Confronting Racism

What is racism?

Racism has always been a feature in South African political and social discourse since the colonial era, but there are differing views on what constitutes it; how it came to being; how it manifests itself; and how it can be dealt with.

In the conversation below, 702/CapeTalk’s Koketso Sachane unpacks racism with Kayum Ahmed - a doctoral fellow at Columbia University, and Mienke Steytler - a researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

Steytler defines racism as viewing oneself as superior to others based on race, adding that there’s a need to also look at how it relates to prejudice. Ahmed concurs, but adds that racism needs to be defined in relation to cultural, economic and historical elements that complement it.

You have examples across the world where racism has manifested and taken on different forms and given additional resources… I think South Africa has progressed significantly. It doesn’t mean we have reached our goals and targets; we still have a long way to go to be able to be able to give effect to the goals enshrined in our Constitution.

Kayum Ahmed, doctoral fellow at Columbia University

Meanwhile, Steytler points out that racism in South Africa started long before the apartheid regime came into power.

One can say that 350 – 400 years ago there were already indications that people were judged according to their race in the settlements around the Cape… We’re talking hundreds of years of (institutionalised racism)… generations growing up thinking differently of people who are different from themselves. South Africa is particularly special because of our special history.

Mienke Steytler, researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations

Dealing with racism, according to the experts, needs an understanding of how it manifests itself – covert or overt - and dealing with the former is challenging as it needs an admission from the person who holds such views.

Covert racism takes the form of micro-aggression and can be anything from referring in a derogative way to an individual while paying some sort of compliments like saying ‘you speak good English’ which is a covert way of saying ‘as a black person I don’t expect this level of English from you’. Either they don’t realise that they are doing this or they are doing it subconsciously. This is what creates tensions within communities in South Africa.

Kayum Ahmed, doctoral fellow at Columbia University

Steytler believes that addressing covert racism starts with perpetrators looking within themselves and admitting that they have a problem.

It’s very difficult to get that changed. It comes down to individual responsibility, stopping yourself when you have that thought… If more and more people are doing this, we can deal with this covert racism.

Mienke Steytler, researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations

A discussion on racism in South Africa is incomplete without dissecting notions like "white people are inherently racist" and "black people cannot be racist".

It's quite unfair to say that all white people are racist, for example, if we say xenophobia is a form of racism, it would be unfair to say all black people perpetuate xenophobia... Racism is a learnt prejudice or behaviour which means that some people would have been brought up in much more open-minded and egalitarian manner than others, and that's not down to your race...

Mienke Steytler, researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations

White South Africans need to recognise the fact that there is this power - both economic and social - that is inherent in any interaction with someone who has been disempowered. The other manifestation is that black South Africans who have been victims of racism are generally reluctant to speak out about their experiences...

Kayum Ahmed, doctoral fellow at Columbia University

In the end, Steytler states that discussions around white privilege and black people's lived experiences will yield positive results in healing the rifts in society, while Ahmed says education in schools can be a very powerful tool in starting the conversation earlier on in life.


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