Some years back I realised to my horror that I was a racist.
The world through brown eyes
Perhaps I should start several years before that, when my wife and I adopted Lolly – a black child. As I began to see the world through her brown eyes, I realised how blind I had been all my white life. The world according to Lolly was a white world, full of pink dolls, pink characters in story books and kids’ magazines, caps that were designed for white kids’ hair, pink leotards and pink Band-Aids. Her teachers were all white and the support staff were all black. The waiters were all black, but the managers were all white. One day early in her talking years she asked the poignant question: “Why are all the black people walking and all the white people driving?” We told her about apartheid.
Overt v Systemic Racism
I am not necessarily an overt racist. But that’s been the problem. The fact that I don’t commit acts of discrimination or prejudice gives me a self-righteousness that makes me blind to this stuff that Lolly sees. I thought I was on the side of the good guys. Turns out I am – and always have been – complicit in a racist system that favours white people.
A journey of recovery
But the message of this column is a good news message. The good news is that the journey of anti-racism – or what I refer to as recovering racism – is the most humbling and profound journey I have ever taken. I have had the most incredible conversations with people and got genuinely close to people that I never would have before, stumbling and fumbling my way through my whiteness.
Hello, my name is Justin
I have been exposed to the writing and speaking of the most brilliant black people whom I never knew existed never mind studied. My loss. And I have been able to let go of my protestations and justifications: “I am not a racist!” “I do not have white privilege!” “I don’t see colour!” “I work for NGO’s that ‘help’ black people”!
I am only just out the start blocks of anti-racism – and I will be learning until I die – but I can say this with great sincerity:
Hello. My name is Justin.
I am a recovering racist.
I work with companies, schools, NGO’s and individuals wanting to breakdown racism. We are in a very significant moment in history that is asking big questions of us, particularly white people. Let’s talk firstname.lastname@example.org
In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, racism is back on the table globally. In South Africa, school learners and alumni have given voice to their stories of racism in our country’s elite schools under the hashtag You Silence We Amplify.
Some of these schools have worked hard to distance themselves from racism by issuing statements and putting out social media posts. This is all very well if it isn’t an exercise in restoring reputations. If it is, then it is a crass response that undermines real transformation. If it is just one part of a comprehensive response to systemic racism in schools, then good and well. The best responses that I have seen come from schools that have vulnerably, authentically and comprehensively grasped the nettle and begun a journey of genuine introspection and deep transformation.
The racism issue can seem absolutely overwhelming to most of us, especially when we are running institutions or organisations that have always purported to be bastions of non-racialism. How do you effectively and honestly deal with horrific revelations to the contrary in schools, from learners and alumni? For many it is a massive wake up call to the fact that systemic and even overt racism is still alive and well, and that no organisation is exempt.
If you are a school principal or indeed the leader of any organisation wanting to start the work of anti-racism, here is a process that you may wish to use:
- Conduct a thorough needs analysis involving learners, teachers, support staff, parents and the broader community of the school, including alumni. This is an exercise in deep, empathetic listening to the many voices that have been silent for a long time. It is to understand the depth and breadth of the issue of racism in the school ecosystem, and to begin a new conversation on the topic.
- Produce a detailed report with findings regarding overt and systemic racism in the school.
- Constitute a transformation committee tasked with, in the first instance, responding to these findings with restorative measures that will be taken, timelines and accountability along with an indication of measures of resolution.
- Hold a series of anti-racism workshops for leadership first, reporting back on the findings and conscientizing individuals into the work and language of anti-racism.
- Addition of said anti-racism content into the school curriculum.
- Ongoing (I suggest a minimum of 3 years) anti-racism work to be done with all teachers, support staff, parents and other community members. Everyone in the school ecosystem should be involved.
We have a massive opportunity to keep racism on the table and to deal it a fateful blow.
Now is the time.