On racism, real and imagined

RW Johnson writes on the split reactions to the Ashwin Willemse affair

It would be very difficult to explain to an outsider why the “Ashwin Willemse affair” has enjoyed such lasting and central attention in South Africa. Can a disagreement between sports broadcasters really qualify as news? What are Mallett and Botha accused of saying or doing? Nobody knows. When Willemse said that he had been called a quota player and that he was being undermined, even he did not say that Mallett and Botha had been guilty of these things.

In any case, Mallett had just suggested that Willemse be allowed to speak first because he hadn’t had a chance to speak earlier. Surely this is the opposite of undermining? And why, when Willemse was given his chance to put his case before the legal inquiry did he refuse to do so? He and his lawyers are now proceeding to the Equality Court (the name has an Orwellian ring) but what new evidence can they adduce there? Surely they must realise that unless they can come up with something pretty solid and convincing they are going to look unutterably foolish?

The fact is, of course, that the case – if it can be called a case – agitates stereotypes for all communities. On the one hand many black or Coloured people have found themselves in situations where they are faced with whites whose easy self-confidence makes them feel anxious and insecure. They feel sure that anyone with that degree of self-confidence (and education; and, perhaps, middle class lifestyle) must feel superior, must be looking down on them. This very feeling is undermining and, truth to tell, in many cases their self-esteem was somewhat fragile to begin with.

It is a short cut from that to believing that they are being deliberately undermined. But the damnable thing is that there is nothing they can point to positively. Faced with such a situation some, of course, simply invent things – insist they were called a “nigger” or a “kaffir” or whatever, when actually they weren’t. But in far more cases they will display their discomfort in what others would term “difficult” or “hypersensitive” behaviour.

Different people take different things from such situations. So many black and Coloured people have found themselves in such situations that they are very quick to sympathize with Willemse. Indeed, it is common after such encounters to hear people say things like “I could just see what he was thinking”, “You just know what people of that sort have in their minds”, “He didn’t actually say anything wrong but you could see it was on the tip of his tongue all the time” and so on. Conversely, many white people carry with them stereotypes of the way “difficult” black or Coloured people behave and quickly affix them to someone like Willemse. (These are purely South African types of behaviour. My British family includes many members who would be classified here as white, black or Coloured but all of them, I think, would find the Willemse affair mystifying.)

There has been a large rush to judgement in this case with people as various as Mmusi Maimane, Elna and Allan Boesak and Eusebius McKaiser all weighing in to aver how completely justified Willemse is. (How the Boesaks know that even from America, having neither seen nor heard the programme in question is mysterious. Telepathy, perhaps.)

But for McKaiser this is familiar territory. Notoriously, he failed to get any degree from his time at Oxford. This is not common among Rhodes Scholars. It occurred because he wanted to do a philosophy thesis on the subject of whether it is possible to hold people responsible for holding racist attitudes. Given McKaiser’s general mania on this subject – it seems to be the only subject that he has to write or talk about – one may be sure that he very much wanted to come up with a “Yes” answer, enabling him to hold wicked whiteys responsible and condemn them with bell, book and candle for evermore.

The problem is, as anyone familiar with Oxford philosophers will know, is that such a topic would have been rejected almost out of hand. We may hold people responsible for their actions, but who is to say what ideas or attitudes may flit through their minds? Not only are there insuperable problems of clarification and proof but it is arguable that we all have little control over what passes through our minds. In which case, does it make sense to hold anyone responsible for something over which they have no control? After all, we could hardly hold anyone responsible for what passes through their minds as they dream.

And then again, even if we find a professed racist who avers that whites are better than blacks (or the reverse), surely the most we can say is that his/her attitudes are irrational, that people of all races differ so much that it is simply a logical mistake to make such collective assertions where only individual judgements will do. But in that case we are saying that he (or she) is illogical, irrational and mistaken. We can’t really hold them morally responsible for that. We can only do so when these attitudes pass to action in some way – if they are used as a rationale for discriminating against those thought inferior or if such attitudes are propagated in order to encourage animosity or contempt for them. So once again we are back to holding people responsible for actions but not just for their ideas or attitudes, real or presumed.

