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27 May 2016

Undoing race and racism in our everyday lives

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

We recently reported data from the HSRCs South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) series in which we showed that while there are signs of improving race relations, feelings of inter-racial dislike and mistrust persist at consistently high levels.  Trust is central to an individual’s ability to form social relationships and reject harmful stereotypes. In this article, we look at how how race and racism continue to exist in South Africa, and suggest that improving race relations starts with each of us.

How do we start? We start by coming to terms that ‘race’ is a fiction. We now know this scientifically. There is no such thing as a black gene, a white gene, an Indian gene and much less a coloured gene. ‘Race’ was invented to justify the subjection of people with dark skins. In South Africa, through Apartheid we institutionalized this fiction – we learnt it – and gave it real effects. This is called racism. We used ‘race’, firstly, to determine superiority and inferiority. It provided our justifications for oppressing and exploiting each other. We secondly, used it to declare who was in or who out and to pit ourselves against each other. We normalized the idea that our ‘looks’ – our ‘race’ – mattered’. It needs to be pointed out that we have done the same with gender. Gender and ‘race’ are related.

A key task before us is now to understand how ‘race’ was used and is still being used to serve exclusionary and oppressive interests. We need to move towards new ways of understanding and creating meaning when it comes to ‘race’. We need to do this to especially confront the reality, and to change it, of how disrespectfully African people have been treated around the world.

In confronting this reality we have to address two things: our political, social and economic systems and our own personal behavior. Both are hard to do. The first requires investing our legal and social fabric with the full intent and substance of the principle of our unconditional equality as human beings. The second requires that we live the letter and the spirit of the principle of our unconditional equality.

The second requires tough self-reflection from all of us. Self-refection requires challenging the way in which we use the colour of our skins to make inferences about our characters, intelligence or our capacities. We all need to find a way of saying that, I am not my outward appearance. I am not what I look like. I am not my white skin or my black skin. In confronting this and considering where we have come from historically, we need to acknowledge how difficult this is. And we need to be sensitive. Where we come from is a history of being discriminated against. Black people do not feel valued and black bodies are not valued.

Undoing racism requires every day work in our everyday lives. Central to this practice is an awareness of how racism works and a fundamental realisation that the fight against racism starts with an awareness of how it is insidiously inserted into the everyday. Understanding it in this way is recognising that it is not simply political correctness that we want. It is not just about being civil to each other. We also have to live better more conscious, more knowing lives. We have to constantly seek, test, and reject evidence of the racial stereotypes on which we blindly function. A powerful example of a stereotype is the statement of Judge Jansen about black people: “in their culture a woman is there to pleasure a (man)… A woman’s consent is not required.” We should demand of ourselves much more thoughtfulness and to live this thoughtfulness. The Judge did not live this thoughtfulness outside of the courtroom.

The anti-racism of South Africa requires a commitment to the idea that all human beings have within them the capacity to surpass the cages of their histories and to be full human beings. The power of this non-racial idea is useful at both a personal and a group level. At a personal level, it may help us realise that our dignity is unconditional. It does not depend on the racial identities that history sought to impose on us. We are human without qualification. At a group level, it could show us how problematic and morally objectionable the idea is that we owe greater loyalty to those who looked like us simply because of that – that they looked like us. This way of thinking about ‘race’ could be liberating. It could free us from the conceits of superiority and the anxieties of inferiority. It could tell us in no uncertain terms that we no longer need to think with our skins.

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