Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why I don't like talking about race

Everyone keeps saying we need to have the “race debate” in South Africa, as if that is so revolutionary and enlightened and cutting edge to do so. And it isn’t. Getting over race, in fact, was what the Struggle was for. The victory against Apartheid was a victory against thinking that someone’s race is the most important thing about them, and that they should be treated differently for something as arbitrary as their skin colour. And it was a victory against prescribing to other people how they should behave or think because of our own categorisations. Overthrowing Apartheid meant South Africans standing up and saying that we want to be counted as human beings of worth, independent of any system of classification.

Far from being progressive, race is a concept that had it’s heyday in the 20th Century. It has been proven to be scientifically invalid. It is blunt, dehumanising and has only ever done the world harm (from Hitler’s genocide to Rwanda to our very own Apartheid). It is a social construct, not a genetic one. And like all social constructs, it only exists for as long as we believe it does. So I find the increasing mention of race in public discourse profoundly depressing.  (Though not all that surprising, considering the pressure mounting on government for delivery and the need for a scape goat.)

But only recently did I start to understand why so many of my black friends think it is important to discuss: because they think white people saying race does not exist is a cop-out.

White people, so the story goes, created this mess that we’re in and are now trying to say that everyone must just get over it because actually we’re all equal. It’s a cover for being anti-affirmative action, or for perpetuating the bubbles in which so many wealthy people live. And that is not what I mean at all (I can only speak for myself, of course.) That interpretation would piss me off, too. It sounds like the person saying it refuses to acknowledge how horrific Apartheid was or how much still needs to be done to fix that.

I fully acknowledge what a mess Apartheid made of South Africa. It ripped the social fabric apart, it stripped people of their dignity, their livelihoods and their opportunities. It was an awful, evil regime steered by monsters. It breaks my heart that people can do that to one another. And I have fought with older people my whole life about how they did not do more to overthrow it.

And that, I think, is the challenge of many young white South Africans. We cannot believe that such evil was carried out in our name. It makes us angry, but our anger doesn’t help those who were screwed over, and our anger isn’t even recognised because we are seen as the “beneficiaries”. But we didn’t want it, we didn’t ask for it. We don’t want this to be our history. But we have no control over what came before us.
And so yes, admitting that white people benefitted from Apartheid is a step. In one sense it’s not even controversial because it’s so obvious. But then “benefit” is a strange word to use when I believe all of us (black and white) would have been better off had Apartheid never happened. We would live in a much more prosperous, cohesive society. Black South Africans would have been accumulating the same wealth and skills as white South Africans for generations by now. We would be an upper-middle income country with almost none of the social problems we have today. But that is the spectacular short-sightedness of the architects of Apartheid: screwing the entire country for their misguided belief in the importance of race.

And yes, more needs to be done to fix it. I think every citizen in this country should be doing all they can to address the poverty and hopelessness that exist. I’d love to see a national volunteer programme. And I’m not against the idea of a white tax for the sake of atonement and reconciliation (though I think, unfortunately, that wealth redistribution won’t fix our problems – only education and wealth creation will). I believe in transformation, and enterprise development and BBBEE. These measures are all necessary to mend our psyche and they are important to address the historical imbalances in our economy. I think everyone should be furious to hear of the glacial pace of executive transformation recently announced in the press. We need more black CEOs and more black entrepreneurs. But what we really don’t need is the increasing trend to believe in things like “white tendencies” or “black Twitter.” Realising that race-based measures are still required in SA does not mean seeing the world through the lens of race is ever good for anyone.
So while the debate around transformation does need to happen, it must never assume that “race” is a permanent, real, or worthy way to segment people. It disguises obvious things, like that there were white Freedom Fighters, that inequality has increased in South Africa since Apartheid and is no longer all that racial, or that wealthy black people who treat poor black people badly are just as cruel as wealthy white people who do it. Making everything about race detracts from what really needs to be done to make South Africa fairer. And it inhibits us personally in our relationships with everyone around us.

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a South Africa where “my people” could mean fellow cyclists, or marketers, or people-who-hate-scary movies? Wouldn’t it be great if we chose which communities we belonged to, and which we identified with, and we didn’t have the media, and politicians telling us what we think or who we feel affinity for? I am just as entitled to be furious with white racists as black people are. I’m just as likely to like chicken. I know for a fact that I have much more in common with my black friends than I do with many white people. So why, why, are we STILL looking for commonalities or characteristics of “what makes us black” or “what makes us white”? Nothing does, is the short answer. We’re all just people. Motley and diverse and opinionated and wonderful.

We need to listen to one another. We need to get to know one another. We need to trust that we all want South Africa to do better, and to be better. That was the whole point of the Struggle. And if we see each other as black or white first, and individual people only second, then Verwoerd and his bastard crew won. 

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