Speaking about racism is a little daunting, because it personally took me a long time to recognise my own racism—and I like to think of myself as an introspective person. My attempts in the past to convince fellow white South Africans that we have a racism problem have not gone too well—we don’t see it, and we do our best to avoid seeing it.
It is almost as if we have amnesia about Apartheid—none of us approved of it, none of us were really influenced by it, and it was more than 20 years ago; haven’t we all got over it by now?
So having to try to persuade an audience (in 10 minutes or less) that our own racism is something we need to take seriously seemed a difficult task.
But then there was Matthew Theunissen.
Matthew Theunissen is practically a born-free. He was born in ’92 or ’93, I think. He went to a small private school with pupils of all races. He is privileged enough to have achieved two masters’ degrees, and in spite of being unemployed, he is able to live in the pretty middle-class suburb of Noordhoek. He has no reason to be racist or angry.
Matthew Theunissen recently went on FaceBook to let the world know that he thinks of the present government in the most racist and vulgar terms possible. There is nothing he could have said of a racial nature to be more hurtful to black South Africans. Why? Because the minister dared to touch his love for sport.
But then he did a beautiful thing. Seeing the response to his racism blow up to monstrous proportions, he went on a radio show to apologise. He heartily agreed with the interviewer that people who are not racists do not say such words—that it doesn’t even occur to a non-racist to use this language—and then with almost his next breath, he proceeded to insist that he is not actually racist.
Why is it that—even when there is indisputable evidence of it—almost no one can admit to being a racist? Why could even Matthew Theunissen not bring himself to say, “I am racist”? It is as if he has an image of himself as a good person, and so doing something deliberately awful, as he did, must be accidental—some strange intrusion into his character—but not who he really is. Even when his racism is plain to see, he wasn’t able to own it.
So perhaps the first reason why people don’t recognise their own racism is that we know that racism is bad—and being labelled a racist is a disaster—and we think better of ourselves. We’re not bad people; when we think or say racist things, it’s an exception to the rule, not really who we are.
The second reason why we I think we can’t own up to racism is that we think that racism must be accompanied by hatred, or hostility towards people of another race—it is something that you have to do. So if I were to ask you, “Are you racist?” many of you would answer ‘no’ on the grounds that you haven’t used the K word, or assaulted a domestic worker, or whatever other prominent example from the media you might want to choose.
The problem is that racism is much more than just behaviour. On a social level, racism has more to do with how society is structured—the place that various race groups occupy in society. On a personal level, racism has more to do with our attitudes towards others—the place that members of various race groups occupy in our thoughts and feelings.
Racism is not active hostility; it is the passive assumption that whiteness is better, and that blackness implies some sort of moral or intellectual or social inferiority. Racism is not a matter of hate; it is a matter of prejudice.
The word ‘prejudice’ is made up of a prefix (pre-) that means ‘before; in advance’, and ‘judice’—which is the same root from which all of our judicial words in English come—is about judgement. ‘Prejudice’ was not originally a word that referred to hatred or unfair treatment, but merely to a pre-judgement—an opinion about someone that is formed on the basis of some superficial quality, and without reference to who they actually are or what they are like. So also, racism need only be this sort of superficial pre-judgement for it to be damaging.
One of the key moments for me, in which I realised that I was this kind of racist, happened only about 10 years ago. I was driving through Constantia heading to work, and I noticed a team of manual labourers working on the road. It may have been that one of the labourers was white, but one way or another, it occurred to me that I would have seen a white labourer as unusual, and working in some way below his station, whereas black labourers would be normal.
For the first time, I really understood how deeply that Apartheid way of seeing the world was ingrained in me. I didn’t act racist; I just realised that I saw a sort of rightness about black people occupying a lower station. I wasn’t violent, or angry—I had no ill-feeling towards anyone at all—but I did something that is at the heart of all evil behaviour—I put a different value on one person over another for completely arbitrary reasons. That makes me a racist at heart. Or, the label that I now prefer to use, I am a recovering racist.
Racism is not only a matter of what we do or say; it is an internal issue that has to do with how we see the order of society—it is the pre-judgement of someone’s worth or intelligence. It affects who we trust; who we employ to do jobs that require certain levels of responsibility or expertise; who we look to for advice or guidance.
So a racist is that lovely friendly mum at school who still thinks nothing of referring to an adult worker as ‘the girl’ or ‘the garden boy’.
Racism is what made the white American cashier—in a story I heard recently—refuse to take payment by cheque from a black woman right after taking a cheque payment from her mixed-race sister-in-law because she looked white.
Or if we use a sporting example to make Matthew Theunissen happy, racism is why white supporters grumbled about Alviro Petersen as a quota player (i.e. a player chosen to make up race quotas and not primarily on merit) when he was selected for the Proteas cricket team in 2006, even though he had broken several domestic batting records in the year leading up to his selection. Racism is why every under-performing black player will be dismissed as a quota selection, and why under-performing white players “should be given time to show their worth”.
Racism is why the murder of a white girl usually makes the headlines, and why the murder of a black girl almost never does.
Racism is not about hostility; it is a prejudice that affects the trust that we put in people, and the value that we place on their work or on their lives.
The Bible doesn’t use the concept of race very often, but it is certainly aware of the damage that prejudice does.
This is what James 2 says about favouritism:
“2:2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…
He goes on: “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”
By pre-judging the worth of people on the basis of superficial things such as their skin or their wealth, James says that we have become judges with evil thoughts—that we have failed in our duty to love others.
So, to get back to Matt Theunissen—he had no good reason to be angry, and he isn’t some grizzled member of the broederbond who bought into decades of apartheid propaganda. He’s a normal white South African. He is also clearly racist, and yet he is the only one who can’t see it.
So what about you? Why do I want you to identify yourself with Matthew T? Racism is clearly harmful to our country, and when we fail even to recognise that we have a problem, we unconsciously blunder our way into causing more hurt and more division.
But even more importantly, racism is also a barometer of a deeper problem. Racism is a clear fact of our national past and our national present, but in spite of it being a fact, it is a problem that we almost universally are unable to acknowledge. If we can fail to judge ourselves enough to see racism, what other prejudice and corruption lives within us undetected?
If you’re not a Christian, one of the main reasons why you should look into it more carefully is that racism is not the only hidden corruption that we fail to acknowledge about ourselves. And the more accurately you see yourself, the more you will start to realise that we all are carrying damage and we need to be re-created from the inside out. This is a big part of what Jesus came to do.
If you start to look at your own inner life more carefully and honestly, I think a lot more of what Jesus said will start to make sense.
This has been adapted from a presentation given at St Stephen’s Church in Claremont, Cape Town, on 22 May 2016. Click here for my presentation and just the questions aimed at me. Click here for unedited audio of all three presentations.