Everyday Racism: The “Good Guy” aka the benevolent racist

Let’s preface this blog with a disclaimer; I love creating villains. To create a villain is to bask in the ideology that I am right and that I have been wronged. It truly is a beautiful space where absolutely no thinking occurs, and I can spend the currency of my intellect picking dirt from under my nails. Wonderful, right? So, it’s natural that it was these villains that I was drawn to when I first started thinking and writing about race. It was the guy in the two-tone shirt flying the old South African flag in his backyard. It was friend who used the “K” word. It was the woman who could voice her hate in hushed tones to me because even though I wasn’t white, I wasn’t black either. I am drawn to these overt racists for a reason; they’re easy to spot and they’re still arrogant and ignorant enough to not think about what is socially acceptable before they speak. They are the ones we love to hate because there is nothing to debate, the burden of proof falls away and we can look at them with disgust and horror from our vantage point of superiority. These are a special bread of human, no doubt. And that we take notice of them is great, we should. They should inspire anger and conversation. But I wonder about the rest of us, the everyday racists, the ones who navigate social settings carefully, the ones who know just what to say and to who. Never the villains nor the heroes, these are the everyday racists. And they’re us, all of us. They’re harder to spot because they’re good people, they are mothers, they are friends, they are you and me. Not ready to believe me yet? Let me introduce you to one character you may recognise, the “good” guy aka the benevolent racist.

What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person?

I’ve met him. I’ve been horrified by some of the things he has said. I’ve laughed at his jokes. He’s sat across the dinner table from me. I’ve been impressed by the compassion he showed his gardener and his domestic worker. I’ve thought he was a good guy. I’ve thought he was a bad guy. I’m beginning to believe he is both. Here’s the issue we have with the “good” guy, he actually seems to be one and we like him. So, he can’t possibly be racist, right? Racists are terrible humans, they are always the villains of the story, they believe that pigmentation should serve to create masters and slaves. They are ugly, mean spirited people. But what if that wasn’t all that they were? What if that was the truth, but only a part of the truth? What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person? What if that person you saw giving money to the beggar on the street was racist? What if the person standing next to you volunteering at the soup kitchen was racist? What if people you loved dearly, people in your family, were racist? What if you looked at yourself, examined your thoughts and actions and found bias because of race? Would you no longer be a “good” person? Would everyone stop being good people? Tough questions, I know, but it’s questions we must ask.

It’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions

I raise the point of the benevolent racist because it’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions and quite frankly, I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated because every time a benevolent racist is given benefit of the doubt, it is a missed opportunity to course correct. I’m frustrated that we’ve protected these benevolent racists in our social circles, in our families and at work. I’m also frustrated by people who tell me how “good” they are, or who try to prove that they “don’t see colour” when I call them out on their bias. It’s great that you’re putting your domestic worker’s kids through school, it really is, but sorry buddy, that does not automatically cure you of racism. I think it’s wonderful that you have a black friend, less wonderful when you use said friendship as some sort of a “get out of jail free card”, though. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person, you’re probably not, but I am saying that you’re ignorant or worst still, you’re arrogant enough not to know you’re ignorant. But I guess what I am most frustrated about is the well-meaning racist, the good guy who can’t keep the condescension out of his voice, the guy who tells you that if people weren’t so lazy, they’d be able to make something of themselves. It’s also the same guy who believes he made it out of “poverty” by sheer will and determination alone. It’s easy to pick this guy out. He’s often the one giving well-meaning advice, oblivious to the anger or blank stares he’s getting in return. It’s that guy that really gets me angry. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a benevolent racist always believes he’s entitled to weigh in on a conversation that he probably understands very little about. Maybe I’m just an angry brown woman and I should learn to listen when men talk to me lest I decide to form my own opinions. Apologies for making this a male thing, be sure the “good” guy was meant to refer to both men and women alike, I guess my recent interactions with white men talking to me about race and feminism has skewed my writing a bit (read flared my temper).

