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Ryland Fisher

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Black People can be Among the Most Racist; White People can be Among the Most Racist

I was not surprised when ANC leaders, angered by cartoonist Zapiro, resorted to calling him a racist. After all, there is a tradition in South Africa where black people, unable to come up with a strong enough argument against a white protagonist, almost out of desperation calls the white person a racist.

This, of course, implies an unwritten assumption that black people are not capable of being racist and that all criticism of black people by white people is based on racism.

Well, I think it is time to debunk that myth. Black people can be as racist, or even more racist, than some of the worst white racists.

I see it every day on the Cape Flats where racism between so-called coloureds and Africans are considered the norm. It is not uncommon for coloureds to call Africans derogatory names and it is not unusual for Africans to call coloureds derogatory names.

And it is not uncommon for coloureds and Africans to speak disparagingly about whites or Indians.

I sincerely believe that black people use the race card when they are unable to come up with convincing arguments against white people. This is not to say that sometimes the criticism by white people of black people is not based on racism, but this is not always the case.

I believe that, by calling somebody a racist, it probably says more about you than about the other person.

If, for instance, one looks at the history of someone like Jonathan Shapiro, one would find it strange to consider him a racist. I think he is merely a person who is concerned about the things that are going wrong in our society today and he is reflecting the views of many others, black and white.

The ANC, if it is serious about addressing the concerns of the majority of people, would do well to listen to what Zapiro has to say, to hear what his concerns are, rather than condemning him outright as a racist.

I have known Zapiro since the 1980s — in fact, we gave him first real break in newspapers at the alternative weekly South newspaper — and he has never been anywhere near racist.

In any case, how in heaven’s name are we going to be able to have decent debates in this country if all white people are going to be scared to criticise black people? No one likes to be called a racist, and it is inevitable in South Africa for whites who criticise blacks to be tarnished with that label.

In my book, I try to deal with this issue by confessing that I am a racist. I then go on to say that everyone who lived under apartheid is racist. Once I have done this, I believe that it levels the playing ground for us to have a conversation about race and racism.

And it is important for us to have this conversation. I believe that in our haste to become a “rainbow nation”, we did not deal with the issues that caused us so much pain in the past, and racism is one of those.

Unless we deal with the issues of race and racism, unless we talk about them, they will always come back to haunt us.

Now let’s say this together: I am a racist. You are a racist. Let’s talk.

*

The response to my last blog on black racists proves what I have known for a long time: South Africans are still heavily divided along racial grounds and they find it difficult to have a discussion on the issue without losing their tempers.

I have never had so many white people agreeing with what I wrote. And I have never had so many black people disagreeing.

I suppose I could have chosen any headline for the blog, but I chose to focus on black racists because of the disturbing trend where blacks hide behind accusations of “racist” when their arguments fail against white people.

This was in no way a defence of white racists. I abhor white racists and black racists with equal measure and I understand the hurt caused by apartheid and other inhuman practices mainly perpetrated by whites.

In fact, it is clear to me that many white people in South Africa, still to this day, remain racist. But that is not the point.

What I am trying to do is to facilitate some kind of a discussion, through this blog and through my book, on what is still a hugely important issue for South Africans.

We cannot just pretend that more than 300 years of colonialism and more than 50 years of legalised apartheid did not exist. We cannot pretend to suddenly be the “rainbow nation” without dealing with the issues that caused us so much hurt in the past.

And one way of dealing with it, to get the conversation going, is to prevent anyone from being able to call anyone a racist – even if the person deserves to be called that.

One day I was on Radio Sonder Grense, taking calls from listeners on the issue of race, when a gentleman called in to complain about “blacks stealing our farms, robbing my neighbours and raping our women”.

On the surface, it was a racist statement but I decided to engage with him and interrogate his statement. I pointed out to him that, surely, in a country where the vast majority of people are black, one would expect the majority of criminals to also be black. But that does not mean that all black people are criminals. In fact, I said to him, the majority of black people despise crime as much as he does.

Afterwards he said to me that I had a point. I wondered about this a lot. Was he saying that I had a point because he wanted to get rid of me? But what I realised was that this was probably the first time in his life when he was being engaged on this topic by someone who had a view that was different to his.

