7 February, 2016

Five unhelpful responses to racism

There are a few unhelpful responses that pop up all too frequently when there’s a news story about racism, says Eusebius McKaiser.

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Some people have called for “a dialogue on race relations”. So let’s get on with it then.

I want to list here, and discuss, five unhelpful responses to racism that pop up all too frequently when there’s an item in the news cycle – thank you Cape Town – that make us awkward about racism.

 Unhelpful response number 1: “Let’s debate!”

“Let’s debate!” is an unhelpful response to racism. Not because we do not need dialogue – we certainly do – but because those who call for debate is simply, well, a call for debate, instead of getting on with the debate itself! A better response would be to simply get on with tackling one of the issues that “the race debate” requires us to drill down into, and then inviting others to respond to your substantive views.

For example, these specific questions need attention: If race is not a stable biological concept, what follows, if anything? If race is a social construction, does that reduce its social and political currency? Do we, still, self-identify racially? If we do, is it possible to sketch a phenomenology of living racially in present day South Africa? Can one articulate the institutional, and interpersonal, consequences of racism without making reference to racial categories? Is such colour-blind policy language desirable, assuming it is possible? Are policy interventions aimed at tackling racism’s hold on our society working? Why? Why not? In fact, do we even have a strategy to eliminate racism?

Let's get on with the debate then.
Let’s get on with the debate then.

If racism is about relations between groups, is it realistically possible, or even philosophically coherent, as some think, for victims of racism to work on reducing racism without inviting racist, or their beneficiaries, into a collaborative space? How do we know whether or not we are becoming less racist? How best do we distinguish racism from racialism, and non-racism from non-racialism?

Which of these concepts, once we have thrashed them out fully, are the ones we should build a project around?

I want these, and other questions, tackled head-on. I am done with concerned citizens calling on us to debate. It is a general feature of much of our public discourse, actually, to call for debates, instead of just making the first move in a dialectic, as if we are characters in a Monty Python sketch comically calling for a debate till the second coming of the man upstairs.

I think there are two reasons for this debate-calling habit:

First, it allows you to pretend to be above the argument fray; you might even score easy brownie points and be invited on to every mainstream radio and television show, and town hall-style discussion platforms at a university near you, if you say, with anxious moral urgency in your voice (as I wave at Jay Naidoo), “Let’s have a national dialogue on (insert a national problem)!” And then you pause for dramatic effect, bottom lip quivering, before continuing the debate-calling motif in your soliloquy.

Well, get on with it then!

By the way, I am a Naidoo fan, but I would rather wake up tomorrow morning to an essay from him that addresses one of the substantive questions I have set out above, then to wake up to a clarion call “to debate!”

Second, and related to situating yourself above the fray, if you call for a debate, of course, you can then leave it there and not offend anyone with a position on the substantive issues. So if you like to be liked, just call for a debate and don’t take a view on the substantive issues.

I’m over these calls for debate. Just debate already, goddammit!

Unhelpful response number 2: silence

Silence. Yes, let’s be honest, many of us choose silence. We just do not want to dirty our hands. I get that. It is emotionally dangerous territory; you could alienate friends and colleagues.

A lot is at stake in discussions about racism. If you secretly think, for example, that black people must get over apartheid already, but you don’t fancy being thought of as a Zelda la Grange doppelganger, then you would rather shut up and move on to the next event, the next conversation, preferably about Proteas batsman AB De Villiers’ incredible prowess or national soccer coach Shakes Mashaba’s fantastic run of successes with Bafana. That’s way more comfy.

Equally, if you never expressed views on race while at school and you still have a proud clipping of when you appeared in the local newspaper as “the first black head prefect” at this or that former whites-only school, how will you look at your white mates at the 10-year reunion if you were now to become “that race-obsessed guy”? You would not want to go back to school and insist you’re Sivuyile when we all called you back then, and you used to introduce yourself as, Edward, right? If you did, some of them may not invite you their wedding reception on a stunning wine estate just outside Stellies.

Talking race is risky. I get that. But here’s what I think about this seemingly strategic silence.

This choice of silence, for fear of material, social or psychic costs you would rather not bear, is unacceptable. Choosing silence doesn’t mean you’re not implicated in social relations. You’re not a hermit, so you live within the institutional and social spaces where racism’s legacy continues to exist.

Silence is as unacceptable as the silence that many of us men choose in discussions aimed at examining and eliminating misogyny. It just doesn’t cut it to be too tired to care about gender equality, or racial justice. Or because it is potentially too alienating. It is invariably the beneficiaries of racism and sexism who choose silence here. Because they can afford it, while victims of sexism and racism cannot afford silence.

Sure, you are entitled to choose silence. Some of you reading this sentence will quietly run away right now. I see you. And I judge you… silently.

Unhelpful response number 3: Class is the new race

Shame. Some of us are so uncomfortable with the language of race, and discussions about racism in particular, that we make the discomfort go away by admitting there’s a problem, but – wait for it – we insist it is a class problem South Africa has, not a race problem.

Let me be polite, and, consistent with the language used so far, calmly say that this is an, um, unhelpful response to racism.

The not-so-polite version, of course, goes something like this: It is utterly disingenuous to think racism is just about poverty and income inequality, as if we have no choice but to choose between these two – class struggles and battling racism.

We do have a class problem. We also have a sexism problem, a heteronormative problem, an education problem, an Eskom problem, a Number One problem, a NSFAS funding problem, a Twelve Apostles problem, and a shopping list of other problems. Having the courage to face up to one social problem doesn’t mean you then have the right to make other problems disappear by fiat.

