This “we don’t see colour”* thing is really problematic. Every time I hear someone say that they don’t see colour, I get uncomfortable. *confession* The reason is because I see colour. This may be a scary idea for some because there is a prevalent idea that seeing colour is bad and that we should be colour-blind. However, I would like to suggest that “not seeing colour/being colourblind” is the more dangerous option.
A brief disclaimer
To be clear, when I say ‘I see colour’, I don’t mean that I think there are inherent differences between people of different races. What I mean is that I acknowledge systematic differences in different racial groups’ circumstances, which are shaped by historical racialisation. Personally, I am fascinated with how racialism still affects people globally. However, I don’t find people that keen to talk about race matters, which worries me 😦 I’m concerned because racism is still alive and well (which you will know, if you’ve ever read the news24 comments section).
Racism is everywhere
It’s not just in the news24 comments section. Racist ideas are perpetuated in media. We’re also socialised into them by our parents and peers. So as well meaning as you are/may be, it might turn out that you have some racial prejudices that you don’t know about. Indicators that racism is alive and well can be found in ordinary interactions and reactions of people in our society. I use examples focusing on black people here, but there are countless other examples which apply to and intersect with the experiences of other groups of people who are not white. These are some of the instances which show prejudice against black people still exists:
- being afraid of black men/thinking black people are criminals/thinking rape is a “black problem”/thinking nothing is wrong with this kind of thinking because, it’s what you’ve always known to be true. That’s racist.
- telling black people that they “speak really well”, which just sounds like “you speak really well for a black person” (which heavily implies that it is surprising that black people are able to grasp English). That’s racist.
- using the “but I have black friends” line when accused of saying something/being racist. This…this shouldn’t be a thing. You could have all the black friends in the world and still be quite racist.
- referring to ANC voters as monkeys. That’s racist.
- This right here. This is racist.
And yet, many people would rather sweep race conversations under the carpet. Calling out someone for prejudice can get very messy. In the new South Africa, the last thing you want to be is racist, which is why having conversations about race is a minefield. The tricky thing about it is that the less we talk about race, the more likely it is that people will keep holding racist beliefs, not aware that they are prejudiced and then later, end up in infamous blackface incidents
Can’t we just move on? It’s been 20 years…
I write this at the risk that someone is going to misunderstand me and say, “Not everything is about race! It’s 2014!”. Before they do that, I would like clarify that I don’t think everything is about race. There’s also socio-economic class, physical ability, gender and sexual orientation to consider. However, the way race relations were set up historically still affects society today. For instance, since “democracy”, not much has changed in South Africa in terms of wealth distribution. Despite the rise of a black elite, the majority of wealth is still in the hands of white people**. This might just be a coincidence but it also might have something to do with decades of apartheid legislation favouring white people. The majority of poor people in South Africa today are black. That’s why we still have university admission policies that acknowledge race and Black Economic Empowerment. 20 years later, the scales have not yet been balanced. On an institutional level, we can’t attain economic justice without acknowledging the influence of race.
Lean into the discomfort
I get the sense that when 1994 happened, there was so much shame/guilt in recognizing the *atrocities* of apartheid that people just wanted to not think about it. This is understandable. Talking about race is uncomfortable, but we have to get uncomfortable to progress. The women who dressed in blackface at the University of Pretoria, I would like to think, had no idea blackface was racist until they were all over the news and getting suspended from their residences. Assuming they were not deliberately attempting to be racist, they could perhaps have avoided that situation by engaging beforehand in some uncomfortable discussions about race.
Moving towards a deeper understanding
There was a lot of shock and anger when the pictures of the UP students in blackface went viral. We are so incensed when “racists” are revealed to us. Unfortunately, this type of reaction is unhelpful as it scapegoats the people who get caught. It makes racism seem like something only perpetuated by those 2 UP students, that one random guy on twitter and the unknowns in News24 comments section. Everyone else moves on with their life, not having to interrogate their own prejudices. Scapegoating skews the problem in such a way that if you don’t get caught being racist, you can think, “Well, at least I didn’t put on blackface. I’m probably okay”. This makes me wonder how many people thought blackface was chilled before that story made the headlines. Do they understand why blackface is wrong or are they just going to avoid blackface so that they don’t get in trouble? This is why dialogue is needed.
The power of ideas
Like most other forms of oppression, racism is maintained by ideas that individuals hold, which infiltrate institutions. State-implemented racism might have been disbanded, but you don’t change a nation’s ideology by changing the law. After the law changes, the ideology remains and has to be fought as well. As T. O. Molefe succinctly put it,
* EDIT:Original version of this post inaccurately referred to rainbow-nationism
**This is not to say that all white people are always rich, obviously.