If we want to understand racism we simply have to look at slavery, follow its timeline to the present day, and see how much of its residue still exists in our current systems, our culture and language. None of us arrived in this timeline completely free and untethered from what happened hundreds of years ago. We were not built on an assembly line. We have memories. Our words and stories and ways of doing things all link us to where we come from. Racism would not have existed had it not been for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonisation of Africa, which were nothing but economic endeavours justified by the ideological winds and currents of the time.
Those winds and currents take time to dissipate and to change their patterns, but in the meantime they affect the climate of governments; they affect ideologies and the way people come to see the world. The climate that underpinned racism was a dominant one. It was a product of European entrepreneurship and opportunism. If you deny that, then anything else you say about racism is plain wrong. Then it’s based on your own perception of the world, which is based on what you see around you on a daily basis, which is a manufactured reality.
When we grew up during apartheid we thought that it was natural for things to be as they were. We didn’t know then that our reality was manufactured, but if you are a reasonably functioning person today you have no excuse to be blind to the systems that were in place before you arrived in the world. The systems that underpin racism are literally hundreds of years old. They are constantly morphing and evolving, but they are essentially the same thing. It’s not just white people who refuse to see it; since the days of slavery racism has both evolved and been manipulated by the ruling classes in ways that make its function all but invisible to everyone, because few people bother to ever look at a timeline bigger than their own.
The apartheid categories of coloured, African and Indian were a result of such manipulation. If you see those categories as fabrications of white supremacy and that people who were so classified had nothing to do with the system that created them, it is absurd to call anyone belonging to those classifications racist. Of course coloured people were ‘racist’ toward Africans. It’s the natural outcome of that particular power dynamic. The dynamic was placed there. It was manufactured. But not by the ‘coloured’ population.
I understand that white people reject this notion by default, because that’s not what they were taught racism was. That’s not what the dictionary says. You believe you’re not a ‘bad’ person like Steve Hofmeyr and ‘those people.’ You have a good feeling towards black people. You were disowned by your parents at a young age because you said racism was wrong. No one should tell you what you are because they don’t know you and your beautiful and complex life. None of that matters, though, because dismantling racism is about recognising where racism comes from, that it is a project of white supremacy, which is steeped in colonisation, exploitation, holocaust. Coloured supremacy, Indian supremacy and African supremacy never existed.
Racism is not the appliance in your head. It is the power that feeds that appliance. It is the cable infrastructure, the project development, the product management, the engineering, the leadership, the workforce. Turning off your appliance to make it all go away is the futile and impotent domain of white liberals.