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.
I have battled to write recently. This is odd because I usually have a great deal to say.
But I have been struggling with what a dear friend and colleague calls “the black dog” of depression. For those of you who suffer from depression, you will know that it is damn nigh impossible to create from within the bowels of the beast.
Dr Louise Van Rhyn, founder of Partners for Possibility, talks about there being 4 possible responses to the challenges we face in our nation. She says you can get depressed, you can get angry, you can leave (well, some of us can) or you can get up and do something. My choice since returning from the UK in 2007 has been to do something. My contribution has been to persistently challenge the prevailing narratives and to explore possibilities rather than problems. In short, I have tried to tell a different story about our country.
But then sometimes the black dog outruns me. He outruns all of us from time-to-time. We get negative and even depressed. This can be clinical. It can also be situational. I think many South Africans are suffering from situational depression right now. Zuma has been taken out and nothing material has changed. We are on a major Ramaphoria come-down and it isn’t pretty.
But I don’t wish to get angry and as a family, we have closed the backdoor for good. Leaving is unimaginable for us and not an option. I do not wish to be depressed so the only thing left is to get more involved.
My involvement today is simply to say this. We are better off than we were 1 year, 10 years and 20 years ago. I am not making this up – the data proves it. So, please don’t leave; don’t get angry and try not to get depressed. And if you want to get involved and you don’t know how, then consider this invitation:
What if the future we want for South Africa is in our hands?Each one of us holds infinite possibility in our heads and hearts. This possibility is our “true self” – the self that sees possibility all around us. We are laden with possibility; with potential; with gifts that our world desperately needs. And yet we get trapped in thinking: “I’m not enough; I don’t have the time, the money, the talent etc”. This is simply not our true self speaking.
Join myself and Dr Rama Naidu and begin a journey of discovery of the unique gifts that you have that our country urgently needs
Date: 18 September
Time: 8:30 for 9:00 until 13:00 (lunch will be served)
Venue: TBC but in Durban
RSVP to Thandiwe no later than 10 September 2018 via email email@example.com
I recently saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that read Stop Crime Say Hello. This warmed the cockles of my heart because it was a campaign that I began nearly a decade ago. The message was very simple; at the end of the day, crime is simply a lack of love and respect for people and their things.
If we work together to restore these values to our society, crime will drop quite naturally. And for a country that has traded in disrespect and hatred for centuries, we need to focus the process of healing and restoration on restoring these simple values. We can create a peaceful society by reaching out to one another in the smallest ways and even the humble ‘hello’ has the power to build bridges between people.
The point of the campaign was of course never to negate all those big and necessary words/practises like multidisciplinary task forces, visible policing etc from the fight against crime in South Africa. But if we don’t add ‘active bridge building’ to that list we are – as my dear Dad would put it – peeing into a force nine gale.
Nearly a decade on and we are a markedly different country to what we were then. In some ways I think we were the kind of country that would quite naively give birth to campaigns like Stop Crime Say Hello. You might remember another campaign called EGBOK. It stood for Everything’s Going to Be Okay! We have grown up a little since then and we have begun to realise that whilst such positive ideas and slogans would provide a useful start to the reconciliation process, they were limited in how far they could take us.
Now, we are giving birth to things like dialogue forums that give people the time and space to discuss everything from white privilege to ethics and values. Now, groups of black and white friends meet weekly for meals to wrestle with and better understand their unique perspectives on the world. I am proud to say that even my local Anglican church is beginning a process of talking about the issue of land expropriation and what that means for people. Thank God the church is finally starting to talk about politics in a meaningful way.
But just in case you have a picture of everyone holding holds and singing Kumbaya, these conversations can (and indeed should) get very messy. Quite often our inherent – in some of us overt and in others dormant for years – racism, bigotry, patriarchy and sexism come flooding out and we get a sense that we are going backwards. But we are not. Conversation – or what we perhaps more richly refer to as dialogue – with all its dissenting voices and opinions – is really the only way that we generate new ideas and heal old wounds. We begin to see ourselves as connected with others rather than as beings separate from the whole.
We are given the opportunity to experience our own vulnerability and lack of knowledge of one another and to cringe at our own blind spots. It is in doing this hard but necessary work – spending time with people who look and behave differently to us – that our beliefs, opinions and behaviours start to shift. I have noticed that even people’s language changes when they start to expand their view of people and the world; it becomes more spacious and gracious. And of course, our purpose changes from one of acquisition and protection of assets to one of sharing.
