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A future free of racism is a utopian rapture that has been emancipated from the bigotry and stagnation that is the present. It is an expansive realm in which equality nourishes the land and love is imprinted in the hearts and minds of all. It is colourful, warm and magnanimous. This realm is far from the divided and turbulent country that we call our home, as it is a place where everyone is protected. It is a place where true freedom exists.
Racism, by definition, is the belief that members of race groups possess specific characteristics and abilities that can be distinguished as inferior or superior to other race groups (Oxford Dictionary). This belief manifests itself in prejudice, discrimination and hatred. Generally, upon hearing the word ‘racism’, a myriad of thoughts and images flood one’s mind. As a South African, what initially comes to mind is Apartheid, and from that, one recalls those grainy photocopied images from textbooks and sub-par quality video clips from documentaries one sat through in class. There is of course a ‘Net Blankes’ bench, the former South African flag, Hendrik Verwoerd, the word “Bantu”, protest action, Hector Peterson, the Sharpeville Massacre and a young Nelson Mandela- to name a few. And, as one of the 7.6 billion people on this earth, when one hears the word ‘racism’, one may think of: The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Slave Trade and the genocide of the Aboriginals in Australia- to name a few.
Presently, racism is rife worldwide and news of police brutality towards African Americans and racial slurs uttered by South Africans has dominated all forms of media, among other atrocities. However, this isn’t news as, since the beginning of time, the subordination and degradation of human beings has thrived in the quest for domination. What is thwarting about racism, is its genuine ability to take on many forms as being etched in history, active at present and predicted in future. But, despite the many forms that racism takes, there is a symptom- I believe- that needs to be addressed. For years we have tackled the effects that white privilege has had on things like access to tertiary institutions for people of colour, the debasement of derogatory names and comments and legacy of segregation on our economic development. We marched, we disputed and it is safe to say that progress has been made. Yet, we are far from done for there is another component we tend to forget.
So often the underbelly of racism, in all is subtle pervasiveness, still exists and continues to ferment in places we least expect. Our schools, our homes, our friend circles and ourselves. Apartheid -in its legislation-is over, but the deeply-rooted effects thereof have remained and burgeoned. The shackled psyche remains and courses through our conversations, our interactions and our decisions. It is the reason why when we hear broken English and thick accents among communities of colour, we think ‘unintelligent’, ‘slow’. It is the reason why when we see a man of a darker hue, we hold our bags tighter and avoid eye contact. It is the reason why you feel inapt and isolated in a room where you are the only person of colour.
It is the reason why you stare at an interracial couple a little longer and harder than you should. It is the reason that when you hear the word ‘racist’, you think only of white faces. It is the reason why when you hear the word ‘criminal’, you think only of black faces. It is the reason why we straighten our hair, wear extensions and avoid the sun. It is the reason we think having a ‘white’ accent means progression. It is the reason why we ask the racially ambiguous, ‘I don’t want to be rude but what are you?’. It is the reason why when we relay a story we insert the race before the gender. It is also the reason why we feel the need to do so. It is also the reason why I look in the mirror and think ‘lesser than’.
We are all so damaged and ruined and oh so unaware of that. We have been conditioned since birth to not only classify others, but also ourselves and in doing so, limit ourselves more than any physical barrier could. We focus all our energy on the physical fight against racism; trying to pinpoint and eradicate the enemy but forget about the invisible foe- the mind. The mind that has been groomed around the dinner table, on the playground and during office lunch breaks to believe that he or she is inferior or superior. Hatred and intolerance of groups of people other than your own is learned behaviour that starts from a young age by those closest to us. Thus, racism isn’t only an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ concern, it is just as much an ‘us’ versus ‘us’ concern. It lives in our homes the same way it does everywhere else. It is something that we all need to confront. If we want to move forward, we have to realise that racially prejudiced behavior stems from a thought process of the same degree. And instead of looking at the person opposite you, you need to look at the person in the mirror.
And as we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary, we must remember what he has said; “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love (Berkley Center, 1995). We need to unlearn this behavior and that racially charged thoughts are just as detrimental as actions. We need to unlearn our way of thinking that leads us to hating another and hating ourselves. We need to unlearn the behavior that is taught to us, spoken around us and above us. We need to love ourselves unapologetically for all that makes us Black, White, Asian and Coloured and understand that we are not defined by those things and neither should anyone else. Once we come to realise this, we can recognize people issues and not Black and White issues. We are so much more than the box we tick; we just have to believe that.
Black Consciousness, as coined by anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, encourages comradery and pride among black people to realise their power and rid themselves of the shackles that oppress them (Biko, 1981). Biko further explains that the most powerful weapon, is the mind of the oppressed, as if one is uninhibited in heart and mind, no man-made impediments can bind you to subservience (Biko, 1981).
Freedom is to not be defined by anyone and the power they have, it is to be defined by yourself (Biko, 1981). We need to free ourselves from the thoughts that have created our mental prisons. Once we look inside, only then can we move towards the future. A future free of racism can only exist in a world where we honestly love ourselves and those around us in the same way. Only then will racism cease to exist, only then will we be truly free.
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