This was probably also the first time that he engaged a black person who spoke to him from a position of authority. Maybe the only black people he normally engages are workers and others considered to be “lower” than him in society.

So while the gentlemen no doubt had racist views, his entire life he had probably been groomed to become a racist. But if he is prepared to listen to different views, then he would probably be able to deal with his racism at some point in his life.

The issues of race and racism are hugely complicated and cannot be dealt with in a blog where one is constrained by how much one can write. Inevitably, one will tend to reduce a complex argument into one that is very simple, which is not always helpful.

But if this blog can assist in getting some kind of a discussion going – without anyone feeling threatened – then it would have served its purpose.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 18th, 2008 @18:23 #
     
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    Calling someone a racist in the context of an argument is a variation on an established rhetorical device used to introduce emotional and symbolic elements into a debate, described as a 'slide'.

    Use of a slide is intended to end rational debate and instead arouse emotional reactions whilst also often casting aspersions on the character of the person putting forward the argument (ironically this is often done by employing established stereotypes).

    The use of slides very neatly ends any intelligent, rational discussion based on the actual facts in any situation, stops debate, and leaves the person making potentially valuable if unwelcome statements engaged in an emotional war of words and/or looking like an idiot.

    The 'racist' tag is just one example of this phenomenon, (as are the tags conspiracy theorist and terrorist) and has been used to great effect in recent years by the Anti Defamation League, which routinely lables any critics of Israel or Zionism using the anti-semitic slide (some of the most passionate supporters of Zionism are found in the Christian right, and many of its fiercist critics are Jews).

    In the 'first' world there is a growing trend towards the formation of 'human rights comissions' that will effectively end free speech by using government funds to persecute individuals who speak candidly about topical issues.

    Alarmingly, these commissions have been set up in such as way as to require defendents to pay legal fees while the person who brings the complaint forward is defended at the tax payer's expense.

    If these kangaroo courts are imported to South Africa (as I am virtually certain they will be), individuals like Shapiro will end up in Human Rights Comission hearings defending themselves against hate speech allegations.

    This is a very subtle development and is being advanced by stealth, yet it is a very worrying one, and could effectively end one of the Western world's most sacred freedoms - the right to free speech.

    It is important to realise that what happened to Shapiro mirrors global trends and is not an isolated incident.

    In fact on Monday the Telegraph reported that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing html, has called for censorship on the internet to control potentially 'damaging' 'conspiracy theories'. Amongst Lee's targets were apocalyptic rumours about the Large Hadron Collider and growing resistance in online health communities to compulsory vaccination.

    The Telegraph went on to name a number of potentially horrific and damaging rumours, including popcorn popping cellphone radiation and Sarah Palin's son being her grandson.

    The idea that the internet should be censored on the basis of rumours is ludicrous, and serious questions need to be asked about why attempts are being made to restrict the flow of information and who it is, exactly, that this information is 'damaging'.

    This is all nothing less than the advent of the persecution of what George Orwell described as 'thought crime'.

    Anyone interested in this important issue should google Ezra Levant and the Canadian Human Rights Commission to discover how these sorts of scenarios are playing out in countries where government bodies are working actively to restrict freedom of speech.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 18th, 2008 @21:41 #
     
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    Cool - and when we've abolished racism, we can tackle sexism in October. That would leave November and most of December for religious prejudice, just in time to scrap Christmas off the calendar.

    Enough sarcasm. The only plaster for this gaping wound is intelligent legislation against discrimination and a personal commitment to challenging people with racist opinions - your Radio Sonder Grense healing being a case in point.

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  • <a href="http://bwnamibia.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">nabukenya</a>
    nabukenya
    September 19th, 2008 @08:47 #
     
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    I agree with Richard. This is about a personal commitment and I guess understanding where people are coming from, White or Black.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 19th, 2008 @09:04 #
     
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    All racism is not created equal. Racism that has a history of hundreds of years of economic oppression behind it is more pernicious than any other kind. Black people have every right to "play the race card". They've been dealt enough of them over the centuries.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 19th, 2008 @11:36 #
     
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    Fiona, my argument was not about race but about using rhetoric to curtail intelligent discussion.

