14/12/2016 04:54 SAST | Updated 14/12/2016 07:03 SAST

Are White South Africans Sleepwalking Through Racial Transformation?

To be white in South Africa is to have the luxury to be indifferent to racial issues if so desired.

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Brian Draper, a prominent author on spiritual intelligence, describes any kind of personal transformation as consisting of 4 tangible steps: First we need to respond to a moment of awakening (Step 1), which then leads us to a deeper awareness or understanding in ourselves in a way seeing the world afresh (Step 2). Step 3 involves responding creatively to this new awareness in our own unique way. And finally, Step 4 involves passing it on to others, or spreading the positive contagion.

In my opinion, when it comes to racial transformation, many white South Africans never make it to Step 1. That is, they have yet to wake up from their slumber to notice the indiscriminate (and often blatant) racial discrimination and dehumanization of people of colour that permeate the fabric of our society. Moreover, they have yet to wake up to their own justification thereof to confront the beast of racism in their own carefully manicured lives while smugly pointing fingers at the government.

Let me be clear, I too am dismayed by the violence of some student protests, by the way President Zuma runs his government, by the corruptness of some state-owned enterprises, and by the vilification of those who dare to stand up for truth. I am dismayed by these things for the obvious impact they have in building a better future for all, and especially the poor, in South Africa. But almost above all, I am saddened by these things because of the power they harbour in fuelling racism all over again in our country. Because it appears far easier for many white South Africans to justify their own biased racial convictions (albeit implicitly) than to separate what happens in politics from our obligation to rehumanise the other, and by implication, ourselves.

Science and our own research point to perspective taking as a critical element in rehumanising the other. It forms a core component of empathy, and can be described as the mental process whereby we put ourselves in the shoes of another to see the world from their perspective.

But how does one wake up? Wake up to appreciate and empathise with the desire of thousands of students to lift themselves from the shackles of poverty and structural violence, wake up to recognise the way in which white South Africans endlessly stereotype people of colour by putting them into boxes of entitlement, lack of ambition, or corruption often through subtle nuances in referring to 'them' and the way 'they' do things, wake up to see the way people of colour are treated and experience our public spaces, often being weighed and found wanting when it comes to dinner or hotel reservations, lease agreements, or school placements...and finally wake up to begin to understand how these everyday experiences of thousands of Black people, these micro aggressions, slowly chip away at their humanity and sense of self.

Science and our own research point to perspective taking as a critical element in rehumanising the other. It forms a core component of empathy, and can be described as the mental process whereby we put ourselves in the shoes of another to see the world from their perspective. In one of our recent studies, where black and white South Africans empathised with each other's emotional distress while in a brain scanner, we found that the brain mechanisms that support this process of self-projection mentally projecting ourselves into the alternative reality of another were much less active when participants perceived an out-group member in distress compared to when they perceived an in-group member in distress. It thus appears as though White people (in general) are much better at understanding the subjective reality and emotional experience of other white people as compared to black people.

Perspective taking therefore works, but it doesn't just happen.

But in my opinion, it is largely a matter of not trying hard enough. Various previous studies on intergroup relations have shown that the tendency to favour one's in-group disappears when individuals are specifically instructed to take the perspective of a (racial) out-group member. That is, effortful perspective taking has been shown to decrease the use of stereotypes, to increase positive evaluations and caring behaviour towards the out-group, and to foster increased willingness to engage in meaningful contact with the out-group. Moreover, taking the perspective of a stigmatised individual has been shown to generalize to positive evaluations of the whole out-group.

Perspective taking therefore works, but it doesn't just happen. It is a skill that needs training just like any other mental or physical ability the more one is open to it, and therefore does it, the better one becomes at it. Perspective taking is what is necessary for us to form a uniquely individualising view of another person, as opposed to stereotyping and generalising.

Nevertheless, transforming one's inner view of the other remains a journey, a process of small incremental successes interceded by slippages back to old habits and thoughts. It is a tangential process that may feel daunting and uncomfortable at times, especially when confronted by peers who have been lulled into complacency or simply choose not to see.

Again drawing on our own research, we have been able to identify at least three types of white South African identities on the path to racial transformation and restorative justice.

The first type (at the bottom of the spectrum) can be described as a victim identity where, as the name suggests, individuals feel themselves to be at the brunt of racial transformation and affirmative action, resisting any form of racial integration.

The second type can be described as a saviour or rescuer identity, where White people continue to embrace their own superiority, but welcome Black assimilation into their culture. Finally, at the top of the spectrum, we find people who have attained critical self-awareness, who find transformation hard and challenging, but who are genuinely committed to eradicate any trace of racism in their own lives. Critically self-aware people don't have all the answers, but they are willing to go in search of them, to take responsibility, to have the difficult conversations, and to not shy away from black pain.

But to embark on this transformative journey, many white South Africans first need to wake up to take, as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela says, 'a pivotal turn to perspective taking and gaining an integrated view of both the self and the other' in order to arrive at a new level of consciousness about race.