I am racist. It is not something a man likes to admit, but it is something that has to be acknowledged before it can be addressed. Now don’t get me wrong. It is not a question of hatred. I can love and embrace people of all different cultures and creeds. I respect people no matter what colour they are. My racism is of a much more insidious kind.
Recently I was privileged to read an article by John Metta, which has been doing the rounds on Facebook (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-metta/i-racist_b_7770652.html). His ideas were nothing new to me. It is something I have known and taught for many years. But the article inspired me to actually do something about it. Intellectual assent is never sufficient. True commitment to an idea or a creed demands action. And I realise that I have been too passive.
The truth is that racism is deeply entrenched in our social systems. Combating racism is much more complicated than abolishing oppressive laws and speaking out against hatred. It is easy to see how illogical hatred is. True racism is more difficult to dissemble because it has become normalised to such an extent that many white people – like me – have not even realised just how racist we are.
In my country, it is deeply embedded in the education system. I have often commented to my classes on the irony of the fact that despite an African climate, we are compelled to wear English-style school uniforms – complete with blazer and tie (possibly the world’s most ridiculous item of clothing: why start the day with a noose around your neck?), and sit in rows, following an Industrial Age European model of schooling. The rules governing appearance belong in Victorian England, and the definition of ‘good manners’ is typically English. And much as I love Eliot and Hopkins, Shakespeare and Hardy (and I will never apologise for loving them, nor will I fail to find universal themes in them), I still believe that we need to relook at their relevance to a 21st Century South African classroom.
South African schooling seems to me to discourage young academics from producing texts in their mother tongues, and promotes a cultural history that marginalises the African voice. I can understand why the students at the University of Cape Town recently campaigned to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed. It is, I believe, a necessity. But I also think that we need to be looking beyond mere statues. Symbolic gestures like this are important, and they may make us feel better temporarily, but they fail to address the deeper concerns.
One of my favourite Bible verses is Micah 6:8
“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
It is not enough just to believe in justice, nor to complain about injustice. We have to act justly. That means taking a proactive stance against systems and structures that discriminate against groups of people – whether on the basis of race, culture or gender. It means occasionally offending people and saying what those made too comfortable by the system do not want to hear. But the Biblical mandate to stand up for the oppressed is abundantly clear. And the requirement is not that we pity them, or sympathise with them or even just pray for them. It is that we stand up and act on their behalf. Imagine how different the world would look if Christians would simply be prepared to become uncomfortable and stand for the oppressed? Imagine if everybody had the courage of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King.
And this is why I believe I am racist. The academic culture of this country is skewed significantly in favour of the white man. I have recognised this, but have done very little to combat this injustice. As a teacher, and more so – as a teacher with a fair degree of influence – what have I done to encourage young people to hold academic discussions in their mother tongues? What have I done to encourage them to produce poetry and novels, or even literary criticism that looks at South Africa from a non-white perspective, and in a language other than English? What have I done to challenge the systemic bias and to help young people see the racism inherent in the systems that attempt to shape them? What have I done to make them critical of what education asks them to accept as normal? What I have I done to help my pupils find an authentic African voice? Not enough.
That will change. As I have noted in a previous post, I am a patriot. I love the people of my country, and I will use what talents and influence I have to encourage people to work towards some form of social justice. I realise I cannot change the world. But I can change myself. I will start by learning an African language – probably isiZulu to start with. I am ashamed that I have not done this sooner, that I have been content for the majority of my country’s population to learn to speak my language instead. From now on, I will speak up and encourage others to do the same. I have seen from history that individuals seldom change the world. All they can do is to contribute to a growing tide of dissent that spills over into reform. Let the tide begin to rise. Join me.