You’d think it would take an awful lot to threaten a 19-year-long friendship, but for Johannesburg assistant events coordinator Balelwa*, 24, and her copywriter BFF and flatmate, Busi, 25, it took just a few words from Busi in defence of the new guy in her life. Balelwa didn’t trust him. Just as the friends always had, she voiced her misgivings. And Busi responded: ‘You don’t trust him because he’s coloured.’
ME? PREJUDICED? NEVER!
‘She basically called me a racist!’ recalls Balelwa. ‘She knows I went to inter-racial schools. After school I took a gap year with her, and I dated a Thai guy for three months. I thought she was so blindly in love with this guy, she just didn’t want to see the truth. I said he had a problem with alcohol and had no ambition. In my mind, it had nothing to do with his race. I was angry, she may as well have called me a thief.’
Their fight escalated and Balelwa went home to her parents for the weekend ‘to cool off.
‘I’ve always ignored my parents’ odd racial slurs but I noticed them more because of what Busi had said,’ she remembers. ‘My sister was considering transferring to Cape Town and they had a lot to say about why they thought it was a bad idea for her to work under a coloured supervisor. They said she’d be treated like the maid. For the first time ever I thought about whether it had somehow rubbed off on me, even though my experience growing up, my education and my world-view are very different to theirs.’
And it’s true: many of our parents are racist. After all, they lived under apartheid ideology for longer than they’ve lived under democracy and it’s no wonder that, 18 years on, many have still never socialised with people of other race groups. We might never condone their bias, but maybe they don’t know any better.
However, we expect to see a very different picture when it comes to those of us who haven’t grown up in rigidly defined racial enclaves, or been steeped in racially biased ideology since birth.
Even so, it seems that, like Balelwa, many of us may be living in denial when it comes to deep-seated racial attitudes. ‘Upbringing plays a role in moulding people’s views regarding other races, particularly when one is still young and impressionable,’ says Lerato Moloi, acting head of research at the South African Institute Of Race Relations. And although we may not want to admit it, there’s a very strong chance that we’ve been influenced by our parents’ racial views. ‘The chances are slim that racist parental attitudes will not rub off on the children,’ says Zena Richards of Wits Student Equity And Talent Management Unit.
The link is so strong that in March 2012, the South African Institute Of Race Relations released a statement saying that parents should be held responsible when their children discriminate against people of another race. ‘It doesn’t surprise me that racism still exists because young people of all races feel fundamentally different from other groups,’ said the Institute’s Lucy Holborn. As Richards explains: ‘You become a product of your parents’ beliefs and will act it out in terms of how you think about «other» or «difference».’
THE SIGNS OF PREJUDICE
This ‘acting out’ is most obvious in outright, full-blown racism. It’s a no-brainer that last year’s Twitter spat between then-model Jessica Leandra and Tshidi Thamana constituted racism. Less obvious is when people limit themselves socially and emotionally — as Richards says, ‘The values that are inculcated in your family will influence your choices about cross-cultural interaction. You will then live out the stereotypes, which will result in you keeping away from people of different race groupings.’ The most insidious racism you might have inherited unwittingly from your parents, though, more often takes the form of habitual behaviours or thoughts that you may not be aware of, let alone label as ‘racist’.
‘I’ve never seen myself as a racist. But after I started making some black friends and dating one of them, I started noticing small reactions that made me ashamed of myself,’ admits Cape Town accountant Julia*, 29. ‘I would be listening to the radio in the car and think, «Oh for heaven’s sake, learn English!» There were loads of these little everyday things. It’s not that surprising given my background: my dad was high up in the South African Defence Force. I only recently became aware of what I’ve missed out on: opportunities for self-growth, experiencing other cultures and a richer life with a wealth of rewarding relationships. I’m loving the music, food, traditions and sense of humour of my new friends. I’ve never felt as stimulated and as alive. I feel «bigger» than before.’
RACISM AS A HANDICAP
These ‘reflex’ actions can be deeply offensive and hurtful to others, and handicaps that hold you back. ‘When we don’t challenge ourselves to become more inclusive, the rest of life is dominated by tunnel viewpoints and fear-driven perspectives,’ explains Richards. ‘This type of individual will then select peers with the same kind of views — extremely self-limiting in a global society not only at an individual level, but limiting to a broader society as a whole. It’s extremely destructive.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
As with Julia, it takes exposure to people of other race groups and self-awareness to free yourself from a racist legacy. ‘Sadly, this is why it often happens only much later in life,’ observes Richards. And although there may also be a high cost (‘it may break the familial relationship’, warns Richards), there is huge personal gain. ‘The hope offered is that when the chain is broken, it is extremely liberating to have an awareness of your own oppression: it works in just the same way as when, for example, a man becomes aware of the oppression of women in society.’
So, isn’t it time you took stock: just how much are you your parents’ daughter? Wouldn’t it be nice to follow Julia’s example? Because life is so much better when you’re bigger than that.