Something which comes up during my diversity training sessions, and frequently in discussions among people of colour is the perception that white people are invariably racist. Some believe that Afrikaans white people are worse than the English-speakers. It would seem that this perception is based on how black people are treated. Just a look, just one single look, is often all it takes to send a clear message about how one is perceived. Just one look can cause so much pain and be highly offensive. This is to say nothing of gestures, speech and other actions. Racism can go in different directions, but people of colour are indeed often on the receiving end (Mabuza, 2017).
However, I feel that perception and reality are not necessarily the same. It would be naïve to think that everything white people say and do in relation to others is racially motivated, but racism happens often enough for many South Africans to feel that way. So what is really happening in white culture? Whatever it is, at least some of it is offensive to people of colour. Are they all either outright or closeted racists? The answer is certainly no, and we will look at evidence for this.
What we can affirmatively say is that all white people, often from a young age, are exposed to racist and biased views from parents, schoolmates, friends, colleagues, etc. What they do with these opinions is up to them. Upbringing determines much of our behaviour, but when we come of age, we are able to make up our own minds about various issues. It has been pointed out that, for example, the rape of women and children is not something the victims can bring an end to. It is up to men, as a group and as individuals, to police and correct one another so that women and children begin to feel safe around men, and so that we reach a place where men no longer feel they have to jump through hoops to secure a date.
So too with white people, it is up to them to apply positive peer pressure on one another to refrain from and reject racist behaviour, speech and thoughts. It is up to white parents to choose to raise their children in a non-racist way and ensure they are socialised with other children in a healthy way. These aren’t the only means to overcome racism, but they could be the most effective. It seems strange, but there’s sometimes little we can do to end problems that affect us so much as rape culture and racism. The resultant feelings of powerlessness are so frustrating.
While not all whites are racist, all of them have a choice in this regard. Some expressed that choice in a national whites-only referendum, something people seem to have forgotten about. It is sometimes said that white youths are less racist, and they may be the most likely to correct others on the issue.
Nevertheless, in March 1992, ex-President FW de Klerk announced the results of the vote: 68.6% of whites voted in favour of reform. South African History Online (2015) explains, ‘Surprisingly, the majority of Afrikaans-speaking Whites gave their approval… The results of the referendum were hailed worldwide and signalled the end of Apartheid… President of Nigeria and chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Ibrahim Babangita sent his congratulations on behalf of the people of Africa.’ This referendum is still comparatively one of the best voter turnouts we have ever had in South Africa.
Based on this evidence, we can certainly say that it is not only white youths of today who are glad Apartheid is over. Sometimes it is the quiet people among us, those who seem to make no waves or get involved in political circuses, whose views really should count the most, but they don’t get heard. Why are we so obsessed with the Andre Slades and Vicki Mombergs of this world? It’s true that what such people do is terrible, they are not role models for anyone, and we don’t excuse such racism. But does the sincere, older Afrikaans person – who treats everyone fairly, and who quietly cast their vote according to their conscience in 1992 – not count because they don’t make headlines? There are more of the latter and fewer of the former than we think.
Recently, South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations commissioned a study which found that ‘72% of South Africans reported no personal experience of racism in their daily lives’ (Mabuza, 2017). These results are better than many would assume. This improved situation is partly due to white people’s behaviour, their good behaviour.
Ferial Haffajee’s 2015 book entitled What if there were no whites in South Africa? delves into this topic in considerable detail and she offers a variety of views. One of the critical points she makes is that we all need to be willing to see the meaningful transformation that is happening in our country. There is documented proof of progress, as Haffajee discusses, but we tend to focus so much on the negatives. Racism grabs headlines more often than successful integration. Will the latter ever find its rightful place in the public consciousness?
As I am writing this article, across the country, people of all kinds are getting along; people are making friends and cooperating. Not always because they have something to gain, but because it’s the decent thing to do. When do we take time to contemplate this? Most South Africans, I firmly believe, want to get along and they want to end discrimination. What we must do to reach this goal is to find the courage to speak up when racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice rear their ugly heads. We must strive to correct ourselves and those in our peer groups who we can positively influence.
In conclusion, I will quote Haffajee (2015) who ties this issue in well with what is happening in our professional lives: ‘It is in workplaces where racial bumper cars play out and crash into wider society, bringing all their pains with them. It is here that impatient black aspiration meets dogged white self-protection, where our pain lies and where leadership does not lie.’
Haffajee F (2015) What if there were no whites in South Africa? Johannesburg: Pan MacMillan.
Mabuza E (2017) No racism in daily lives of seven in 10 South Africans, survey finds. Business Day, 7 February.
South African History Online (2015) President F.W. de Klerk announces Whites-only referendum results. From: http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/president-fw-de-klerk-announces-whites-only-referendum-results