On being a recovering racist

I have had a few cathartic experiences living in this beautiful country of ours. One of them was in 1989 sitting in a room full of fellow students debating issues which to us at the time were very important for our organisation, AIESEC. We were gathered from 20 or so campuses around the country in a meeting room at Wits. At a point I looked around the room and realised that everything I had learned about race until that point was a lie. I think I’m still processing that experience. It was emotional because it meant that my schooling, my parents, my peers, my family and almost every influence that had formed me into the 22-year-old that I was, was so obviously wrong, on the count of race.

The stereotypes based on race had built on themselves and become stronger over the years. They were embedded in me and on that day they were shown up for their inadequacies.

The subtle, “them and us”, “they and we” in thousands of conversations with family and friends stood in stark contrast to my experience that day.

The less subtle history lessons at school which told stories with a perspective and with omissions that sharply influenced the meaning.

The not at all subtle experience of the army, sitting in townships and Namibia “defending our country” from the “dark communist forces who wanted to overthrow it”.

I know now that I was fortunate to sit in that room and experience that a person’s race was in fact a very poor way of describing and judging them. It occurred to me that I had a lot more in common with some of my black friends in the room than I did with the white folk. The whole stereotype of “them and us” fell apart like the reality that emerges after a bad dream.

More recently I was visiting with black friends in Graceland, a suburb of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town. We had a braai on a Saturday night and were then wandering between shebeens in the neighbourhood. I realised that I was going to be late and phoned my wife to let her know.

“Careful when you come home” she said, “a man was hijacked and shot up the road last night”.

I put the phone down and was left thinking that surely the townships where I was pub crawling should be the dangerous place rather than the ADT patrolled “white suburbs” of Cape Town where I lived. Again my stereotypes that were so fixed, were being challenged.

Often I have taken Margaret, the lady who helps us bring up our children, to her home, also in a suburb on the Cape Flats. We chat about our different worlds. My children live in walled gardens and we have little daily contact with our neighbours and almost no sense of community.

Her children walk freely on the streets in a community which stretches for blocks. Everybody knows everybody else and mothers keep an eye on not only their children but also those of neighbours as they play in the streets.

I’m sad for the financial poverty of her world while I am envious of the strong sense of community. Her neighbourhood is opposite to mine.

I share these experiences because I believe I have been lucky. I have been forced to see that all is not as it seems. My stereotypes on race were strong from growing up in the 70s and 80s. These experiences have challenged them and made dents in them. But only dents. What we look for we see, and I have been forced to look for more than what is on the surface.

The world I grew up in was one where whites feared blacks and possibly the other way round too. The fear was encouraged and used to prop up a system we knew as apartheid. Then in a few short years it all changed. We put aside that dark past and live as if there was never an issue. We’ll just forget apartheid ever happened. “It was wrong,” I’ve heard whites say, “but now it’s over, let’s just move on”. Black and white overnight became equal. Or did they? The psychologists would say that we as a nation are in denial.

Ask a South African over 35 to describe an unknown person and listen how often it starts with, “He was a white guy…”, “that coloured oke”, “a black woman on a taxi”…

I’m pleased that my children don’t have race as a primary differentiator as I did and in fact still do. They will seldom use race as a way of describing someone. This gives me hope.

I sometimes challenge myself to describe someone without using race. My experience is that it is hard. This tells me that despite my best efforts and a huge amount of awareness over many years, I still have work to do.

My quite profound experience in the room at Wits where I sat with a bunch of blacks, whites and every shade in between — seeing so clearly the similarities rather than the differences between us, has helped.

That experience and others that were similar were early in my life. Over time, lots of time, the stereotypes slowly break down. They also stubbornly hang around. It feels like it is easier to perpetuate and build on a stereotype than it is to break it down.

If only as humans we could unlearn things easily. Imagine being able to hit our own internal UNDO button for something like racism. Twenty years after my experience in that AIESEC meeting, I feel like I am still a student learning about how not to be a racist.

I do and say all the right things but still need to catch myself on occasions. I wonder when people tell me so emphatically that they are not racist how they can be so sure. I find my subconscious, or is it my unconscious, pops up with all sorts of awkward things, learned in my childhood and stubbornly still present despite years of attempted reconditioning.

So I’m not sure. I wonder how other people cope with this. Is it just me that has this affliction, or are there perhaps others? What about the journalists who write newspaper columns and the people who decide what to put on the news. Advertisers, possibly even cartoonists. How do politicians and judges make decisions, setting aside this built-in programming?

Based on my experience I can only imagine it is hard. Logic is seldom involved. This is not something which is rational and easy to grapple with. I find it at times downright confusing. It feels like a lifelong challenge for me and possibly my generation. Or maybe it is just me.

This post was originally published on Thought Leader.

Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.