Are you a recovering racist?

The recent spate of cases involving racist attacks is cause for deep concern. Last week Cape Town resident Andre van Deventer was found guilty of common assault and crimen injuria for spitting in the face of domestic worker Gloria Kente and calling her a k…r. In October five young men allegedly attacked and racially abused Cape Flats resident Delia Adonis. One of the youngsters is a student at the University of Cape Town. And in a separate incident another UCT student – former Boss model Djavane Arrigone – is also charged with assault and crimen injuria for allegedly urinating on taxi driver Michelle Puis Nomgcana from the balcony of Tiger Tiger nightclub in Claremont. Apparently he saw nothing wrong with his actions telling the driver; “I am rich, you are poor. I am white, you are black.” It is particularly concerning that two of these cases involve white youngsters who were born after the end of apartheid. I often hear it said that we live in a new era of diversity and equality. People base this pronouncement on the fact that our youngsters are ‘colour blind’ and happily befriend, hug and kiss children of all races and religions. If this is the case – and our soon-to-be four year old gives me no reason to contest this view – then we urgently need to reflect on what us adults are doing to turn our children from innocents who gladly kiss people different to them into young adults who piss on them? Now let me be clear from the outset that I – as much as anyone – need to constantly examine my attitudes towards people different to myself. This is not about guilt or shame. This is about all of us having the courage to ask ourselves the difficult questions and challenge our perceptions and prejudices. But that said I also do not believe that we should make assumptions that let us off the hook. It is too convenient to wallpaper over these horrendous acts by labelling them “exceptions to the rule”. Make no mistake; racism – overt and subtle – is going on every day in South Africa. We all have race demons to face. We should also not make the mistake of assuming that these kid’s adult role models would dress up in white cloaks and pointy hats and set fire to crosses. It is more likely that they look quite ordinary – just like you and me. So what is going wrong? You see most whites don’t use the k word (this highly offensive racial slur originally had the connotation of ‘one without religion’, primitive, uncivilized or heathen) out loud anymore – but in our hearts and in the way we treat black people we scream “primitive” at them at the tops of our voices. It is in the way we roll our eyes when they speak of their ancestors; the way we take them off to our GP when traditional medicine is being used or even discussed. Our children see this and they learn to view black people as backward and inferior. It is in the seemingly innocuous things we say; “was she black or white?” we ask when someone recounts the story of a fatality on the highway. What does this question tell our children? Does it not suggest that lives have different values? “Are they Indian?” we might ask when discussing the neighbour erecting the large new home next door to us; “you know what they’re like,” we add with a disdainful squint of the eyes. And incidentally I am not for a moment suggesting that racism is just a white thing. People from all walks of life are – consciously and often unconsciously – derisive, condescending and patronising. And young minds absorb it all. So we should not be surprised when – a few years and a good few Tiger Tiger cocktails later – junior decides to relieve himself on a black persons head. In Andre van Deventer’s case he used a variation on an old chestnut to defend himself against claims of racism telling the media that he had once had a relationship with a coloured woman and they had had kids together. Now I can tell you from personal experience that having children of a different race does not mean you are not a racist. As an adoptive parent of a black child I can tell you that I have to challenge my attitudes on race as much as the next guy. It also does not matter if you have friends or business partners of a different colour. Our challenge is to “go there”; admit – in the words of a friend of mine – that we are all “recovering racists”; challenge our stereotypes on a daily basis; spend quality time with people different to us; have tough conversations with them; visit their homes; meet their families; eat together. If we don’t then we are simply deluding ourselves that we are free of prejudice and the born frees under our care will grow up with exactly the same baggage as we have. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.