If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional

As I write this I wonder if there is a cure. Is there a cure for the “good” guy or the benevolent racist? I suppose to start thinking about a cure, one first needs to start by acknowledging the problem and I guess we all have a part to play in this cure. For me the message is clear, whether you think of yourself as “good” or not, whether you have good intentions or otherwise, outcomes and consequences matter. They matter far more than what we think of ourselves or what we wanted to achieve. So, I present to you this idea that is as startling in its simplicity as it is difficult to do, when faced with a situation where you see bias, confront it. When faced with a situation when someone calls you out on your bias, listen. When I say confront it, decide for yourself what that means, even if it is an acknowledgement to yourself about your own discomfort, it’s better than ignoring it. When I say listen, I mean, don’t defend yourself, ask the person talking to say more, maybe take some time to think about your actions. If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional. If someone says something that makes you feel guilty about your privilege that’s on you, not them. You do not get a get out of jail free card no matter who you are or what wonderful things you’re doing with your life.

I don’t believe that we are either good or bad. We are entire beings who sometimes do good things and who sometimes don’t. We are more than the sum of those actions. But, for goodness sake, if you must insist on being the “good” guy or protecting one, then at least change your definition of what that means. A real good guy is one who is able to acknowledge his or her own bias. A real good guy knows that he will mis-step. A real good guy knows that she will get it wrong sometimes and who isn’t afraid of holding up the mirror to herself. Most importantly, a real good guy isn’t willing to hide behind being the “good” guy, he knows that won’t get us anywhere.

Talking to White People About Curry

Two things. One, this is a rant, its prone to be a bit snarky and sarcastic and boy am I going to over-exaggerate. And two, I get it, seriously I do. Even as someone who did not grow up eating curry, I can still appreciate the flavour and how the smell of a curry is probably one of the most comforting and enticing aromas in the world. So, curry is phenomenal, no arguments there. It’s not curry that I have a problem with, it’s not even talking about curry that I have problem with. What irks me is the unimaginative, lazy assumption that a brown skinned person such as myself is a chilli loving, curry munching, cutlery adverse Indian (for record, I am, happily so). It’s not so much that I am not those things, I am those things. But that’s not all I am, and the fact that that needs to be stated says something about how little respect is present during these exchanges. Now, I’m not saying don’t judge me, I’m not saying that you should short wire the thing in your brain that sees me and connects the dots to Bollywood movies, curry and my propensity to ask for a discount. No, go ahead do all of that, but please, for goodness sake, can you just keep it to yourself?

Most days, if we’re talking about curry, I’ll offer to give you a fool proof recipe, and if I like you enough, I’ll even share my spices. But what really gets my goat is how so very, very often, someone I’ve known for all of five seconds starts talking to me about curry. Whether it’s about a new Indian restaurant that opened in some obscure location that I’ve never been too (sorry my curry radar must have malfunctioned on that one) or about how they have a curry recipe book from Durban (with recipes from white people in the book-gasp). And of course, I am the “heat police” so these people are also often the ones who tell me how they love a “hot” curry but at how their son/daughter/neighbour’s cat can’t so much as look at a pepper without their eyes watering. Man, it frustrates me. It frustrates me that when these human-like creatures see me, they’re too lazy to do anything other than shove a stereotype at me and expect my gratitude. What am I supposed to say? Thank you, Baas, for even taking notice of me and talking about something my little Indian mind can understand- curry. I would be lost without your kind words.

