South African Reflection: Am I a racist?

By: Francis Tuson

Source: Jesuit Institute of South Africa,

Like all of us, I am unfortunately largely a product of my upbringing and context. Just as my parents were before me, and my children will be after me. As an unbearably privileged white male, my struggles, while many, can never compare to those faced, on a daily basis, by my black contemporaries. A friend said to me recently, “I can’t remember when I first realized that I was black, or when I realized that it mattered.”

I am not sure when I first realized that I was racist. I think it was sometime in my late teens. Like most people, I lived in denial for a long time. The problem is that if you don’t admit that something exists, you are powerless to change it. You can only blame the past for so long before you begin to lose credibility. Everything you do, say, and most importantly, think, is a choice. People pretend that they can’t change their thoughts, only their words and deeds, but this is untrue. It only requires consistent effort to, eventually, alter the fundamental way we think about and view the world. Paradigms are not written in stone.

Often people imagine a miraculous conversion like experience, where they suddenly become the person they pretend to be. This doesn’t happen. It takes time, it is a process. There might be a moment of clarity when you realize or admit that things in your head have to change. Even after this realization, becoming a new, better person requires energy and determination. Don’t get me wrong, it does all start with minding the way you talk and act, but you can’t afford to leave it there. Your powerful subconscious will rear its ugly head when you’re drunk, angry, or distracted, or in a context where you deem subversive thoughts, words, and deeds “less inappropriate”.

This process of changing the way one thinks is necessary for combating not only inherent racism, but sexism and homophobia as well. Treating everyone, and teaching our children to treat everyone, with love, dignity, and respect is the only way we will ever attain a truly productive, just, and peaceful society.

Over the course of my adult life I have tried to fight against the prejudice and assumptions that were part of my upbringing and are therefore part of me. It gets easier every day. It comes down to empathetically viewing everyone you meet, without exception, as a beautiful and unique human being; from the homeless at the traffic lights to your superiors at work. I still slip up often. Not in the things I say or do (although unfortunately that very occasionally is the case), but mostly in the way I think about people.

I therefore continue to fight the evil inside me with every breath so that one day my children will be able to say unequivocally, they truly deserve to be called citizens of our beautiful, rainbow nation.

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