This has important corollaries. For example, we hear of “subliminal racism” and “institutional racism” but it is not clear that either of these categories passes the test above. For example, imagine if someone mentions black people and his interlocutor launches into a discussion of black singers, athletes and comedians. Some would accuse that person of subliminal racism in having, apparently, a stereotype of black people as happy, musical, funny and athletic. This seems a little harsh: after all, none of these attributes is unattractive and nor was any suggestion made that black people cannot also be writers, scientists or astronauts. One has to be wary of having such strict rules that ordinary colloquial speech becomes difficult.

Similarly, does it really make sense to say that an institution is racist? Surely the most we can say is that those in charge of a given institution at a given time are guilty of racist practices? There is, after all, nothing inherent in any organizational structure which makes it racist. We have seen, for example, police forces which used to be lily-white and were frequently guilty of racist behaviour turned round into multi-racial forces which go to great lengths to avoid any imputation of racism. The very fact that such reforms were made suggests there was never anything racist that was intrinsic to any police force as an institution.

Given South Africa’s history it is not surprising that we now resort as easily to hunt-the-racism as to hunt-the-slipper in children’s nurseries of old. It is as if all sins are to be combined under one huge, awful sin, racism. But, again, this is out of proportion. Not long ago I had a visitor from England – a pleasant but politically very correct young woman who ventured into the streets of Cape Town and returned later that day boiling with indignation about instances of racism that she had heard or imagined.

None of her examples was terribly impressive and it made me realise how for most of my life in South Africa I have had to listen to a fairly steady diet of low-level racism from individuals of all groups. This is about as important in my life as the muzak tinkling away in supermarkets as I shop, which is to say, not very. Water off a duck’s back, even when aimed directly at me. I said as much to my young visitor and she was horrified: “Surely there can be nothing worse than racism !” she exclaimed. There was plenty, I assured her: child sexual abuse, rape, muti killings, violence towards women, torture, homophobic or xenophobic violence. One could go on – a long list.

There’s a final problem. If I say an individual white person (for example) is dirty or dishonest, this may be fair comment. If I say white people in general are dirty or dishonest, this counts as racism. That is, what makes it racist is the act of generalization. But for all of us who live in South Africa it is just a fact of life that we cannot but be aware of other groups in society and whether we like it or not we all carry stereotypes in our mind. Indeed, we probably have to have some such stereotypes in order to live here at all. For life requires us to make some general judgements.

For example, particularly when I am driving in rural South Africa I frequently give lifts. If I am alone, have room in the car and I see old ladies struggling with their shopping bags it seems only humane to offer them a lift. However, after hearing of several bad experiences involving young black men who’d been given lifts I stopped giving lifts to that general category. I felt uncomfortable about making such a categorical judgement but then one is not obliged to give lifts to anybody. I then gave a lift to a middle aged Coloured woman who pulled a knife on me and relieved me of a lot of money. How to react now? Stop giving lifts to women or to anybody at all? Whichever way one deals with such questions one is making general judgements, at least implicitly. And it would seem absurd to condemn anyone for making judgements about protecting their own security.

So if it is all right and anyway inevitable that we make some generalized judgements and that we entertain at least some stereotypes, when does it become bad to do so? As far as I can see, it comes down to questions of empirical fact. Thus, for example, we have all heard of taxi wars, seen dangerous black taxi drivers and witnessed lawless behaviour by such drivers. Based on that it seems prudent to give all black taxis and their drivers a wide berth. We undoubtedly have stereotypes of black taxi drivers and we use them. Most people, black or white, would think that fair enough.

However, if I then substitute “gardeners” or “soccer players” for “taxi drivers”, I could perhaps justifiably be accused of racism simply because there is no record to suggest that these categories of people are more dangerous than anybody else in which case, it would be argued, I could only be discriminating against them because they were black and because I had an unfair stereotype in my mind. So it turns out that we aren’t against all stereotypes, just unfair ones.

It would be possible to go on unpicking our attitudes and behaviour about racism. For many, many years it was the other way around and we spent time analyzing behaviour that was indubitably, even brutally, racist. It seems bizarre, now that behaviour on all sides has improved so immensely, that so much time and effort is spent on trying to track down racism even where it is either trivial or may not exist at all.

RW Johnson