    However, I want to take you up on what you just said, are you saying that people of oppressed races should be allowed to act with impunity because they were oppressed at some time, and use a history of oppression to muddy the waters when critiqued over their activities?

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 19th, 2008 @12:06 #
     
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    Not exactly, Sven. I'm saying that the racism of a white South African with generations of economic privilege at his/her back is more loathesome than the racism of a black South African with a history of unimaginable suffering at his/her back.

    The two forms of racism cannot be classed together. Similarly, affirmative action cannot simply be seen as reverse discrimination against whites - as many white folk would have it. It is not merely "Apartheid under a different name". It is a very necessary redressing of centuries of inequality.

    I enjoyed your analysis of the rhetorical "slide" tactic and had no fault to find with it. Of course people of oppressed races should not be allowed to "act with impunity" simply because they were oppressed. I'm just saying that a cry of "racism" from a black South African has its root in a context that ranges much further than, say, the political cartoon at issue. A cry of racism from a white South African, however, sounds almost comical given the yawning economic inequities that still exist.

    I am certainly not trying to halt debate around the issue - merely add to it. The "race card" is not trumps and should never be allowed to silence criticism. But the waters were muddied a long time ago and to pretend that issues like political satire can be discussed on a clean slate, without reference to the crushing weight of history, is mistaken, I think.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 19th, 2008 @12:10 #
     
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    Righto, fully agreed and understood. I am now examining my use of the phrase 'critiqued over' and wondering if this actually makes any sense at all.

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  • <a href="http://bwnamibia.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">nabukenya</a>
    nabukenya
    September 19th, 2008 @12:11 #
     
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    I understand where Fiona is coming from. I enjoyed reading the post but there were some parts of it I did not agree with. Firstly why does everyone have to agree to be a racist in order for us to start the discussion in the first place? I was still quite young when all this happened and our parents shileded us from it, but that does not mean that I don't understand why there are angry Black people out there. I said earlier that I think it is about a personal commitment because everyone has their reasons why they still feel angry/oppressed or whatever. Maybe instead of accusing Blacks/Whites or whoever of these attitudes we should understand where they come from and work on ourselves and how we respond. There were one or two things that I thought were offensive in the post but I was able to put it aside because like teh writer says we are only trying to stimulate dialogue. But Sven you must understand that some of us don't accuse everyone of being racist because we went to good schools, were never deprived of opportunities etc. But those who were are angry, who are we to tell them that they are wrong as if we are perfect?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 19th, 2008 @12:22 #
     
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    Very interesting discussion. One thing, though, is that those who use the "rhetorical" slide tactic are often fairly privileged simply by virtue of having time (and the "skills") to take part in a debate. Those who are suffering grinding poverty, abuse and oppression are usually too busy trying to survive from minute to minute.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 19th, 2008 @12:50 #
     
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    Nabukenya, I didn't originally intend to embroil myself in a discussion on racism in South Africa - that hot potato is not one I'd like tossed into my lap. I merely attach myself to any thread that gives me the least opportunity to advance my own particular agenda, which happens to be alerting people to the fact that the human race is heading rapidly towards what George Orwell (god love the man) described as a jackboot pressing down on its collective face for eternity.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 19th, 2008 @13:00 #
     
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    It'll be a very short eternity, Sven -- we're speedily and merrily destroying the planet, our only home and source of life and sustenance, as I type this. At some frighteningly near moment in the future, the jackboot will be moot.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 19th, 2008 @13:51 #
     
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    Heard of the Doomsday vault in Svalbard? 'Some people' (those who are interested in this topic inevitably find that these same 'some people' pop up wherever one might expect to find a horseman of the apocalypse watering his mount) are virtually certain to survive whatever may come, they are the cockroaches of our species and they have both the money and resources to survive whatever may come. However, I agree with you in the sense that you and I in particular are unlikely to survive long enough to have jackboots planted on any parts of our bodies.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 19th, 2008 @14:09 #
     
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    Wow, such pessism. And you don't even live below sea level...

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 19th, 2008 @14:12 #
     
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    Yes, pessism. That's way beyond ordinary pessimism.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 19th, 2008 @14:29 #
     
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    Well, at least we haven't got to the point where we're pssms.

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