It is not simple being a recovering racist. Just as I think I am making progress I go and make a rookie error that leaves me aghast at my lack of progress.
I recently met a friend and colleague at a restaurant in Durban. At the next table was a black lady and a white man, working and drinking cups of coffee. They were clearly happening: Well dressed, laptops out, suitably adorned with the right brands and very chic.
My friend and I finished our meeting, paid our bill and got up to leave, but as I swung round in the direction of the “cool couple”, the woman was also getting up from her table and gathering up her things.
In my mind – my recovering racist (or perhaps more accurately, my recovering-stereotyping, recovering-patriarchal mind) I just saw a black woman picking things up off a table in a restaurant where a white guy was sat – ergo the waitress. She turned to face me at the precise moment I turned and faced her. Our eyes met and in my typically overly-friendly-white-guy-cum-recovering-racist-voice, I thanked her for her service and gestured to the tip I had left on the table for her. I realised my mistake mid-deed. She paused for an instant that felt like a lifetime to me, put on her outsized Dolce and Gabbana shades, and mercifully decided to ignore this white idiot and walk out.
Burning red with embarrassment, I pretended to be referring to the waitress who was indeed standing directly behind her. This only made matters worse because that waitress wasn’t our waitress at all! She just stared at me bewildered. The damage was done.
I am a 45-year old white man. I have an adopted black child whom I adore as mine. I genuinely have best friends who are black. I have done years of processing of my own racism; I read the work of black feminists and I mostly agree with what they say about white people and white men particularly.
And yet I am still – frustratingly – a recovering racist at best. I still catch myself thinking and acting in ways that belie my genuine and passionate desire to live a non-racist and totally non-discriminatory life. Why?
Because racism is hard-wired into us. Period. We are products of a world that pumps racism and discrimination into the atmosphere in the same way as industrialisation pumps greenhouse gases. We just breathe it in. My parents were never racist – I grew up in a typical liberal South African home. But the garden boy was the garden boy. The maid was the maid. It’s just how things were. And we must work daily, hourly to dismantle that often untaught, often unintentional discrimination that placed us in “the big house” and black people in the “servant’s quarters”. Black people were always the servants.
So, in an unguarded moment I revert to type. I swing round and I give a big beaming liberal thank you to a woman who is my age, clearly very successful and a long way from her waitressing years. In
This piece is not intended to be an exercise in self-flagellation. I left and smiled an ironic sort of smile at myself and how long I still must go.
No, this piece is just an exercise in vulnerability and a humble invitation to join me on this journey – regardless of where you are along the road. It’s the most challenging but deeply rewarding journey you will ever take.
My name is Justin and I am a recovering racist.
If you are bringing up small children in South Africa, you may well have heard the words “brown” and “peach” used to refer to black and white people.
I simply cannot express in words how these terms irritate me. They irritate me even more than that other new South African buzz term “colour blind”. More on that another time.
The reasons for my grave dislike of these two terms are many. I shall limit myself in this post to just two:
The terms are used mostly by liberal white people (or black people with liberal white mates) who are trying to be politically correct. This is well intentioned, but it backfires dangerously. This is because the colour classification of a human being (as much as we may disagree with it) has come to represent vastly more than simply the colour of my skin; it is who I was, who I am and who I will be; it is the suitcase I am packed up in – but it is also the contents; it is my body yes, but it is also my soul and my psyche. I am black; I am white; I am coloured; I am Indian encompasses the way I see the world, the way the world sees and treats me and the way I live and move and have my being in the world. It is everything, with actual colour just a part of the story.
So, changing people’s colour is not only naïve, but damaging; we are tampering with something foundational and intrinsic and indeed good. People are not just walls you can paint over when the old colour doesn’t match the decor anymore. By changing black people’s colour to brown – without asking I might add because it certainly wasn’t black people who started this – we in effect negate their ‘blackness’; that thing that travels such a long journey beyond just colour.
And the terms are not just problematic for black people. Peach – which let’s face it conjures up images of happy romps through orchards on a spring day – allows us to slip out of the past reality and the harshness of our whiteness and into a new and far more gentle and comfortable outfit. With one word we are able to say: “It wasn’t/isn’t me. I didn’t/don’t benefit from my whiteness because I’m not white, I’m peach!” But the thing is, I am white and until I learn what that really means and deal with it warts and all, no amount of peach paint is going to change me.
And when do we stop this charade with our kids? The world calls people black and white, coloured and Indian, Russian and Jewish and Muslim. Is it like swearing – they can only use these “bad words” when they are adults? We are white inside and out – and we are beautiful. We are black inside and out – and we are beautiful. God created us all in His image – black and white; beautiful inside and out. We must celebrate who we are and not try and paint ourselves in a different light.
Our kids will handle it.