Thursday, January 12, 2012

From obvious to subtle: the shifting face of racism

Why it's surprising for many to discover racism in Cape Town

The sad truth is, there are still plenty of racist South Africans. No one can guess the percentages, and I would imagine (and hope) that it is a tiny minority of people, but they are there. Those of us who grew up in the golden years of Mandela don’t like to see it or to admit to ourselves how far we still have to go, but racism is still a problem that we have not yet laid to rest in this country. 18 years is not a long time in which to change the entire paradigm of 50 million people.

As a “white” South African, I have been subjected to those skin-crawlingly awful and infuriating situations in which other, usually older, white South Africans say something derogatory about another race group in my company on the assumption that I will be okay with it. I’m sure many of us have been in those situations. Nothing makes my blood boil more than racists who think I share some sort of solidarity with them because we’re both white. And more than that, I find white racism so much more offensive than racism from black people towards me. It is worse because a nation that chose to forgive the unspeakably evil things carried out during Apartheid is deserving of nothing but awe and gratitude from white South Africans and those who continue to believe they are superior to other race groups should be ashamed of themselves.

But I digress. My point is this: in my experience (I know, my experience isn’t the point – I’ll get on to that), I find Cape Town one of the least racist places I have been in South Africa. The kind of exchange I mention above, where some racist asshole says something they assume everyone will agree with, has never once happened to me in Cape Town. It has happened to me a lot in PE, for example, and I imagine it happens in small towns all over the country, but not once in Cape Town have I had to go to war with an openly racist person. I’ve never had the feeling that “white Cape Town” sees itself as a community in a laager. And white Capetonians, in my experience, have never struck me as racist. They are chilled, easygoing and pretty liberal, and that was one of the things I loved about the city (Incidentally, I feel the same about Johannesburg, where I grew up. It’s not surprising that our biggest cities are the most progressive.)

Why white people’s experience in this debate doesn’t really matter

The only thing my experience of Cape Town proves is that we have succeeded in creating a city in which racists do not feel safe disclosing their views to others. We have a city in which it is simply not okay to say racist things, and a lot of us, therefore, assume that no one thinks racist things. We should be proud of that, for sure. It is a step in the right direction that racists cannot spread their poison openly here. But we should not be smug. Open racism is only the most obvious kind and it is also, perhaps, the easiest to stamp out. Getting rid of it is only the first step in a long process of growing social cohesion.

Why the defensiveness?

I would guess the simple reason so many white Capetonians got defensive in the "Cape Town is racist" debate is that they don't like racism, and because they probably never hear other white Capetonians saying anything racist (as they still do, sadly, in other parts), they believed the city was being maligned for something they did not see to be true. It was not a particularly sensitive or useful reaction, but it makes sense. When a city sees itself as progressive and liberal, it is quite a shock to hear that it is not experienced that way by another group of people. I was also surprised by the massive discrepancy between my experience and that of my black friends when I first heard the assertion that the city is racist. Clearly, the racism that exists – by the accounts of black friends and twitterati – is precisely the kind that white people would not see unless they looked really hard. It is not obvious, and it is not directed at other white people in the way that racist jokes are.  By definition, white people cannot experience it, but that does not mean it does not exist.

So where to from here?

If there is a problem of pockets of racism in Cape Town, it needs to be addressed. Ranking our cities on their level of racism is a bizarre and completely useless exercise. But what we should be doing, in every city that we live in across SA, is trying to stamp out all forms of racism – even the quiet, underhanded, hard-to-see kind. All that really matters, in the end, is how people interact, and how they treat one another. If black, coloured or Indian people have been treated badly by certain institutions in the city, then ALL of us need to listen to that experience and do what we can to change it.

The problem is the subtle, underhanded racism is much harder to deal with than the obvious kind. It is something that lingers in certain people’s minds and can only be addressed by introspection, not legislation. Those of us who would like to make Cape Town as welcoming and open as we believed it was before our blindness was pointed out should be boycotting establishments that treat black Capetonians with disrespect. All of us should consider every action we take with increased sensitivity. Privilege is blinding - try to see when others are not afforded the same opportunities as you, and take on the person responsible. You may not consider yourself racist at all. But, for example, are you hiring a new intern because you know his parents? That has pretty racist outcomes if your family friends are all the same race as you. Do you get irritable when someone is battling to express themselves because your language isn’t their first language? Do you strike up conversations with someone of a different race when you’re sitting at a bar, alone, waiting for someone?

There are a thousand different interactions every day that contribute to how others’ feel about us and our city. Slowly but surely the infrastructure of the city is reintegrating and drawing our communities together, but that will only lead to co-existence rather than cohesion if we do not look deep within our behaviour and our assumptions. The problem has not gone away until none of our residents experience it. And the problem is also not going to be fixed by other people.


  1. i like your perspective and wish there was more of it in cape town. however, just a couple things:

    1. as you said cpt-ians are pretty chilled and easy going. this is true. but i also think it is the reason why most cpt-ians would say that they are not racist. they simply don't think about it. but not thinking about it and not actively trying to correct any actions only perpetuates the disease.

    2. i agree that many other places are more racist than cape town, but as a big metropolitan city with a huge tourism sector, i would expect much less racism or at least much more awareness of it.

    in the early 1990s i moved to a small town in the south of US with my family. i experienced so much racism for the first time in my life (both black-white and black-black racism) that i decided never to live in a small town again in my life. when i lived in cape town in 2010, i was surprised to experience the same level of racism fueled by nonchalant-ness (or chill-ness) that i and others i spoke to experienced several times.

    cape town is really one of the most beautiful places i've ever been to in my life. just waiting for the people to catch up to the landscape!

  2. Great insight and thought provoking post.