Human beings are irreducibly complex. Someone is not either black or poor, or female. She is a poor, black woman. Add to that other identity layers, including language, sexual orientation, geography, ethnicity, and you soon have a psychological profile that is faithful to her entire being, rather than disaggregate what and who she is, just because you want the “black” part to go away because it makes you awkward.

It is possible for South African to reduce poverty and become less unequal materially and still be saturated with racism. Just go and spy on middle class people of different race groups in fancy restaurants, on Twitter or in high-rise buildings in corporate SA. We are not non-racially united in our privileged access to opportunity, and good income.

My “clever black” friends can regale you with experiences of workplace racism, while mimicking whiteness very well, unlike poor blacks who don’t even have an opportunity to experience middle class racism. These middle class black friends have lots in common with poor blacks that many whites would not “get”; yet these middle-class blacks, in turn, also have some things in common with middle class whites, which poor blacks would be alienated from.

Race and class are not co-extensive. We must therefore simultaneously reduce poverty, reduce inequality and still pay attention to the remaining, and interrelated, reality of racism in our interpersonal relationships, as well as in all of our institutions. It is wishful thinking to imagine that class is the only social category that matters right now.

Unhelpful response 4: racists are a minority

I read an article the other day in which the writer essentially says that racist idiots, and abusers of the race card, are a minority, kind-of like trolls on online comments sections. He urged middle South Africa, as it were, to rise up and say (my wording), ‘Enough, trolls! Not in our name! We are the majority, and we are not racist, not bigoted, so stop misrepresenting this beautiful non-racial country we live in!’

I really, really do not want to spoil the fun here, but let’s keep it real, please. Because Anene Booysen was butchered to death, and I only touch women’s bums at work, doesn’t mean I am not a misogynist like the men who raped and killed her. Just because my girlfriend said yes over dinner, but then gently pushed me away later when I was ready to have sex, yet I continued anyway, and she didn’t scream, doesn’t mean I didn’t violate her sexually, just because I didn’t rape her ‘violently’, or killed her, like Anene’s perpetrators.

Sexual predation isn’t restricted to the ‘worst’ acts of sexual violence. Similarly, racism doesn’t just live inside the AWB, or inside the headspace of a student pissing on a black person. You may not be an AWB member, nor might you ever even have thought of pissing on a random person who looks differently to you, but does that mean you’re not part of our social machinery of racism?

Of course not. Most racism, like most sexism, looks very different to the media narrative restricted to their worst manifestations. This media narrative allows us to distance our individual selves from the public prototypes of the monsters, because our own attitudes, views and actions, seem so very unlike those of the publicly flogged monsters. If I haven’t stopped a black guy and pepper sprayed him, I can’t be racist, right? um, no.The most insidious forms of racism do not result in blood being spilled, or ribs being broken.

You confused? I’ll let you chew on this one. Do the hard work and self-examine, rather than being all too keen to render racists aliens who are ‘not like us’. We are all aliens…if you get my drift.

Unhelpful response 5: Can we just calm down, please?

Ah, calm. To be calm. What a wonderful emotional state, hey? She who is calm is rational, is in control of her projects, controlling them unhelpful, wayward emotions; she who is calm can be in conversation with sexist me.


One of my media crushes is journalist Rebecca Davis, whose incisive writing, even her Tweets, delights (confession: she is also a close friend of mine and so I am biased, no doubt). Last year Rebecca made an intervention in a debate about misogyny online. She swore at some point, throwing in a f**k or two. Maybe three. The sexist pigs she had bothered to engage took her swearing as proof that she’s an angry, emotional, feminist lesbian type who can’t engage in calm debate.

Rebecca and I had one of my favourite radio conversations after that in which we explored the dialogical value of both getting angry and expressing anger. I think this topic merits a self-standing essay, actually, situated in the South African context. When men get angry, and even swear, they are of course engaging in ‘robust’ debate, or fancier still, ‘politics of the spectacle’.

When women experience and express anger, they are being awkward, supposedly, and not helping the feminist cause because, well, men will take that as reason to not hear them, let alone to engage them, or to self-examine.

But of course this is all rubbish. At the heart of this response to anger is an attempt on the part of the sexist pig to patrol the terms of the discussion, including at the level of tone. This is not motivated by an innocent desire to have a ‘civil’ debate, but to exert control. Why, though, should a victim of sexism not be allowed to get angry, express such anger, and still be heard and engaged on the content of what they have to say? Since when does the expression of anger preclude rationality, and in fact, while we asking hard questions about emotion, why does emoting itself constitute an irrational move in conversation?

In fact, calm, in some contexts, self-harms, if it stops you from being fully ‘heard’.

Sometimes anger is not just permitted, but is necessary to wrestle with hegemony, and to rehearse what it means for me to take my own humanity and dignity seriously.

Similarly, I tire of people who want to police the tone of debate on racism. This includes some of the people who enjoy calling for debate, but who do not take a position in the debate. They often role-model this calm, in part, again, to appear above the fray, this time to be above the emotional fray. They are often liked more by racism’s beneficiaries, than the black person who gets angry. In turn, they enjoy lapping up the invitations from beneficiaries of racism who don’t mind being told they benefited from apartheid, as long you do not upset them (howzit Jonathan Jansen?), and break bread with them in the foyer afterwards, while structural racism lives on of course. I reject this.

Racism isn’t only a topic for calm intellectual reflection in the style of a well-behaved seminar at university or a liberal institution’s annual lecture series in their founder’s honour. Fighting racism is also a practical project aimed at changing the world. If it is to achieve the outcomes related to changing the world, then we can’t pretend that only dispassionate discussion about racism is desirable.

Sometimes you need to tell a racist to f**k off.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. He is currently working on his third book, Searching For Sello Duiker.