Why do I write about all this now? After some 8 years writing this column – a column whose impetus was the Stop Crime Say Hello campaign – this will be my last piece for the Mercury. This news has given me the opportunity to reflect on many of the ideas I have had the privilege to express on these pages, and on the conversations that I have had with many of you as a result. Not all of them have been pretty but I have loved the interactions and I have grown as a result. A column gives a writer the chance to learn and mature in a way that few other disciplines ever can. I am very grateful for that.
I would like to end with a challenge for all of us to redouble our efforts to build bridges between people. I include in this, bridges between the poor and the rich. Because it really is impossible to build the type of society that we all wish to live in whilst we still have this hell-like gap between those who have and those who have not. If you have money, give more. If you employ people, employ more; if you care for people, care for more. And if all else fails and you have nothing left to give or do – just say hello to every person you pass.
Let’s continue the dialogue on my blog www.justinfoxton.com
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
“The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” Thich Nhat Hanh – Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar and human rights activist
The recent story of Dr Lisa Augustine took me back to 2007. I remember it clearly; wandering round an old Natal Midlands farmstead with Cathy, chatting to the farmer’s wife about their business; a weaving operation. The subject turned to safety in the area and we were regaled with one of the most astonishing tales of humanity that I have ever heard. Dr Augustine of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is also a weaver of sorts. That day she left the orthopaedic ward late. She was on her way home when she was set upon by attackers.The weavers were weaving peacefully when a gang of hopped-up young men entered their workshop yelling, brandishing all manner of weaponry and demanding “all the money”. The weavers were simple folk but the young men would not listen to this and attacked the husband with an axe. He was wounded but not fatally. Again, the wife explained that there was no money but that they had some food and she would be glad to prepare them something if they were hungry. This disarmed the young men somewhat. Suddenly – with this offer of kindness in the form of food – there appeared to be more than one possible ending to this encounter.The doctor’s attackers threatened to shoot her if she did not hand over her cell phone. In her exhausted state she did something that she later felt may have been unwise; she looked one of them in the eye and explained that she had been working hard all day at the hospital helping his community. It was probably her tone more than anything she said, but the man immediately changed his tune: “And suddenly the hostility vanished. He seemed to soften and his body language changed from being very aggressive. He apologised,” explained Dr Augustine who then gave him R40. The attackers left without hurting her.
The weavers and the Doctor said similar things about their attacks; that their attackers were probably just desperate. The question is, desperate for what? If we could answer this, then we would be a huge step closer to establishing a peaceful society. And we need to move beyond money, food, greed etc. These are only partial answers that trap us at the level of the material. We must be willing to venture into the darker spaces of human suffering. Until we go there, non-violence can only ever be a pipe-dream.
In 1967, Dr Martin Luther King Jr nominated the above quoted monk for the Nobel Peace Prize. The reason for this – as I see his work – is that he seems to provide us with the beginnings of an answer to this question – what are people so desperate for? He tells us that peace begins with each of us “being peace” as he calls it. We cannot fight for peace; we cannot create peace; we can only learn to “be peace.” How does this answer the question of what people are desperate for? Quite simply because hurt people hurt people. The only way to end the cycle of desperation that leads inevitably to violence is to be peace to people and we only do that by living lives that are – in themselves – a love letter to humanity and to the world at large; a constant cycle of healing and being healed. You see, people – all people whether poor or rich – are desperate for connection; for love and belonging.After several hours of food and conversation, the weavers helped the young men to load their possessions into the family car. They were to lose a great deal but their lives would not be taken. However, just as things seemed to be working out for the best, it became evident that none of the youngsters could drive a car. This caused tempers to once again flare. The weavers then did the only logical thing they could think of under the circumstances; they taught one of the boys to drive. Like parents, they patiently explained the workings of the clutch and gears and it was not long before they stood atop their driveway and watched as their assailants drove their car and possessions off into the distance. The boys were caught before they left the midlands. The weavers continue to weave and Doctor Augustine continues to help people get well The world continues, but with a little less blood spilt. This is simply because the weavers and Dr Augustine decided to be peace. “The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use…. without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement,” Thich Nhat Hanh.Although this is radically counter-cultural – especially in western civilization – it will resonate deeply with us if we allow it. And the world will be a better place. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.