The other day I was having a very funny and relaxed conversation with the census guy. We realised quite quickly that we had some things in common, being the same age and having frequented the Rat and Parrot in Grahamstown often enough to have a story or two about our escapades. He told me that one of his friend’s had encountered a racist lady quite nearby to where I live. She told his friend, also a census person, that she wasn’t having any black people in her house and that he must just leave the form in her postbox to be collected the next day. I laughed and commented that there are still people like that out there. He agreed with me but said that it is mostly a thing with the older generations. Then, in a moment of daring, considering that he himself was a black man, I told him that we all still harbour an element of racism, even in our liberated generation. Then he said something that was quite profound and I wanted to share with you. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that yes, this is true, we are all a product of the past and in many ways, this means that we still have thoughts which are not particularly nice. But then he said that we should be judged on how we bring up our own children.
I agree, wholeheartedly. Our country suffers from many problems, entrenched within the lives and mindsets of its people. We cannot always escape those thoughts that have wedged themselves in our subconscious to pop up unexpectedly and in embarrassing ways. Some of my friends say that they can’t even speak the K word – kaffir. But I know that they can think it. Although the word is not necessarily directed at anyone in their own lives, they are too afraid to admit that these words were part of their society and so became part of their own childhood vocabulary. Once a word, or an idea, has been part of your upbringing, how do you simply forget its existence? Anyone who is my age and says that they are not racist (and this applies to all kinds, creeds and races of people) are not being entirely truthful. It’s human nature to differentiate and discriminate. It’s human nature to have preferences, labels, stereotypes and all those nasty things that can sometimes make us not nice human beings.
This does not, however, allow people to inflict their often misinformed or ignorant beliefs about others onto their offspring. We have a responsibility to our children to allow them to make up their own minds about people. We have a concurrent duty to refrain from discriminatory and inflammatory words and ideas, because they don’t belong in this new, fledgling world. We cannot help what our parents said, we cannot change our history, but we can control our own thoughts. This country is not going to change because of one generation and in the course of this one generation’s existence; it’s going to take many. But we can start today; we can start with our own children.
I think we need to start by shrugging off the guilt we live with. We need to accept what we are; a product of a past in a country who’s very breathing was, and still is, about black and white. I agree with Kristien, from Andre Brink’s Imaginings of Sand, when she says: “I’m afraid I have more faith in a right-winger who frankly admits that he hates blacks than in all these white males who suddenly try to persuade everybody that they’ve always been against apartheid.” Just like an alcoholic who needs to admit that he is an alcoholic in order for his rehabilitation to work, our generation of silent racists need to admit what we are. When you can admit your faults, only then you can repair them.