On Being a Recovering Racist – a Lifetime’s Journey

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.
God is Love; Gay or Straight

God is Love; Gay or Straight

As it turned out, the day was perfect; no wind, no rain – certainly no thunder or lightning. A gentle breeze kept the waiting guests cool and an inky, overcast sky provided a magnificent backdrop for the green Stellenbosch vineyards in the foreground and the familiar grey Cape mountains in the distance.

My faith – the Christian faith – has at its core the notion of God as love. As one studies the other religions of the world, one comes to appreciate that they all say roughly the same thing; God is love and our job is to allow Love into our lives to love us, so that we – in turn – may love others. The learning in all this is of course that God loves and God is love.  So, in short, Love loves; it knows how to do nothing else. This is why there is really no such thing as atheism unless you do not believe in love at all. For where there is Love, God is. The two are one.

The happy couple made their entrance on horseback preceded by several flower girls laying a pathway of petals before them. As is so often the case with weddings, the joy found its expression in tears amongst the 90 or so guests awaiting their arrival. But the tears quickly turned to laughter. I have never attended such a joyful wedding ceremony. The marriage officer was a Russian Jewish lady with a happy face and a naughty smile who tapped the traditions of most of the major faiths to create a rich and deeply spiritual occasion; the couple’s hands were wrapped in a strand of jewels to symbolise two becoming one; the congregation tied red cords around one another’s wrists to symbolise connectedness and our unity of witness and support for the couple; the mothers drank wine and then served some to their children’s new spouse – a symbol of welcome into one another’s families; the oldest Granny blessed the couple.  Rings were exchanged and the service culminated in that marvellous symbolic Jewish ritual of stamping on wine glasses.

You know Love when you feel it; it wraps you up and holds you tightly even if you are just watching it unfold. This is why so many people cry at weddings. They are being moved spiritually not just emotionally. No one present at this wedding would disagree that Love – or God if you prefer – was present on that day. She – or He if you like – was infused in every petal, every playful glance, every small gesture of kindness and care, every giggle and every tear.

A short sermon which – appropriately for a South African wedding equated marriage with rugby –  preceded the legalities of signing of marriage registers and certificates. Then – to Mendelsohn’s wedding march and in a hail of rose petals – the couple made their way up the aisle and disappeared for their photos.

“I will always be proud to introduce Grant as my son Theo’s husband,” said Theo’s mother as she concluded her speech later that evening at the reception. And again, the tears came for many as Love stood for itself. It was not being judged as gay or straight or for how it chose to express itself in the bedroom. It was just love. 

My purpose in writing this story as I have, is not to persuade you that homosexuality is right or wrong. That is a fool’s game. My purpose is simply to give Love a chance to speak for itself without our age-old preconceptions, judgements and stereotypes telling the world who or what Love is and what it should look like. Usually we are so busily expressing our fear of what is different or other to ourselves (this fear is usually expressed in moral judgement), that we miss Love. We miss God. Because the uncomfortable truth is that Love cannot exist outside of itself – and most believers would believe that God is Love. So, is there not also a revelation of pure Love that God just may not physically be capable of homophobia? What if God is not physically able not to love? What then? Where does that leave us? This realisation is surely what gave Archbishop Desmond Tutu the faith and courage to say: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” and “I would not worship a homophobic God.”

Towards the end of the evening I looked across the dance floor and saw a sight I will never forget; Theo was dancing – proper ballroom style dancing – with Grant’s 75-year old father.

Two families had become one and Love had triumphed.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.