Explaining Racism to a White South African Liberal

When I say, to a black person, “that place” or “that person” is racist, they know what I mean. The same statement to a white person requires qualification. It has to be quantified and placed in context. It has to “make sense”. I have to justify how I feel and convince them my feelings are valid. If I fail, well …

I have always struggled to explain to a white person how a particular place is racist – and these are liberal, well-meaning white people. The discussion over what I find racist about Cape Town or Durban in South Africa is always laced with hints of “but you did not live through the apartheid atrocities” or “but you do not live in the township.”

Once again, measurable evidence of this racism is required.

A few days ago, we commemorated the first anniversary of the passing of one the most noted revolutionaries in the world. He lived through the crucible of both the colonial and apartheid states. Racist laws and regulations in their full might. But when he gave his account of why he set about standing up to the racist state, what drove him to be whom and what he would become, he did not mention harsh laws or specific atrocities. In Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom he states:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people” (p. 109).

I am challenged to state my case, otherwise there is no racism. It is not enough, and even when I try, I fail, to explain the “look” I have received four times today – and its associated memories; the way I was followed in each shop I entered – and the induced feelings of guilt; the elderly black woman who was being called by her first name and how I felt because I saw my own mother in her. I have to provide solid indisputable evidence of sufficiently racist acts.

Because of this expectation, it is easy to fall into the trap of citing popular incidences of racism e.g. the white bikers beating up a black petrol attendant earlier this month or the slew of violent and random attacks by whites on blacks mostly in Cape Town in recent months. These incidents feel more tangible than saying “white women shake their heads condescendingly.” It however reduces racism, in its complexity, to easily debatable, rare and isolated incidents by a few outlying individuals and ignores the lived subtle and insidious indignities – and their associated and accumulated ill-feeling.

The problem with highlighting these “popular” (or spectacular) incidents of racial violence is that they overshadow the thousands of daily less blatant and non-recorded anti-black racist acts that have never stopped since colonial and apartheid times. It leads people to set a mental benchmark, to think that if an incident is not recorded and as violent as these, then it doesn’t really count. South Africa as a state and economy was founded on anti-black racist principles and remains so. Period.

Farai Mudzingwa

Farai Mudzingwa is a published writer (“Writing Lives” by Weaver Press) and a sports photographer based in Harare. He tweets @The_Mos_Native and runs Mos Native Speaks.

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