Racism is a subject that people often seek to avoid, it being deemed too politically embarrassing, any suggestion of its existence often eliciting a response of outraged indignation and immediate denial. Yet it is central to the discourse of most, if not all, societies.
So writes Martin Jacques in his recent book When China Rules the World: the rise of the Middle Kingdom [China] and the end of the Western World. Well, he certainly did not have South Africa uppermost in mind where the topic of racism is far from “politically embarrassing” to raise, but rather a political embarrassment as it is endlessly and gratuitously raised to shroud the real issues. Just take the Caster Semenya and Brandon Huntley hullabaloos for a start, not to mention rugby and nearly every time Julius Malema opens his mouth.
Jacques goes on to write, “[racism] is always lurking somewhere, sometimes on the surface, sometimes just below. Nor is this the least bit surprising. Human beings see themselves in terms of groups, and physical difference is an obvious and powerful signifier of them. It is but a short distance to ascribe wider cultural and mental characteristics to a group on the basis of visible physical differences: in other words, to essentialise those physical differences, to root culture in nature, to equate social groups with biological units” (emphasis mine). I agree with the definition, but winced on the word “lurk”: this is not the case in South Africa and in a different sense, China, where racism does not lurk but walks tall and terrible.
Let me give examples of the different kinds of racism in current South Africa and where I live in Shanghai, China. In China I have been on a “summer camp” — in other words to teach English to Chinese students during their vacation — at a school where I walked into a teachers’ office roughly twenty metres by ten metres large, sat down at a vacant desk, took out my laptop and quietly began writing. I smiled at the only other person at the other end of the large room filled with desks. She was a Chinese, a teacher. She got up, went out and called one of our staff of the teaching company who hadrented the school premises for the classes. Two members of the staff hastily came in and asked me to leave the office as the Chinese teacher was uncomfortable with me being there. I would not have got that treatment had I been a Chinese.
The above example — one of many I could produce — would not happen — or would certainly not happen easily — in the new South Africa, thankfully. There are definite, clearly laid out laws in the Constitution that protect people from discrimination. The racism that has evolved in SA, the one most evident other than xenophobic riots in townships, is a different kind. It is what I call the accusatory one, in other words, accusing people of racism whilst denying something else. Ms Semenya is the current hot example. The concern with her is her medical condition and whether or not she qualifies as a woman (see my “And if Ms Semenya were not black?” blog) to take part in sport events, not her skin colour. The racist allegations deny something bigger. The bigger item is learning to play by international rules and seeing the issue a bit more objectively, from an unprejudiced, non-partisan stance, respecting the international community’s views and coming to a consensual verdict that satisfies all parties. Many South Africans simply cannot engage with that level of thinking, it seems. And we are not going to get anywhere until we mature to that level of thinking. As Albert Einstein put it: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”. That level of thinking has not changed in South Africa where accusatory racism distorts and denies the real issues.
I know in previous blogs I have talked about the special treatment we foreigners can get too in China … but the exact reverse happens as well. At the school I currently teach at where I am the only “foreigner” I am not known by my name Rod: I am referred to as lawai, “the foreigner”, a common expression used for all non-Chinese. In other words I am discriminated against, othered, not one of “them”. In the latter example it is, for me, merely amusing. The staff are friendly, and the Chinese English teachers are mostly too shy to talk to me and just don’t quite know how to deal with me. I regularly get little gifts from them, and give them gifts too. Chocolates on desks and so forth.
Weirdly enough, Chinese discriminate against their “own kind”, bearing in mind they define their kind as a very exclusive (read: excluding) race. See my blog on “South Africa’s collective discrimination: Being ‘Western’ is being ‘white’ “. This is a form of classism. What are known as ABCs, American Born Chinese, struggle to find employment and receive a lot of discrimination in Shanghai. They speak perfect English, have qualifications, but find it extremely difficult to get jobs teaching English … because they have the Chinese face! In other countries the prospective employee could rightly sue the employer. That is no longer the case in SA, thankfully, but racism is like a cockroach, it can survive almost anything and mutates to fit in with the new environment. And thus we have a parasitic, accusatory racism thriving on the southern part of Africa. To paraphrase Jacques, racism roots culture in nature. A most interesting choice of words: it is perceived as natural, and his definition of racism is apposite when he explores the cultural history of racism in China and how it evolved in the Middle Kingdom which I will engage with in the next blog, comparing it with South Africa, especially the way Chinese value white skin.
– Rod MacKenzie