Why does it piss me off so much? Maybe it’s because you don’t see me when you say those things. Maybe it’s because instead of being a fully formed person with all of the complexities beneath your white skin, to you, I’m just a cardboard cut-out, a one-dimensional creation capable of constructing delicious curries or dancing around in colourful outfits, but not much else. And maybe, just maybe, that version of me serves you far better than the real version, the real version that is driven and capable in a way that scares you because the world is no longer your playground. I won’t pretend that I fully understand what the apartheid and the years prior of colonial rule did for a white person’s psyche in our country. And I won’t pretend that I understand how the shifting power dynamics in our mythical rainbow nation has tampered with those deeply lodged beliefs. But I do know a fight for relevance when I see it, and I do know that it’s easier to find ways to propagate your own myths than it is to see to the truth sometimes. What frustrates me about this sort of judgement and the ill formed belief that you are entitled to spew your rubbish at me is that it is degrading and disrespectful. Your arrogant, small mind looks for validation of the norms that your ignorance has created, and you smirk and reward yourself every time you’re able to reaffirm your stupidity. You presume that all people who look like me must certainly fit a box. Why bother to see anything different, we are not such complex creatures, right? You probably have these boxes for a lot of groupings of people, even those that look like you. Except, I suspect that for those who fit the box wherein you find yourself, you’re far more generous in terms of acknowledging higher order intelligence.

Yeah sure, you don’t know any better, of course there is that. Of course, there’s no intended malice, of course you’re a “nice person” and it’s not as if you called me a “Coolie” or anything. Of course, your belief in your superiority is so deeply entrenched that conjuring it is as easy as breathing for you. Of course, it is up to me to be open minded and to show you the error of your ways even when you will not see it. But can I just, if only for today, be sick of this? Can I just, if only for today, be an angry brown woman who is frustrated by the split second judgements and by the stupid comments? Can I just, only for today, not talk to White people about curry?

The “Indian Problem”

When I wrote The curse of the Charou and the “civilised” blacks, I wrote it with an ardent hope that someone would hear my message, that someone would start having different conversations, that someone would help to turn the tide. And maybe, just maybe, as is the hope of any writer, my words did find resonance in the hearts and minds of some of readers. But I write this now, feeling like my voice is too little to be heard, that my words hold no weight. I write this now worried about our country in a way that hurts my throat and moistens my eyes. I write this now worried about the “Indian problem” in Durban and in our country.

In the last week over various social media platforms we all saw the smiling face of a woman who could all too easily be called beautiful. A Durban born beauty who spewed nothing but hate, a young woman lost in the lowest, most self-serving form of delusional grandeur. She was the woman whose actions would further serve to divide and we would grow to despise her. If you have not yet heard or read of her story and how she chose to serve herself through hate, you can read it here. I have no desire to rehash it now. I am tired and I am sad. I have the desire to reach for the back of my neck and pull at the cricks that tense and tighten there and that gather around my shoulders. How does a young woman get to be that blind? We have a serious problem and it’s not going be resolved with further hate and anger, that I know for sure but I still don’t know how it is to be resolved. A friend comments on the article shared to Facebook and when I read the comment stating “This is our country”, I almost weep with the beauty in that simple thought. It is only when I read further that “They should go back to India” that I realise that my version of “our” was different to that of the commenter. South Africa belongs to all of us, bigoted or not, brown or not, united in our diversity. I feel those words so strongly they might as well be etched onto my heart instead of written in a constitution so beautiful it should make every South African weep with pride.

Here’s what I hate, I hate that part of me agrees with Malema when he talks of how racist Indians can be, when he talks of the superiority complex that seems to grow within the minds of many South African Indians. I hate that it’s a large part of me because I’ve heard the talk of people close to me, I heard the talk when I go to Durban and I know that it is true. With the prevalence of racist comments or remarks that serve to denigrate Black people in our country, I am ashamed to be called an Indian. I want to scream “That’s not me” because I know it isn’t me, but I also know it is. I also know that within my family and the families of those close to me, there lives this hate. I also know that when people younger than I am talk of how “Black people drive nice cars” there is almost no one who says “So what?”. When the old aunty tsks that she has black neighbours, no one says “That’s great, we’re moving forward as a country!”, instead we commiserate, we console. We are saddened that our place in the hierarchy is so delicate, we are saddened that those who we deemed so unworthy are now doing so much better than us. Maybe we carried with us notions of the caste system that is still prevalent in modern India when we crossed the ocean and arrived in South Africa? Maybe when the White man told us that there was another version of the caste system that he had labelled apartheid we were all too eager to comply, at least we weren’t at the bottom of the rung, that would have been too much. So comply we did, because we knew we were better, we would not sully ourselves with the Blacks. Personally, I am disgusted with the thought that people who were born here, should “go to back to their country”, this country belongs to all its people. But maybe, just maybe I hear the anger and the pain that simply says “those who hold on to ideals of a broken past, those who hold on to delusions and those who sow hate, you have no place in our country”. The trick of course is that is is our country, bigoted or not, brown or not, but we are not united in our diversity.

