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What Comes Next When You Discover That You Are A Racist

South Africans are racist. We have that in common. We can't really help it.

21/12/2016 04:57 SAST
Felix Dlangamandla/Beeld/Gallo Images
Theo Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen during their bail application hearing at the Middelburg Magistrates Court after they were arrested for allegedly assaulting and forcing Rethabile Victor Mlotshwa into a coffin on December 08, 2016 in Middelburg, South Africa. Jackson and Oosthuizen, who are accused of racism and assault were denied bail.

"Oh no!" he realised, "The number plates!". His family name was on the plates and it was Rhodes. He was on his way to UCT and naturally he turned back. (No urban legend. He told me himself.)

Words in South Africa are highly charged, and old faithfuls like "racism" and "violence" would be high voltage enough if we all had the same meanings for these words. But we don't. For some South Africans, "violence" need no longer involve physical force, and physically harming someone is no longer necessarily violent. "Black" doesn't necessarily denote skin colour and blacks can't be racist.

We don't seem to notice this uncoupling of shared meaning, but it hardly seems to matter. After all, we don't talk to each other, or even at each other. We shout. Sisonke Msimang talks of the cacophony of noise; the howling and the barking and the sound and the fury.

Amid this cacophony we might wonder if we South Africans have anything in common. But we do. Almost all of us who've grown up in South Africa share at least one trait.

We're racists.

Me too.

We can't help it.

Human beings are wired for instantaneous, unconscious bias. A Yale psychology professor from a minority ethnic group who studies stereotypes for a living was "surprised and troubled" by her own unconscious bias detected in a test that she herself helped develop. From early childhood many white Americans harbour both implicit and explicit racial bias. The implicit bias persists (on testing) into adulthood, but the same adults admit no conscious racial bias at all.

You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

So what kind of racists are we?

There is still no authoritative field guide to racists, but a start has been made with a checklist to identify recovering American racists, and a description of 11 types of American racist. However, the most helpful current working guide is perhaps a South African description of four species:

1. Confirmed racists are openly prejudiced;

2. Suppressed racists come in two flavours; the politically correct who pretend they're not; and unconscious racists who can't see that they are;

3. Pre-racists are our young children in the pre-prejudice stage;

4. Recovering racists acknowledge their racism and have taken responsibility for it. But they're not completely free, either. Like people battling addiction, they're 'in recovery', working at inner and outer transformation.

So, what can we racists do?

Here are some suggestions:

1. We can go into rehab.

As in addiction, denial is a major barrier to recovery. A first and massive step is to become aware of our unconscious biases. Taking the above-mentioned online test for hidden racial bias might be a good place to start that process. Clues to our biases can also come from noticing what offends us. For instance, being really upset by other people's racism could just place us in the unconscious racism group. ("If we can spot it, we got it."). And Anne Lamott has offered a test for general bigotry: You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

We can also check how our racism discloses itself in our everyday lives, by noticing what we've thought or said. When we do catch ourselves, we don't need to beat ourselves up. Simply noticing can slowly repair the wiring.

2. We can apologise, ask forgiveness, and forgive.

If any of us don't see the need for this, it's perhaps best to refer back to Suggestion 1.

The apology may need to be public. A veteran white journalist has recently done just that, for not doing enough to fight the system that he'd actively opposed. I must stand beside him. A colleague has told me that she holds me more accountable than she does many other whites because I "had known better", and didn't speak up enough. I need forgiveness. From myself, too.

3. We can listen to understand, not to reply.

Sisonke Msimang suggests that we stand close enough to breathe one another's breath. I agree. But we must go further.

We must listen in a new way.

Our typical listening is very meagre. We listen only to reply, and then interrupt and say as much as we can before we too are interrupted. A different sort of listening can transform both speakers and hearers, and lead us into our shared humanity. I've experienced this myself as one of a potentially tricky group of South Africans. This is listening to understand rather than to reply.

We must know we've been heard:

"I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen, heard, understood, and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand, and touch another person."

- Virginia Satir, the "Mother of Family Therapy".

Perhaps a first step towards this type of listening is to practice listening to people we like and find easy to understand. Without interrupting. When we do catch ourselves interrupting we should congratulate ourselves for simply noticing.

When we feel ready, we could try with someone a little different from us. Then slowly increase the 'dose' of difference, and see what happens.

The more privileged should listen first, and most. After all, we've got some catching up to do.

4. We can look for connection.

Research from UCT (yes, the place where the poo famously hit the statue) suggests that contact across race barriers can improve relationships even when we haven't chosen to make contact. Randomly allocating black and white students to share rooms reduced white prejudice towards blacks, increased inter-racial interaction and improved black students' academic performance (with the academic improvement related to lower white roommates' prejudice.)

5. "Yes, and..."

Even if we do manage to talk and listen to each other in a new way, it will be more than difficult for us to find answers amid such conflicting needs and views. If we tackle this with an "either-or" approach we are lost. Our "binary polemic" has been called a South African "public health hazard" and relentlessly aggravates the conflict.

I can already hear the groans as I write the word "win-win". It's become a spineless buzzword, perhaps because we're neither mature nor desperate enough to embrace the disposition it demands. "Win - win" embodies "both - and". We must be both nice and tough. We must see both our point of view and the others'. We must express our values and commitments both bravely and with consideration for the ideas and feelings of others. And we must believe there really is enough to go round for all our needs, if not greeds.

Starting with "Yes - and" frees us to work at understanding another point of view without giving up our own. Starting with "Yes" does not immediately categorise things as good or bad. Conversely, starting with "No", we'll see only what we expect to see and usually get "No" in return. (Yet once we've said the primary Yes, later No's can be both necessary and helpful.)

You can't always get what you want

But if you try sometimes you just might find

You get what you need

- Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

(PS. No, I have no idea why Trump chose this song for his presidential campaign.)