Janet Smith spoke to Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State, about how to raise a non-racial child.
1. I don’t agree with this view, that racism is entirely a consequence of economic inequality.
In that case, you’d have to explain middle class American racism. It is importantly a function of history and psychology and how we relate to each other as human beings. Where there is inequality and poverty, it of course does lead to strains of racism in which there is a looking down upon people because of the conflation of poverty with laziness.
That’s a view of entitlement, and we’ve seen some of these kinds of debates in the social media space where people talk about black people as if none of them has actually accomplished anything; as if every black person is on a government handout or other. So there’s no question about that part.
But this is only part of a bigger and more complex story about the way you deal with issues of racism on very different fronts.
2. For me, it’s about how you raise and talk to children from day one.
My situation as a black parent was a little different, as my children were born while we were in New York and California, but they were raised inside the country, more or less in the 1990s.
As children, they became conscious, especially when we came back home and they found out that, not only were they black.. even worse, they were coloured. And while we never refer to them by these apartheid nicknames, which can be relatively innocent, they were aware.
When we were living in Durban and my daughter was about 7, she told me a child had said to her, ‘you can’t come to my house unless you wash all that black stuff off’. My child asked, ‘what’s wrong with my skin?’, and my wife had to have a long conversation with her.
I think parents have a very serious responsibility to build within children the kind of fortitude and self-confidence, a kind of pride..
… such that when they encounter these almost daily kinds of snide remarks, these dismissals which want to give them that kind of invisibility, that it doesn’t hurt them as much as it might otherwise.
We, my wife and I, have built into the lives of our children, a very strong sense of who they are as human beings. They would almost laugh off those slights. I have a very strong sense that if a child can say, I am content, I am a whole human, nothing another says to them is going to disrupt their peace. They need emotional and intellectual resources
3. When I do workshops with white parents, I tell them, one thing I know for sure, is that I can predict on where you might stand based on who comes over to your home on a Friday for a braai.
They’re all straight, all white, all Dutch Reformed and your child begins to think that’s the normative world.
It’s not even or only about racist talk. They will begin to think of themselves as separate and better. Kids do not come into university with a sudden awareness or race knowledge. They already have a very strong sense of where they are, and so the responsibility of a white parent in particular, is to make sure that their child comes into the world with a social consciousness, and that they’ve had as diverse an experience as possible in terms of religion, race, country of origin.
The more you have of that, the less likely you are to be a bigot.
I believe I can tell which children are going to have a problem in a mixed race residence, and those are the ones who went to high school with only whites and a single language policy.
You will be seriously messed up compared to kids who had a relatively mixed friendship base, where it was not uncommon to mix at sport events, and parties on the weekend.
This is the easiest prediction you can ever make.
4. What bothers me is South Africans’ response to the Penny Sparrow event.. you had mass hysteria, with trying to out-self-righteous everybody else.
And although people might have lost their jobs or their reputations over this, it was over as suddenly as it started.
It’s almost as if there was a need for a public cleansing.. something like, the harder I condemn it, the better I look. But you can’t deal with this stuff through emotional rage. You’ve got to deal with this from the day a child is born, on a systematic basis, so that all your shaping influences and institutions – church, rugby and soccer club, other parents and their social circles, your relatives and how they speak – begin to talk in the same direction.
My son has married a white woman, and I was perturbed for a while, thinking, hell, but there are all these beautiful black women out there, but now I know he’s made the most lovely choice.
My daughter only dates black guys at the moment. Both of my children grew up around all kinds of other people as treasured and valued people themselves.
This is not an accident. It’s because we, as parents, in an imperfect way, made them aware of the fact that our friends were not predictable.
So the message is, don’t be self-righteous. Rather raise your child in such a way that they begin to respect people, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation.
If you’re not Jewish, take your children to a Shabbat dinner on a Friday night. My children knew that my best friend in Cape Town was a Muslim.
5. We need to do a lot of introspection at the earliest point of life of a child, even before they get to Grade 1
This is so that by the time they get there they already have a sense of justice because of what they see hear and experience in their own homes.
When I talk to black students, I say repeatedly, you are not a victim. I give them Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I ask them now: in the current debates around Sparrow, do you really think Steve Biko would have lost his cool and had all sorts of tantrums?
Of course not, because for my generation, it was black pride that mattered. I tell the students that prospective leaders don’t fly off the handle and fight back. They think about how someone became that way, and then begin the engagement.
It’s all about how conscious are you. There is very solid research that says young people benefit when they see examples of interracial friendships.
You can’t get this right through anti-racism workshops, and it’s also misleading that, if you put anti-racism into your curriculum, you will change children’s views. You must put it into your own life. As one of my mentors, Eskia Mphahlele said, don’t tell people what you’re against, tell them what you’re for.
6. I think leadership examples are everything.
I always use the example that I still, after all these years, think was incredibly wise: that of Nelson Mandela, and the example he set when, he could have chosen from among a group of very competent black secretaries, but instead he went for the blonde Afrikaner with the surname of a hate white police chief. That’s still my kind of leader, because it was such a simple thing, yet it matters to us as ordinary people.
On the way in which government can contribute to helping us raise non-racial children.. I don’t know a lot. I’m not a very smart guy.
But I know one thing: if you don’t change the current education system, there will be one generation after another of black children condemned to poverty and marginalisation.
7. My frustration is that I don’t believe that our government understands the depth and commitment that is required.
That is why they will tell you that they’re doing well when we are the worst in maths and science. That’s a statistic of methodological crisis.
The reason they don’t care in government is that their children are in private schools or in fancy former white schools.
Here at the University of the Free State, we’re turning around 25 schools. It’s not my day job. We’re doing it out of pure anxiety and fear that if we dont do something, there will be another 10, 20, 30 000 children who will struggle.
I just don’t think we have a government that cares a damn about the poor black child, but there’s a lot of posturing. If we really cared, we wouldn’t have teachers interrupting schools, yet it’s almost easy for us to all jump on the bandwagon when a racist from the South Coast says something.
I don’t ever doubt the commitment of ordinary parents to want to raise non-racial children, and to give them an education which will save them from being caught in the race argument.
But the current system has failed us monumentally.
Jonathan Jansen speaks to Janet Smith (reporter at The Star Newspaper), a contribution to our #RacismStopsWithMe campaign.