This has been on my mind for a while and feels like a very delicate subject to broach, although a necessary one.
For the last two to five years i have been on a personal journey of understanding the causes and effects of apartheid a lot more, as well as the negative consequences that continue to effect a lot of people. Let me put this up front: i have a long way to go… but i am also a long way from five years ago where i probably would have had issues with someone speaking about “White Privilege” and been the first to suggest “All lives matter” if i heard someone saying “Black lives matter” without understanding the point.
i have confessed that i am a recovering racist, which although it feels hard and counter-intuitive to do, also feels completely necessary because IT WOULD HAVE TAKEN AN ABSOLUTE MIRACLE for me to grow up in a system [i was born in ’74] that was so completely racist and biased-towards-me without being affected in some way. White people who are quick to be defensive about “white privilege” and “black lives matter” vibes, you need to take a moment to think about that. If you went through that and escaped unscathed, you are a miracle child.
Being a ‘recovering racist’ does not mean that i ever hated people of colour in any way, shape or form. Somewhere along the way it certainly meant that i felt like i was better than them, and i think this is a struggle i am still fighting against because it rears itself in the most subtle of ways on too regular occasions. i DO think it is largely an education thing for me, because when i see a poor white person begging at the side of the road i feel the same kind of superiority in some way. It is ugly though and completely unsubstantiated and i have to constantly shout at myself for doing so, and hopefully i am on the mend.
WHY THE SMATTER?
So i have been on a journey with my wife tbV [the beautiful Val] and a number of my friends. We have been learning and unlearning and relearning and being challenged and argued with and argued against. i have been doing my best to read different perspectives on South Africa, especially from writers of colour and Robert Sobukwe’s “How can man die better” has been the most helpful in that. But i have also benefitted from Steve Biko’s ‘I write what I like’, Antjie Krog’s ‘Begging to be black’ and Eusebius McKaisers’ ‘Run, Racist, Run’ and a few others. We have also hosted a number of conversations to try and dig deep into this thing called racism which is a tough nut to crack.
i have also tried to rally white people in particular to use their privilege to step into areas and spaces and moments of racism with the #NotOnOurWatch tag reminding people regularly that we cannot allow racism to happen in front of us, uninterrupted.
But along the way, another lie has been silently and subtly chipping away in the background – i have seen it in others and i see it in myself. i don’t think it is anything anyone in these conversations actually believes, although you could be forgiven for listening to some of them and thinking that. And it goes something like this:
All black people have been wronged and are innocent and are right in everything and have no elements of racism [or prejudice in them].
All white people have been guilty of wrong and are wrong in everything and are overtly racist [and prejudiced].
It seems i have your attention. Remember i said this is subtle. But i see it.
Because of trying to understand the past and trying to adopt a humble and learning stance and attempting to see things from a different perspective it can be tempting to kind of glorify those who have been wronged in the past. i think some of it comes from trying to be on the right side of people of colour as a learn and grow and not wanting to upset them. An example would be not being able to say anything about Jacob Zuma as black president of the country and always diverting anyone who raises his name to a different relevant issue [this is subtle but important as there are certainly some white people who deflect any legitimate shade on their own lives and decisions with a quick “But Jacob Zuma…” which closes off any other conversation quickly. So it works both ways.]
Looking back at those two definitions i think they would have been more accurate as misconceptions with the word ‘equally’ in them:
All black people have been equally wronged and are innocent and are right in everything and have no elements of racism [or prejudice in them].
All white people have been equally guilty of wrong and are wrong in everything and are overtly racist [and prejudiced].
Which is what brought me to the title of this post and this dictionary definition will hopefully help carry across what i mean:
(smăt′ər)v.smat·tered, smat·ter·ing, smat·ters
v.tr.1. To speak (a language) without fluency: smatters Russian.2. To study or approach superficially; dabble in.
[from The Free Dictionary]
So it’s “a bit of” or “some percentage of” or “partyly is and partly isn’t” and i believe that this might help us understand the current situation we find ourselves in, in South Africa.
A country where some white people are overtly racist, a lot of white people are subtly or partly racist or strongly prejudiced in some areas, and some white people are hardly racist at all.
A country where some people of colour are overtly prejudiced [it really helps to clarify people’s definions of racism where there are two:  anyone can be racist and it means hating on another race or thinking yourself superior to them, and  an academic definition which suggests that racism can only happen where there is power to systemmically enforce beliefs and so by that definition black people can’t be racist but they can be prejudiced], a lot of people of colour are subtly or partly prejudiced in some areas and some people of colour are hardly prejudiced at all.
THE BOTH/AND PHILOSOPHY
Another helpful tool in a country where we tend to deal in absolutes and EITHER/OR reasoning, is the idea that two ideas can be held at the same time that are both right and don’t contradict each other. So it can be possible to hold Jacob Zuma to account and suggest he hasn’t been the best leader in a number of ways, while also holding to the fact that there is stuff in my life that needs to be sorted out in terms of my thinking, my speaking and my actions.
i need to go, so i will try and pick this up later, but what are your thoughts so far? Is this something you’ve noticed in your own life and need to work on?