although a distressingly low benchmark for what can't be named 'racist', there is only so much blame that can be placed on you in this situation, thanks to the way systematic racism works to operate in ways that sustains itself, and so not always obviously.

But there are things you may be doing that you can be blamed for, and this same hushing system, if it is to shoulder some of the blame, should also be a clue to weighing whether or not our actions can hurt those around us.

Coming out of the darkness that was white supremacy in South Africa, we are all feeling things out, and it is our duty as white citizens of this country to be very mindful of our public and private behaviour. That's because racism didn't end when the votes rang in from communities that had been wrought underprivileged across South Africa in 1994. Nothing in the history of ever works that way.

A country - its government, its town planning, its powerful members in the economy and in politics - can simply not spend decades trying to make life miserable for a few groups based on colonial ideas of race, and then suddenly have everything in it be geared for equality and reconciliation.

The ANC who have ruled in South Africa since 1994 have done a fair share of trying, but Apartheid and other forms of racial prejudice are not things that abate after two decades of 'peace', while white people in South Africa do the very least necessary to get by on friendly terms with people their grandparents, parents, or themselves oppressed in order to gain the socially, and economically favorable position they hold. In short, racism doesn't just go away.

You are not guilt-free because you don't racially insult people openly. You can't distance yourself from privilege because you have a rich black friend, or because you got better marks than a black student who 'took' 'your' place at UCT. More likely than anything else, you are a part of the problem

You don't have to change. This is true for all aspects of ethics and becoming a better person. There is nothing truly stopping you from being a horrible, unethical git. There is the law, of course, and the question of hell if you are so inclined,  but there is nothing in this universe that forces you to believe, truly, that you should do something because it is ethical and good to do so.

But if you want to do good, and if you want to be the kind of person who cares about others, it's useful to understand where you might be falling short of who you want to one day be.

If this is true of you, you're welcome to peruse the images and words on this page, where I will be discussing some terms that have been thrown around a lot of 'progressive' white people lately - people who won't think themselves as racists, and who might even be against racism, but who nevertheless say subtly racist things. Take a look. 

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A widely-used term in every industry from fashion to video games, 'exotic' is a failed attempt at a compliment, which actually serves as a process of othering - making someone seem different to you, and ignoring where you and that person are similar. A form of selective access, where the rules of engagement are dictated by the 'normal' group; in this case, white people. 

Black women and black characters are presented as 'exotic' when they are portrayed as interesting people from strange, far-off lands. In literature, video games, and films, these characters are sometimes granted wisdom or special powers.

The term goes a long way to distance black people from the rest of the 'normal' white population, adding to the idea that black people are foreign, hard to understand, and ultimately, different - a detrimental quality even if this difference is portrayed as good or inviting. 

When white people use n*gga, they refer to the way some black people address one another, and the way the term is used in black hip hop.

There have been people of colour who have 'okayed' this behaviour as long as it is not done maliciously, insofar as this can be 'okayed'. Even if this stands, it is important for white people to know why this word is used the way it is among some black groups.

The use of 'n*gga' hails from the 20th century movement, Negritude, made popular by men like Aime Cesar and Leopold S. Senghor, and women like the Nardal sisters. It was an attempt by these and others to reclaim the highly offensive racial slur 'negre' that was directed at black people at the time. Under their rebellion, the word moved away from it's original meaning (of a racially-charged insult pertaining to black people) and took on the form of a provocation and proclamation. It took what was being thrown at black people, and used it to fashion a weapon that black groups could use in revolt.

 Besides the word 'n*gga', we can see influence from the Negritude movement in modern ones like #blackisbeautiful, and older ones like South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement.

Next time you use this term with your white friends, try to remember the many decades of hardship that went into 'n*gga' being used as it is today. 

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Lastly, we come to the term 'colour-blind'. White people use this as an attempt at equality, in that they claim to not see a person's race, but to judge that person on other grounds. While this is well-meaning, it is also not something people interested in true equality should push.

Actually, 'push' provides a good illustrative example. Say there are two people standing together. Suddenly the one pushes the other to the ground. Each time the victim tries to get up, she is pushed on the ground again and again. Eventually someone comes round and stops the bully from further pushing. When the victim gets up and is able to dust herself off, they have not reach equality - only the pushing has stopped. The hurt and other repercussions are still felt by the victim even though the pushing has ceased.

The two are also not equal because one is a victim and one an assailant. To see them both as the same is to deny the victim her rights to apology and restitution.

White people and black people are not equal in this country or in a good number of others. To pretend that there is no need to compensate black people for white atrocities and abuses is not to be 'colour-blind' - it's just ignorance. 

