The reaction to my “Cape Town’s Secret White Club” column last week made me realise several things about racism in South Africa.
Firstly, there is a denial of racism. Secondly, there is a refusal to talk about it. Not only that, but those black people who do talk about it have a chip on their shoulder.
Thirdly, people of colour generally say that there is racism and white people say there isn’t.
Of course, before you go ahead and bite my head off, I am not saying all white people believe that there is no racism, nor am I saying that all white people are racist.
I can completely understand why so many white Capetonians responded the way they did to that column. For years, racism has been synonymous with colonialism and apartheid, hence the need to feel defensive when racism is raised.
But just because I understand does not mean that I agree with the points that some made. Discussions of racism make some white people uncomfortable, because they think they are being attacked. Debates about racism are not attacks on white people, they are attacks on racism. We need to get that straight.
There is a terrible assumption that people make when racism is discussed, that the writer is saying all white people are racist. People approach the issue of racism with the greatest of emotional angst, as if you were making a personal attack on their person.
There are many white people who dedicated their lives to fight the horrible scourge of racism – even when it was completely unsafe for them to do so. These people include Helen Joseph, Helen Suzman, Joe Slovo, Beyers Naude and many other unsung heroes. So it is ridiculous for people to say that we say all white people are racist.
Those who are reluctant to discuss racism and want to bully us out of talking about it should know that we will never stop debating it until it is eradicated from the face of the planet – along with other forms of prejudices against the peoples of the world. Not talking about racism will not end it.
When you write about racism, people tend to want to force you to defend what you have written about. Instead of attending to the issue at hand, they bring in distractions. It seems that South Africans are not ready to end racism because many are not comfortable with us even discussing or acknowledging that it happens every day.
The problem with not wanting to talk about racism is the fact that the people who experience it every day can’t pretend they are not experiencing it. It is easy to accuse someone of having a chip on their shoulder, when you have never experienced what they go through. There is also a tendency to want to dismiss racism as people simply being jerks.
Racism is a jerk-ish move. But one can be a jerk without being a racist. We know this. So let us not trivialise racism by telling people who experience it every day how to respond to it. Are you really just being a jerk when your attitude is reserved for one race?
Last week’s column received a vehement response from the defenders of Cape Town. Yet a few days later, in a column for another publication, I wrote about what Helen Zille needed to do to get the black vote, and no one accused me of always talking about race. If anything, the commentators were thrilled at my advice to Helen Zille.
When talking about race “benefits” their point of view it seems to be OK to talk about it, but not when exposing race’s ugly side.