Let’s talk about racism –                Episode 1: Beginning to engage

Let’s talk about racism – Episode 1: Beginning to engage

We are in a time and space when the tough conversations about racism, institutional injustice and police brutality against black people must be had and amplified globally. Healing starts with acknowledgement and deciding to commit ourselves to the deep work and reflection required for real change.

My PhD study is on “Intersectionality and positionality in entrepreneurship and resourcing”. I am a black-african-woman-mother-wife-entrepreneur-investor-academic-foreigner-living-in-post-apartheid-South-Africa… with family and business interests and partners in Africa and the Western world etc. This intersectionality of my identities and the resultant positionality places on me a unique responsibility to engage, share learnings, experiences, resources, give voice to many, build bridges and hopefully catalyse some needed change both locally and globally.

To restart engagement I have decided to begin with a series of blogs on racism which I may extend to other formats later. I will cover various topics from white privilege, to mothering in South Africa today, to black people ‘issues’, to moving from being a white friend to becoming an ally etc and anything else you recommend.

I will kick off with talking about ‘beginning to engage’. What I have found in my immediate circle of ‘good white friends’ that I have been having these uncomfortable conversations with over the years are the following:

  1. What makes the conversations uncomfortable for a lot of white people is how effectively the construct of racism has been adapted over years to define “racism as conscious bias held by evil people against another race.”
  2. This effectively splits racism into a ‘good vs bad’ positioning and makes people feel “well, therefore if I’m good or I just sit quietly in my corner – I can’t be racist”. I’ve had to recently address this with parents of one of my children’s friends following a racial incident in the children’s friends group so this is real-real.
  3. This evil vs good definition, is itself a racist construct, because it completely ignores the systemic injustice that maintains racism. Racism is a system of institutionalised prejudice and power – it is beyond racist slurs being flung around carelessly.
  4. The “evil racist” is just one form of racism because its the most visible yet there are other forms like silence and inaction over injustices. These forms are equally if not more pervasive as they make genuine allyship difficult at the least and completely elusive on the other hand.
  5. Being non-racist isn’t good enough anymore – the fact that one even has the “option to be silent” for example, denotes white privilege. Because on the other side of this silence is a person with a knee on his throat – he gets no such luxury for silence, and neither do his wife and daughter.

Acknowledgement of privilege as a start is crucial for real engagement. This does not say anywhere that ‘You are evil’. Seen under that evil lens – it’s no wonder it elicits feelings of guilt, shame, denial, fear and anger.

That is not what it is about. Acknowledging privilege needs to be reframed to the understanding that being born white automatically put you ‘ahead’ because of the way previous generations oppressed and exploited people of colour, and how that remains institutionalised at so many levels in today’s world.

No it’s not your fault you were born white, just like it’s not the black person’s fault either. No, it doesn’t mean that your life doesn’t come with challenges as a white person. It does however mean your skin colour does not come with added difficulties, prejudices and biases that the black person experiences daily based solely on their skin colour. Acknowledging privilege is therefore about making the unconscious conscious which puts us in a better position to start earnestly redressing inequality and levelling the playing field without fear.

The world is on fire. We thus need our allies to be loud and active anti-racists to create the needed change. Anything short of that is a decision to sit on the wrong side of history.

Resources: I found these article useful for starting conversations on privilege and racism:
1. Lori Hutcherson that breaks down white privilege in everyday experiences

2. Closer to home – Kevin Leathem and Tammy Bechus, breaks down privilege by discussing what it is not

Recommended book: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Image credit: Fighting hate for good

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Fiona

    Hey Lele, Thanks for sharing. Racism is wide, covert and overt in many ways. The idea of class systems generations of people have gone through makes it worse. Even within Africans ourselves we are racist, tribalist, religious segregationists but like you say those dont par se affect one like the obvious bias due to to ones color.
    I would like to address the issue of guilt. Saying am not racist does little in this fight but rather how one handles and treats people of different races determines ones racial bias or not.
    The idea that white privilege comes like a second skin to white people, generations of black people especially in Africa fawn it without even realizing it. A white person receives service before a native never mind that a native was first in the line or simply treated more humane are subtle things that many white folks dont even pay attention to.
    I agree we have to start from having a discussion if we are to move anywhere in the fight against institutional and systemic racism.

  2. Ciku

    Fascinating and insightful. And timely. Thank you! I like that you highlight how “not being racist” requires more than one sitting quietly in their corner ignoring what is going on just because “it doesn’t affect you”.
    As an African mother with a child studying in a predominantly white country, I should not have to have the kind of conversation we had with my child. That he should “not ruffle” the waters. That he must go about about his business knowing that he may be given the third degree treatment just because he’s not white. That he must sometimes (nearly always) swallow his pride for the sake of his safety.
    Back home, what irks the most is seeing so called “non racist” people, getting better treatment from fellow blacks and just accepting that as their right. Indeed, the mind of the black African, educated or not, in many respects is still so colonized that they don’t see anything wrong with rushing to bend over backwards when providing preferential service to a “more worthy” customer. In supermarkets. Restaurants. And most recently, even with my local roadside flower seller. And the “non-racist” people taking it all in their stride. Indeed, not even lifting a finger to right an obvious wrong.
    This illness must be cured. And it will begin with one difficult conversation after another. Aluta Continua.

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