SASSY

There are some white people who call black people, in particular black women, 'sassy'. Generally this is taken to mean someone who is strongly opinionated, argumentative, street-smart - all in a humorous way.

This term, 'sassy', used in this way, works to belittle black women who would otherwise be called 'assertive', and adds to the stereotype of the 'angry black woman'. It then also illegitimatises the black person in question's concerns, and undermines the value of their contribution. 

ALWAYS

Often said by white people when someone blames a particular social ill or ill behaviour on prevalent racist attitudes.

The argument made here is one that believes racism to be a thing of the past, with no bearing on the present and therefore no bearing on white people's relations with members of other races. This idea encompasses an 'Oh, can't we just get over it already?' perspective, and hails from an inability to understand how society is actually structured.  

Words used by white people to describe black babies. Although it is normal to find babies adorable, the notion that black babies in particular are 'known' for their cuteness is disturbing because it commodifies black children. It turns the black baby into something that a white person can use.

It also rests on the false assertion that all black children look the same, and if you don't know why generalsing by colour is wrong, you might need to start your research somewhere else first, and come back to this later when you've found 2016.  That a black baby will grow up to likely be treated ill by people who have before called her 'cute', because of the very features that first grabbed white attention, makes this term even less desirable.  

Used by white people to describe a type of person or style, as in 'that guy is so ghetto', or '#ghettoglam'. When directed as a person, the adjective 'ghetto' is used to call that individual cheap, a lower-income earner, and as someone who does not achieve white ideals of respectability or class. Apart from turning a living situation faced by many black people into a form of insult, the word 'ghetto' here also hides the injustices of economy that have made the worst aspects of ghettos and townships possible - white privilege.

When used to describe a style of dress, the term 'ghetto' is an example of appropriation - cherry picking from black culture what one likes, without ever having to feel or understand the limits and injustices faced by black people, often at the hands of white people like you. Step the hell away from that hashtag, Charlotte.  

There are some stereotypes that are said as apparent compliments. For example, that people classified as Asian are good at maths, or that black men are good at sports or have big dicks. These 'compliments', if one even agrees that they have the appearance of being such, actually stem from dark or unflattering roots.

The idea that Asian people are good at math, for example, is sneakily reliant on the idea that Asian parents are very strict. The assertion that black men are athletic and well endowed comes from the slave era, where black men who were bigger built could do more work for their white owners, and those that had large sexual organs were thought to have enough virility to breed often and produce more slaves. Stereotypes are always political - there is no such thing as a positive stereotype.   

Less a spoken term and more a thought, the process of othering I would like to write about here is the one that places all readers and other media consumers as white.

Being white, it was only when I had just turned twenty-four that I realised that many of the authors I had read assumed characters as white unless specified otherwise. So, a given character might have a bodily description, but they would go 'unraced', only known as white by omission. Black characters and other people of colour were described racially within a short time of their appearance.

It was only when I was doing research for my English Literature thesis on whiteness and Kate Chopin, that I came across a book on that realisation. The book, Playing in the Dark (1993), was written by the epic Toni Morrison. It is a short and simple work, but in it Morrison wrote about the complex and strange phenomenon of unraced white characters, and absent black ones.

She wrote that an internal struggle erupts from white writers - those that appear most often on 'must read' or school syllabus lists - when they attempt to ignore or write-out the black people they must surely be in contact with on a daily basis. In realism this claim is particularly strong as a good deal of effort is undertaken to erase black presence from 'real' fictional worlds.  So less 'write from what you know' and more 'write from what you know, unless you know black people in which case, don't at any cost write about them at all in any meaningful way or your Important White Person card will be removed form your possession'. 

Put another way, white people always position the reader as white and black people as inferior, and that this agenda when asked to perform in conjunction with a reality that showed black people as anything but what white writers wrote them as, the works of these authors became undone. This undoing manifested itself in a number of plot devices, like a repetition of the word 'white', for example. 

In everyday speech, with so many of us not being authors, this type of othering comes through when everyone we speak of are assumed white until said otherwise. So, 'I met a guy at the bus stop' versus 'I met a black guy at the bus stop'. Could you guess the race of the first guy? Yes, he's white - because white is the norm from which all other races deviate. We must point out when someone is black or coloured because that is not the default and 'normal' race.

This also comes through in areas like beauty blogs, where people claim treatments to be for 'all hair types', when in fact they mean 'all white hair types'. Black people can't open any given magazine or blog or platform and expect to be catered for in the same way white people are. A subtle but rife form of exclusion.