My name is Randolph, and I am a racist.
I was brought up in a country that institutionalised racism at all levels of society, and even now is battling to recover. When Nelson Mandela was freed (I was only 13 years old at the time), many of my white friends and their families wanted to leave the country.
[Disclosure: I’m living in Canada now, but not because of Nelson Mandela.]
Over the 30-something years I’ve lived on this beautiful planet, I’ve been exposed to many different cultures. Some of this was self-imposed. I forced myself to spend time with people who looked different, who spoke funny languages, who even smelt different to me.
The net result is that I have friends from many cultural backgrounds. I can even swear in some of their languages. And yet, I catch myself, more often than I’d like, thinking discriminatory thoughts.
So why try to justify it? Why frame it as something that it is not?
I was speaking to a friend recently about the subject of racism. I admitted to them that I am a racist, and every day I try not to be. I tell myself that it’s wrong, that it was my upbringing that was wrong, and that I’m better than that. The friend acknowledged that in their culture, and even in their family, dislike or hatred towards white people is a real thing too. For good reason, though: white people did bad things to them people, so that justifies it. It’s not racism though. Racism needs a power dynamic, and white people have always had the power.
“My” people, through the British Empire, the Crusades before that, and everything in between, destroyed entire civilisations. Who wouldn’t be angry?
I admit that it’s difficult. It’s lazy to react to people who are superficially different. Once you label something, you react to that label. It seems pre-programmed. All X are Y, and Y is bad because Z.
And it’s wrong. We need to change the programming. Not all X are Y. While race and culture are part of everyone’s identity, it isn’t the thing that defines us.
When I have these philosophical moments, I try to think of myself in someone else’s shoes.
The answer is obviously that I don’t know. I can never hope to know, because I’m Randolph. I’m so far removed from all these scenarios that even pretending to guess what it’s like would be patronising. Even putting a label on me (self-imposed or otherwise) is incredibly insulting. So why am I allowed to do it to others?
My grandmother taught me to read when I was four. I went to excellent schools. We only integrated with Black kids in 1991, when I was in Grade 9, by which time it was already “too late”. I can really only relate to other white, middle-class, privileged English-speaking people aged 30 to 40 from South Africa.
Everything else, heck, ANYTHING else, is very difficult to relate to. My younger sister? No way. These Canadians I’ve met in the last two years? Nope. Sure, we have lots of things in common, and I can talk to and build amazing friendships with them, but we are all coming from a different place, and that brings with it preconceptions that are potentially damaging, even before trying to engage in a reasonable way. It’s “too late” for all of us.
At school, the English-speaking kids might keep away from the Afrikaners, or the Lebanese, or the Taiwanese, just like the smokers and the nerds avoided each other. Kids like being in cliques, and superficial labels make for an easy excuse.
Whatever -ism you want to call it, we ALL do it. The journey of anti-racism involves meeting new people, learning about their heritage, reciprocating, and growing from it. Understand differences, work with them, and be open to new ideas, be willing to change your own point of view. Learn a language, learn a culture. Define your clique more broadly.
And while my perspective may be extremely narrow, the one thing that struck me as an English first-language speaker, is this. No matter which other culture I’ve been exposed to, every single one of my friends and their families made the effort to talk to me in my mother tongue. The least I could do is return the favour.
It’s idealistic, I know, but hope springs eternal.