The victims ask the hardest of all the questions: How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you?”
― Antjie Krog,
I do not like writing about race and racism, so I write this reluctantly. I believe labels are prisons which we use to deny each other and ourselves of the luxury of a nuanced identity. However, from reading people’s ideas about race I begin to realise that many myths exist. There are scripts and narratives entrenched in our subconscious that define our thinking. Because they are so entrenched we refuse to allow contestation, even when these narratives are patently false.
What is Racism?
Racism is difficult to define, however, it transcends mere hate or prejudice. I believe that the criminalisation of racist acts requires an objective definition of racism. So for my purposes as a legal scholar, I recognise the following definitions for my discourse.
According to the online Oxford Dictionary racism is ‘Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.’
The Merriam-Webster online Dictionary defines it as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.’
There is a really detailed definition from the Cambridge online Dictionary which defines racism as ‘the belief that people’s qualities are influenced by their race and that the members of other races are not as good as the members of your own, or the resulting unfair treatment of members of other races.’
Three things connect all these definitions: ‘difference’, ‘inherence’ and ‘subservience.’ Racism is based on the idea that one race is inherently inferior and another is inherently superior. All oppressions and discriminations and oppression flow from these beliefs. The outcomes of racism include exclusion, prejudice, hatred, inequality, and injustice. Without the impression of inferiority racism lacks definition or objectivity. Stereotyping is unfair and mostly unfounded, but is not in of itself racist. Racial attacks are horrible, but when not predicated on hierarchical motives and ideas, these are not strictly racism. It is the outcomes of racism that are the most significant in this discourse.
Myths and Misconceptions about Racism
‘You cannot say certain words lest you be accused of racism.’ Mentioning someone’s race is not racism. The human race is beautiful in its diversity, recognising and celebrating that diversity empowers us. Patronising diversity is racism, because it is predicted on a narrative of inferiority.
‘S/he deserved that racist response.’ Racism is not justifiable and has no excuse. The idea that someone had done something to deserve racism is immoral. The need to demonise people who have been subject to racism goes back to the ideas of inherence and inferiority. If a person is a ‘thug’ then it is ok to be racist to them, right? Is it ever ok to be racist? This shows how deeply entrenched racism is in our psyche; it is easier to justify it than repudiate it.
‘Unintentional racism is not bad, also known as good people cannot be racist’. The problem with unintentional racism is that it is insidious, it is based on misinformation, ignorance and misrepresentations that are so deep-seated that confronting them will disrupt our understanding of the world around us. ‘The American Journal of Public Health reports that subtle racism is more psychologically damaging than overt discrimination. Whereas recipients can “shrug off” overt discrimination, subtle racism is more likely to be committed by colleagues, neighbours, or friends.’ Unintentional racism shows us that eradicating racism is an arduous and world-changing task that may not be finished in our lifetime. Josephine Kwhali talking about unintentional racism says “if it still is unconscious, there really is something worrying about what it will take for the unconscious to become conscious.” Millennia of campaigning?
‘Only a racist can do racist things.’ Racism is not an action. Identifying people as ‘racist’ is unhelpful and pointless. It is a label that is obtuse and opaque. Very few people believe that difference indicates inferiority deserving of exclusion. This does not mean that our actions cannot reflect the mores of the society which we live in. It is quite disconcerting to see people defend themselves against racist actions by saying ‘I am not a racist.’ The fact that you are not a tree does not mean you will not shed leaves if you have been walking through the forest. If you swim in effluent matter, you will smell, this does not make you human waste. The problem is that you can only legislate against an idea in societies where thought is crime. None exist…yet.
‘Racism is inherent in certain races.’ Not according to the above definitions of racism. The direction of racism in a society depends on the receptacle of power and privilege in that society. We cannot define the capacity for and character of racism solely by the experiences of our existence. Racism exists as difference, inherence and subservience. Any suggestion that a particular race is incapable of projecting these may itself be considered racist.
‘It is 2016, we are post-racial.’ The only thing that stops the narrative of the post-racial society from moving forward is the voices of victims who cry ‘No!’ Yet these are often called ‘playing the race card.’ Is it so difficult to believe that these cries may be true? Is it really, REALLY easier to believe that all, ALL people who complain of racism are lying?!
The Resulting Emotions of Racism
Rage: Rage is instinctive, it flows naturally from the offence. The feeling of powerlessness that racism inflicts results in rage and anger. The idea that one human being can take one look at another and consign the other to oblivion for no other reason than the colour of their skin has become so pervasive and unconscious such that the fact that this still happens induces rage. But wrath is destructive. Rage builds nothing. Anger tears apart the foundations of humanity.
Denial: The idea of racism is uncomfortable. The discomfort of the reality of the generational injustice makes us subconsciously reject the magnitude of its existence. But we cannot conquer what we do not face up to. This world belongs to us all. The good and the bad things are all ours to embrace or repudiate. Denial is futile and counterproductive.
Guilt: Guilt is universal. It arises out of a feeling of responsibility. We feel that by not doing more we have retrenched from our own high standards. But guilt is ineffective if we do not do more than feel guilty. If I have done/not done something that I should rightly feel guilty about, then it is my responsibility to change and not do or do. If I take no responsibility, then my guilt is self-serving.
Love: Love can never be too much. Love can be defined as ‘the unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.’ Love and racism cannot cohabit. Love is like a candle that loses nothing by lighting another candle. Every action predicated on love that is pure will yield unselfish results. If we can look into to face of any human being and feel love, than the world will heal itself.
But indifference is not an emotion. It is the absence of emotion.
Remember that racism cripples us all, it objectifies the victim and deprives the world of the beauty of our dynamism and complexity.
Remember that victims are not saints and perpetrators are not monsters.
Racism exists and continues to be widespread because of the unconscious fear in accepting the existing level of racism is accepting that you could be a racist – that much racism cannot possibly exist without us all being complicit, overtly or covertly.
We have created the myth of the racist monster and the saintly sufferer. We need to avoid denying the humanity of monsters and the monstrosity inherent in all humanity. We need to repudiate hate and ignorance, and embrace positive change and love, accepting love, expansive love, for all.