Becoming an anti-racist

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

Black Lives Matter…Really?

We know now that #blacklivesmatter. We know this because – in the wake of waves of social media exposure of black people being indiscriminately targeted by white policemen in America – the world has proclaimed that #blacklivesmatter.

But do they matter – really; on a grand scale; in every respect?  Does a catchy hashtag make black lives matter a hard truth? This question should challenge all of us both white and black. In a post-truth world, we must guard against the stock response of “so true!” when confronted with slogans like #blacklivesmatter. It is just too easy. We must ask ourselves honestly and openly if all lives do in practise matter equally, or if we just like to say they do so we can feel okay about ourselves. And this question should apply equally across the colour spectrum, because I have seen as much disregard for black lives from black people as I have from white people. I have struggled with some of the seemingly intrinsic practises and values that demonstrate that black lives don’t in fact matter. Or perhaps I feel more comfortable to say that I have struggled with those practises and values that seem to demonstrate that black lives matter less than white lives, or that the vast majority of black lives matter less than white lives. I guess it is up to each of us to decide which level of “not mattering” we feel most comfortable with. These things are not always blatant acts of racism but often just an everyday part of life in South Africa. In addition to this they are – as I have mentioned – often perpetrated by black people. This should not exonerate us whites, but we must also not alienate ourselves or one another. It will only be through unity that all lives will one day matter equally. Until that time we must tread very lightly. Until that time: Until is a time between two places; a time between here and there. It is a liminal space in which anything can happen – and it will happen for the best – if we decide it to be so. Humanity seems to be in that in-between space right now. The question is, will we move forward to a better place? Until we decide that quality education is not only for the rich, black lives don’t matter. Until we are prepared to pay at least the minimum wage no matter the level of work being done, black lives don’t matter. Until we can actively counter the attacks against movements like #feesmustfall with such words as; “education is not a privilege, it is a right for all no matter their economic level,” then black lives don’t matter. Until we are unwilling to continue to watch black waiters being managed by white managers in the clear majority of restaurants across our nation, then black lives don’t matter. Until quality health care is available to all – not just the wealthy – then black lives don’t matter. Until we are willing to acknowledge that redress in the form of quotas is more important than winning the game, then black lives don’t matter. Until we are willing to accept that land must be returned to its rightful owners, then black lives don’t matter. Until we are unprepared to travel behind open bakkies containing anything between 6 and sometimes 20 human beings – always black – crammed onto the back like animals; unprotected; unharnessed; sandwiched together like prisoners of war on the way to concentration camps, then black lives do not matter. (Just yesterday my friend Akhona and I were driving behind such a bakkie and we said and did nothing. In fact, we smiled “kindly” and waved from the comfort of our air-conditioned car, believing that that would somehow bridge the divide and make their sodden and wind-swept journey all okay.) Until neighbourhood watch groups give as much suspicious attention to two white men standing outside a house in the suburbs as they do to two BM’s (neighbourhood watch’s shorthand for “black males”) then black lives don’t matter. Until black beggars elicit the same shock and horror as white beggars, then black lives don’t matter. Until black rape survivors make front page news as white rape survivors do and until they are empowered and supported in equal measure to write books, earn money from talks and open foundations for rape survivors, then black lives don’t matter. And we can kid ourselves all we like that the democratic project has worked. We can say people are free; they can vote; they can go wherever they choose and be relatively safe. What more do they want?  We can perhaps exonerate ourselves of guilt at the poverty we see everywhere; the degradation; the lack of hope. We can say that “they have done nothing with the opportunities that were given to them”, but then we would have to admit – in the quiet of our hearts, our rooms, our offices that black lives don’t matter. But they do. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency All my writing –  regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.