Racial prejudice 101


Written, January 2016

This morning we woke to the wavering voices of Islamic singing. Today was a Muslim festival and there was an early-morning parade in the streets. Together with the crumbling stone buildings and the colourful wooden dhows bobbing in the sea, it felt like we had woken 500 years ago.

Over breakfast we learnt how Ilha is famous in all of Mozambique for its racial and religious tolerance. Churches sit side by side with mosques; skin colours matter little, and those who have live easily beside those who have not. This morning we went for a swim off the end of the pier. A group of young Moslem guys jumped in in their clothes, a black mother in a bikini took her tiny baby for its first swim in the sea, and a white tourist with flowing red hair went snorkelling. People here walk with a quiet dignity. Everyone matters.

It is something of a balm to be among this. I was very upset when I boarded the flight to Nampula. I had been involved in a discussion on “This Dialogue Thing”, a closed Facebook group committed to dialoguing honestly on the racist tropes that are still thick in the South African psyche in which a black South African was professing his hatred for all white South Africans, and warning of an imminent war.

Like many other whites on the forums, I had responded, trying to show that he was being heard, that we were listening to how he felt, and then together with black South Africans, suggested that by provoking whites so that they show their racist colours – which he admitted he did – was never going to lead towards much healing. Before I boarded the flight I had checked the thread again, and saw that instead of responding to many of the comments in the thread, he had started a new thread in which he just re-emphasised how much he hated, hated, hated white South Africans.

As the plane took off I felt distraught – and fear.

Distraught for the dialogue and fear for the thought that if this plane crashed it would not matter one iota to the world. It would just be another plane crash in Africa. But if this plane crashed in Europe, everyone would care. I was a despised white person on a plane that no one cared about.

The man next to me took out his book and the title was “Coragem para Vivar”, Courage for Life. I asked him if he was a pastor, and he said he was, that he was from the Macua tribe in the north of Mozambique, and wanted to do a Phd in Theology in Pretoria, and so I told him about the work I was involved in with Consciousness Café – how we create spaces in the world, not online, where South Africans can come together to talk about the apartheid demons that haunt them –  and how hard it was, and how I had been asking God/the universe/myself what I could say to take that hatred away. As I spoke my eyes filled with tears and my voice wobbled, and I asked what he thought. He said it is very hard, and just asked if he could pray for us, and so he did.

I think what bothered me so much about the hatred espoused by the young man on Facebook, was that it was considered justified. That it is okay that a young black man is permitted to hate me – someone he has never met – on the grounds that people with white skins in the past imprisoned/killed his father or uncle (because, by his story, that seems to be the real root of his hatred).

Right now, received wisdom is that only whites can be racist, because racism is an organised system by which one group oppresses by the other. If you can’t oppress, then you can’t be racist.

So what is individual hatred based on skin colour? This, we are told, is just racial prejudice, to which the subtext seems to be that racial prejudice is okay/justified, while racism is not.

And the question is: at which point does it shift? At which point do you reach the critical mass in which enough people hate and that hatred become a system?

I guess I am finally feeling what racism/racial prejudice really feels like. This might not be allowed to be called racism – just as white South Africans used to say that apartheid was not racist “just good neighbourliness” – but now I know how it feels and you know what, it really sucks, and it really hurts and I totally get it. It is so dehumanising. I know I am more than my skin colour.






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