What if I was born white?

There are things we don’t say, there are things we are too scared to talk about. We tip toe around sensitive topics because we don’t want people to feel bad. Hey Mr White Man, I know you didn’t earn everything you have in your life but don’t think I’m trying to make you feel bad about it, it wasn’t your fault. We create islands of politeness and steer our conversations carefully around them. All the while we still seek acceptance, we fear the rejection that the truth will bring. Don’t treat me differently, I’m just like you Baas. I’m just like you. I’m just like you, apart from the fact that I’m actually not.

Had I been born White, I would have been born to a land that favoured me. I would have been born to a country who stacked the odds in my favour. In a country where over 50% of our population is poor, I would have been born to a race that doesn’t equally share that burden. As I entered the world of employment, I would know that of all the races in our country, I belonged to the only one with a single digit unemployment figure. I would have entered the world of employment never once having to prove that I was more than just the “employment equity candidate”. Had I been born White; my skin would have been the same colour as every single person I have ever reported to throughout my career. In meetings with my non-white counter-parts, people would turn to me for answers irrespective of seniority. Maybe when my non-white colleague tells me that prejudice exists and that even unconsciously, racial biases are prevalent in the workplace, I could chalk it down to an exaggeration. I mean, weren’t there more people of colour in the workforce now than 20 or 30 years ago? I may not get the point, but I may be eager to talk of how biases exist against white people in the workplace, providing a wealth of examples, all the while not realising that at it’s core, I am strengthening my non-white colleague’s statement.

Maybe if I was born White, I would tell you that Henrik Verwoerd was a misunderstood man because I had never really experienced Bantu education and somehow, I still fail to see the link between a crippled education system and who are considered skilled labour in this country. Maybe I would like to quote the exceptions; the young Black woman who excelled at school even though her mother was a domestic worker and she never met her father. Maybe those exceptions would make me feel less guilty to the plight of the masses in our country, it would make me feel less guilty because when I quote those exceptions, I would know that we live in a land of opportunity and all one had to do was to seize that opportunity. I would not always know that gaining access to that opportunity is open to the few and not the many, because like the generations before me, I have been part of the few. Maybe I would talk of progress and in same breath bemoan the fact that South Africa is not a place where “White men can work”. Maybe I would tell you of the incredible White candidate who my company simply could not hire instead of considering why everyone I interviewed for the position was White.

I am writing this now, irrespective of race, as a privileged person in South Africa. I was raised in a single parent home, I understood what an overdraft was, I knew what it meant to buy groceries using the budget facility on a credit card and I started working, as early as I could, so that I could worry a little less amount money, so that I could help my mother out. But make no mistake, I was privileged. I went to a school where I had resources at my disposal; we had toilets in my school, we had books and desks, we even had a library. I never went hungry, neither my older sister nor I were the first in my family to get a tertiary education and my mother had a car so I never had to take public transport. So, I live with that privilege and I live with everything that privilege has afforded me. I live with the knowledge that while I feel like I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve earned, my fight was not the same as a significant portion of young people in our country. I see that. I see that my path may have been easier and that because of that ease, and because I believe that South Africa belongs to all of us, “united in our diversity”, that I acknowledge that I am part of the solution that our country needs. I do not write this now as a plea for White people in our country to see me or to see our Black and Coloured brothers and sisters. I write this now instead, for my White brothers and sisters, I write this now for you to see yourself and for you to see your place in the solution.