Friday 28 November 2008

Are we conditioned to be racist?

“Such is our sorry lot in life, us black people,” raged this brother from South of the Limpopo. “At home, even after all these years of Uhuru, why do we still have a situation whereby some kid can saunter into an informal settlement in broad daylight and systematically slaughter our people in cold blood? And, of course, when we come abroad we face racism virtually every day. Is that to be our lot for perpetuity?”

I could not provide the brother with an answer, but the age old quandary he presented led me to cobble together these thoughts about racism.

Rarely prone to bouts of whimsy at any time, I still found myself intrigued about a reality TV show that premiered in America a couple of years ago but came to my attention not so long ago. The reality show, Black - White, had two families - one black and the other white - switching race (with the considerable help of make-up, wigs and prosthetics, of course). The premise of this series was to see how either race experienced life in the other’s skin, so to speak.

At first glance, it seemed rather dubious and certainly struck me as the kind of drivel that one can expect from reality TV. However, the more I considered the ‘gimmick’, the more I wondered whether human beings could indeed react differently and treat ‘others’ as they would prefer to be treated themselves if only they could identify with the others’ circumstances. Would it be enough to transform their preconceived and prejudicial notions about the other race?

Perhaps, but frankly I am not so sure about that, as I reckon that individual prejudices, and some of the more subtler forms of racism they fuel, are largely based on stereotypes and urban falsehoods that may not necessarily be obliterated by education or experience. ‘What subtler forms of racism?’ you may ask. Well, there have been numerous occasions when I have wished I knew why some people reacted the way they did when they came across a black person. Take the classic situation on public transport, where it becomes so obvious that the empty seat next to you is being avoided and remains vacant when there are several standing passengers a few feet away. 

Which takes me back to that American reality show. Some of the interesting observations to come from this programme were from the white-cum-black family, particularly when they encountered prejudice in their otherwise regular and familiar haunts, where previously they would have been totally oblivious to how black people were routinely treated. 

Also interesting was the strengthening of the black-turned-white family’s perceptions of how unfairly treated they were as black people and the realisation that some of the perceived slights were not as straight-forward as they had thought, and had nothing to do with race. Yes, you have heard how some of us habitually invoke the ‘race card’ rather too well when all other avenues fail.

Generally, critics were not impressed and the show (I am not aware if this show has yet been exported to this side of the Atlantic) and it was largely dismissed as lacking in substance. Having watched some segments of the show, I would partly agree. However, as I mentioned at the start, the realisation that there are people out there who are prejudicial and bigoted towards others primarily because of the colour of their skin does leave me perturbed enough to wonder whether such miscreants should be transformed into those very same people that they despise and find out for themselves the hurt they cause. 

Anyway, for a less contrived and certainly more perceptive look at ‘race switching’, a book worth reading is Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a white American author who in 1959 transformed himself into a black man for six weeks and kept an autobiographical diary (later made into a film) as he traversed America’s Deep South, then a hotbed of intense racism and white supremacism.

The result is an interesting and at times, truly depressing true story of racism but also uplifting accounts highlighting the dignity that the oppressed blacks still managed to maintain during that difficult era. Even though the book is almost 50 years old now, most of what it reveals is still relevant today - the main difference being that the forms of racism and their perpetrators have only become more subtle and sophisticated.

Back to the present, those of you out here in these colder climes will know what I mean when I say that migrants, especially the darker skinned variety are easy scapegoats particularly when some domestic or international calamity strikes and the blame finger does invariably point at Johnny and Jenny Foreigner. As you are aware, we are in the midst of a global financial and economic maelstrom unlike any seen in recent modern times and Ireland, like the rest of the (developed) world has not been spared. However, I was still baffled to find out that some lunatic fringe miscreants are already placing the blame for the current economic malaise squarely on foreigners. What? Oh Yes! Johnny and Jenny F. have been taking out mortgages willy nilly - mortgages they cannot afford and now that they are defaulting on their payments, resulting in the collapse of the banks and hey presto, they are to blame for the global recession.

Certainly, having studied race and ethnicity in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the way people are conditioned growing up leads them to act in the manner they do. Certainly, one has to ask exactly how much the Skielik killer had experienced of life by the age of 18 for him to fear and hate black people so much that he armed himself and killed four of them, including a toddler. Last week, he was convicted and sentenced to four life terms for the murders.

 Last word to the brother from the South: His chilling prediction is that “once the old man goes, we won’t tolerate this kind of crap in our own land any longer.”

1 comment:

Becks said...

You know I ask that same question everyday. Its funny that I read your article today. I interviewed an intersting fellow who gave me food for thought apropos racism particularly in Cape Town: the presence - the heavy presence - of race based stereotypes. We all hold them. The lovely pastor's wife asking me so sweetly: Where did you buy that pretty accent? She 'knows' black people do not sound the way I do. She doesn't understand why I am offended. Its rather chilling; that covert racism is sometimes unintentional (I'm not stupid I know a lot of it is!!). How many times did we ever hear as kids, 'Amakhiwa awagezi'? (wha-hahahahahaha). These stereotypes are passed around even in jest and unfortunately they stick. And oneday they become strong enought o be basis for fact... and sometimes are even supported by emperical evidence if you find the right researcher and the right subject group. Thats what makes me think we are conditioned to be racist.

Thanks for a great article.

p/s hope y'all had a good trip!!