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I’m Not Racist, But…

It has not been an uncommon experience for me to hear a conversation begin with the words, “I’m not racist, but…” Invariably, those words are an introduction for something racist. And for many years, racism such as this has been socially acceptable in South Africa, sometimes even a requirement for acceptance into the social circle. I’m not racist, but black people really mess up the beaches. I’m not racist, but black people are so entitled – why don’t they rather work harder and stop expecting everything to be given to them for free. I’m not racist, but the violent crime and corruption of black people in South Africa are the reason I’ve moved to England.

My prediction is that 2016 will be the year in which racism gets called out good.

I say “prediction”, although I can hardly claim a great degree of prescience…no more so than if I say 2016 will be the year of blowing up things in the Middle East. It’s already happening, and I simply happen to think it’s going to happen a lot more, and with more style and panache.

I mean, here we are, barely a few days into the new year, and we have people putting their feet so far into their mouths that they’re practically coming out of their asses. A number of social media controversies have lit up the South African interwebs less than a week into the new year.

Chris Hart, Standard Bank Economist, implied that a sense of entitlement was a bigger problem than actual oppression, and that the hatred of minorities is a thing but apparently not the hatred of majorities (Standard Bank responded):

Chris Hart

‘Fortunately’ for him, another less well known but now infamous name distracted with a far less defensible opinion – in an absolute WTF moment, Penny Sparrow submitted a strong entry for Most-Racist-Tweet-of 2016 (getting in there early, but maybe peaked too soon).

Of course, 2015 had it’s fair share of such events (such as Dianne Kohler Barnard and her thoughtless share), so these events early in 2016 are simply a continuation of that trend.

Nothing and something new

I don’t think posts of this nature are anything new. I’ve seen them on my timeline (and experienced them in conversations) for years. Nor are they suddenly any less acceptable or any more deserving of ridicule than they have always been. But what is changing is society’s tolerance of such opinions. It’s taken too long, but such views are moving from being the norm to being the exception.

Which is not to say that they are the exception, or that defenders and apologists of those positions are in short supply. But what IS happening is that criticism of those indefensible positions is gaining momentum. Slowly, we are moving from a place in which a statement beginning with “I’m not racist, but” would be met with a chorus of agreement, to a place where other voices are able to respond with strong disagreement knowing they will have backup from elsewhere in the room (or on Facebook, or in the Twitterverse).

I recall a church meeting many years ago in which we were asked to vote on whether we though the church body should open the debate on gay rights. Of the hundred or so people there, all but three quite happily and confidently voted no. My wife, myself, and one other gentlemen there who I am pretty sure was gay, were too intimidated to vote yes in the face of such overwhelming hostility, and so instead abstained.

Like us, I suspect many racists opinions to date have escaped opposition for this same intimidation factor. Anyone willing to challenge the accepted racist view would have been booed into submission. But the tide is turning, and while opinions such as these are not short of of defenders, the voices of the opposition are becoming more unified, more vocal and less afraid.

The deeper issue

One might be tempted to suggest the main problem here is foot-in-mouth disease – that Chris and Penny and Dianne would have been fine if only they had not been so “non-PC”, or had phrased their comments more politely / less ambiguously, or had chosen their audience better. One might be tempted to suggest that it is a case of making a mountain out of a molehill, and that while their posts were not smart, they didn’t deserve the level of public ridicule that they received. One might suggest that they should be left alone following their apologies (as if they had offered an apology rather than trying to play chubby-bunny with their feet). One would be mistaken.

There are some shades of grey here – I’ll give that a passing mention. Racism is sometimes the result of ignorance rather than of malice. I suspect that it is far harder to understand one’s own crimes in the pace of stiff persecution. A public tar-and-feathering is painful (for me) to watch, no matter how guilty the offender. And it is a pity that someone should lose their job, for example, without being given the opportunity to atone.

But viewed in the context of institutionalised racism that has gone largely unchallenged for, well, basically forever, there is little room for trying to micromanage the exceptions. There may well be a misunderstanding or two for every hundred incidents of racism, but we cannot stop challenging racism aggressively on the off-chance that it’s a misunderstanding…that would be like not wearing a seatbelt because there’s a tiny chance your car will burst into flames and you’ll be trapped in the blaze – as opposed to the very likely chance you’ll die if you crash without one.

In the context of institutionalised racism, it is not helpful to address racist ideas with excess civility to protect the feelings of those who say the words without understanding the lack of civility that those words carry, and the harm to other people’s feelings that those words cause.

Racist thoughts are no better kept undercover than spoken in the open, and learning to keep them off social media does not improve matters. Racist ideas bleed into our actions and disseminate whether we are smart enough to keep them off social media or not. (Though I suspect that racism by it’s very nature is a lack of understanding, and we cannot hide from others that which we do not understand.)

Actually, I’m being ridiculous. Racism is so pervasive that it’s difficult to see just how commonplace and ‘normal’ it is, and it is so destructive that ceding even a shade of grey to racism as accidental or unintentional is heinously overgenerous. There really is no room for being ‘politically correct’ in our criticism of racism.

2016 is not going to be a good year to be sexist, homophobic or racist in public. And not in private, either.

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