How do you talk about race?

Vanessa Malila  Nomalanga Mkhize 2  Kevin Durrheim

After 21 years of democracy, South Africans are still grappling with the issue of race. We have convinced ourselves that we live in a multiracial society where we all get along. The truth is, we don’t. We live in a multiracial society where racism still blights our daily lives.

Race and racism is still an issue that needs to be discussed. This was made clear at the Troubling Race debate at Think!Fest. The panel consisted of Vanessa Malila, Nomalanga Mkhize and Kevin Durrheim.

According to Kevin Durrheim, a Social Psychologist from UKZN, we like doing something he calls repression. Repression is when we focus on one isolated incident of racism and forget about everyday racism. Everyday racism is not big ugly acts of racism that we all condemn like the University of the Free State Reitz Resident incident, it is the small ways in which we act and talk about another. It is our deeply held beliefs about one another that reflect our racism, even when we believe we are not racist.

One of the ways in which we do this is stereotyping by implication. We set conditions of behaviour for people of different races and then when they don’t act in the desired manner, we have a problem with them. However, this practice is racist because we should not set norms of behaviour for other people. Whether it is in the way they dress, speak or act. What is normal for us, is completely foreign to other people.

To hear more about repression, listen to this talk by Durrheim, on race trouble in everyday life and domestic labour:

Many of our conflicts stem from miscommunication and misunderstandings. According to Nomalanga Mkhize, who teaches in the History Department at Rhodes University, South Africans should make a concerned effort to learn how to speak an African language. What needs to stop is this mentality of preserving African languages, said Mkhize. “This is the only country in the world where the minority does not learn to speak the language of the majority,” added Durrheim. There needs to be greater structural support for those who want to learn African languages.

The way we speak about ourselves and others also has a huge role in identity formation. In South Africa, there is term used to describe people born after 1994. They are called “born frees”. However, this identity has been imposed on these people by the media and society. The most striking thing is that the people who are described as born frees, do not always identify with that image or the cultures (“cool”, “hip”, “apathetic”, “politically disengaged”) associated with it.

Vanessa Malila, from the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies, explores the issue of  being born frees, and tells us what the reality is for people she spoke to about.

As South Africans, we lack one critical skill, listening. Durrheim says it was only through listening that he was able to think more introspectively about white masculinity. Imagine what would happen if we all listened more instead of trying to get our voices heard. Furthermore, it is only through listening more that we can hear the voices of the marginalised and the oppressed. Malila, added “more listening needs to happen in society. Being opening to listening could go a long way.” Just because the system of apartheid has been eradicated, it doesn’t mean we are equal. There is social, economic and political inequality. It is this inequality that is the foundation or breeding ground for racism.

There is a paternalistic way of caring which Durrheim says leads to a hierarchy and oppression. The way in which we care is itself a problem. Mkhize suggested that one of the ways in which we can solve this problem is if we stop trying to fix each other. “White people need to stop going into black spaces with the intention of fixing it. White people cannot fix things the way they think they can fix things.” She added that black people need to get on with it and not wait for white people.

So what can we can we actually do? Listen to the discussion between Malila, Mkhize and Durrheim.

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