A couple of years ago when I was on assignment in the Eastern Cape, I went out on a educational trip into the Amatole mountains with a local man who we shall call simply Piet.
Piet was probably around 60, Afrikaans and a devout Christian. He had a thick moustache and the typical wiry figure of an avid hiker.
Piet ran a project called Forest Outreach, where he would take groups of black children from nearby township schools on camping trips into the forest and teach them about nature, conservation and certain life skills.
Piet and his wife lived in a very modest house on the Forest Outreach grounds, and often struggled to pay the bills at the end of the month.
Coming to grips with the fact that one is a racist, or harbours racist thoughts, is a crucial first step to becoming an anti-racist
Drinking tea in his lounge after our hike, I asked Piet why he did what he did. A man of few words, his answer was both short and immensely profound:
“I’m a racist, but I’m trying my very best to amend for that.”
These words returned to me recently in light of the outrage over racist comments made on social media by a number of white South Africans in recent months, culminating with Matthew Theunissen and Mabel Jansen.
As columnist and author Eusebius Mckaiser pointed out in a recent column about Matthew Theunissen, coming to grips with the fact that one is a racist, or harbours racist thoughts, is a crucial first step to becoming an anti-racist.
But Theunissen and so many others like him have doggedly refused to be as honest with themselves or anyone else as Piet was over tea that day in his lounge, instead repeatedly affirming that despite their racist language, they are not, in fact, racists, and that they (wait for it) “have black friends”.
I think part of the problem is that many of us white folks, myself included, tend to have this idea that racists, like rapists, are some kind of subhuman cave-dwelling monster, rather than the enlightened, educated, caring, “nice” and “normal” people that we think we are.
It’s simple self-defense, I guess. It’s not hard to understand why we might want to position highly unsavoury character flaws as far away from ourselves as possible, particularly given South Africa’s history.
It’s telling in this regard that the words “I’m not a racist, but. . .” are still a preferred disclaimer for blatantly racist sentiments.
But it’s time we took a leaf out of Piet’s book and started being honest with ourselves and each other.
For my own part, I think I have been incredibly fortunate. As someone who is often travelling either for work or pleasure or both, I am constantly meeting, interacting with and writing about different kinds of people.
It is an ongoing lesson and challenge for me to interact with all the different types of people that I meet without ever letting any race or culture-based (the two are often conflated) stereotypes or preconceptions influence the interaction.
In some instances, I’ve been very aware that certain stereotypes and preconceptions are present at the outset, but personally this has always motivated me to do all that I can to challenge, question and unlearn them, because I know that they are largely irrational, and that they are not of my own or the person or people in front of me’s making.
Again though, acknowledging that the stereotypes or preconceptions exist, and that this is a personal flaw, is an important and necessary part of the process.
Over the years, with my carbon footprint ever expanding, I have become more and more used to all of this, so that I hardly even perceive the walls crashing down anymore.
Along the way, it has become increasingly apparent that at the simplest level all of us on this earth are often more similar than we are different. But at the same time, I’ve learnt that our differences are not something to be feared or rejected, but something we can learn so much from.
So looking back now, would I be willing to take Piet’s lead and call myself a racist? In some ways I suppose I was once, yes, but not in the ways many of us prefer to imagine racists to be. Does this mean I was a horrible person? No, just flawed.
Are my enlightened liberal friends racist? Some of them, yes. Are they monsters? No. Are my family racists? Some of them, yes. Are they old fashioned fascists? No.
You get the point. . .
But now we’ve established this, the more important question remains: what do we all do to atone for our racism?
I think part of the problem is that many of us, myself included, tend to have this idea that racists, like rapists, are some kind of subhuman cave-dwelling monster, rather than the enlightened, educated, caring, “nice” and “normal” people that we think we are.
For me, the first step, and one that is so often lacking in white South Africa, is to listen, really listen, to other kinds of people around us, and be willing to accept their criticisms and grievances with regards to whiteness rather than instantly going on the defensive . This is so much easier to do if we’re willing to honestly acknowledge our own flaws first.
Oh, and not assuming that any black person we see in Woolies must be working there, and can therefore help us find the Hummus, is also a good move.
The next step is moving beyond non-racism to anti-racism.
Call out racist speech when you hear it in real life, not just when it trends on Facebook. Do whatever you can to actively bridge gaps and reduce divides, whether that’s giving an old woman a lift to work, taking a moment to engage with your cashier on a human level, spending time in “black spaces”, supporting black business, or getting involved in some kind of social upliftment project in your spare time.
But whatever you do, don’t expect a badge or a standing ovation. And remember that even after all of this, you might still be a racist.