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.
I joke publicly that I’m an intellectual snob, and I never can be friends with “stupid” people. But some of the friends and acquaintances with whom I grew up, or taught, would be considered mentally challenged, and I got on just fine with them.
So why try to justify it? Why frame it as something that it is not?
I was speaking to a female friend recently about the subject of racism. I admitted to her 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. She acknowledged that in her culture, and even in her family, racism towards white people is a real thing too. What’s interesting though is how some of them frame it: whites did bad things to their people, so that justifies it.
It’s true, though. “My” people, through the British Empire, the Crusades before that, and everything in between, destroyed entire civilisations. Who wouldn’t be angry?
But it’s difficult. It’s a lazy way (for me, anyway) to react to people who are different. Group them under a familiar label: White, Black, Indian, Chinese. 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.
One of my friends is from the Eastern Cape. If you spoke to him over the phone, you would think he’s white. When I think of him, I don’t think of him as “black”. His label, in my head anyway, is his name. And that’s how I’m slowly changing my perspective.
That’s the challenge, I think: to stop labeling people under a catch-all title, and to start thinking of them, us, as individuals, with our own likes and dislikes. Our cultural heritage describes us, but doesn’t define us.
When I have these philosophical moments, I try to think of myself in someone else’s shoes. Theory of Mind is one of those things I struggle with daily, so it’s an excellent exercise to practice.
Let’s say you’re a black girl, growing up in a small village in a rural part of Ghana or the Ivory Coast. You live in a very simple house, with no running water or electricity. Your brother has tuberculosis, but he’s getting better because the MSF doctors are giving him medicine.
You go to school every weekday, where the entire school comprises twenty other kids of all ages, and you share a room, with one or no books. The teacher is unqualified, or at the very least can barely read.
This is your life. How does it make you feel? If this is all you know, does it make it better or worse?
How about a so-called Coloured boy, growing up on the streets of Cape Town, in a gang when he’s not in school? How does he feel?
How does a black man feel, sitting in a prison cell for 27 years, for fighting against Apartheid?
What about the privileged, middle-class white girl who happens to be a drug addict?
What about a Chinese boy bullied for being gay?
(Disclosure: I am queer.)
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 men aged 30 to 40, who grew up in Johannesburg.
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.
My own husband has much in common with me, but he comes from a different background. You see, he’s Afrikaans. Just as my English heritage partially defines me, his Afrikaans heritage partially defines him. The added factor is that Afrikaners have embedded their culture in their language and vice versa. The two are inseparable. This means that, to become a real part of an Afrikaner’s circle, you need to learn the language as well as the customs.
What makes it interesting are the two Anglo-Boer Wars that took place around the turn of the last century. Some Afrikaners paint me with the same brush as my forebears, just because of the language I speak at home. Sounds a little unfair, wouldn’t you say? But I do it to them, and others.
And yet I’ve spoken more Afrikaans in Canada than I ever did in South Africa, because so many of the ex-pats here consider it a cultural aspect of being South African (plus many of them are Afrikaans). It’s yet again an example of belonging to a clique, but defined more broadly.
Whatever -ism you want to call it, we ALL do it. The journey involves meeting new people, learning about their heritage, reciprocating, and growing from it. Understand differences, work with them, and be open to new ideas, even 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.