Reflections on being raised a racist: responsibility versus culpability and the locus of change

As South Africans, we live in a world saturated with race every day (actually everybody does, but we seem to have refined it to quite an art). Race is in our meaning making, in our economy, in our homes. It defines the layouts of our cities, it pumps through the transport arteries of our metropoles, it sifts our farms into workers and baases, land owners and land workers: race, racism, racialised discourses are so commonplace we barely see them any more. When we are asked to talk about difference, inequality,  violence, or power without recourse to race, we become tongue tied. Our colonial and neocolonial history is writ large in the language of race across our land, our bodies and our minds.

You can’t grow up as a white person in South Africa and not grow up racist. The degrees of it will vary, the awareness of it will vary even more, but when you are born into a world so wholly centred around you, making you the norm, telling you you are the ideal, the best, the deserving One, you can’t not be affected.

I was raised to be racist. At times explicitly, more often tacitly. It was in the way my parents infantilized people with browner skins, it was in how they avoided ‘those places’ (e.g. Soweto and the Transkei), it was often in the form of charitable kindness that was deeply patronizing, relishing its own benevolence rather than asking what the person really wanted or needed (or, heaven forbid, asking the deeper question as to why it was so hard for them to themselves obtain what they wanted or needed without asking a white person for help). It was in my parents’ assumption that the wealth they accumulated was theirs and rightly deserved, that they somehow worked ‘harder’ than the domestic they employed, and that their rewards were based on merit, ignoring that 80% of the population was prevented from even competing with them for the opportunities they enjoyed. It was in the jokes my father told, in the faux fetishizing gaze of my mother and her admiration for how ‘black women dress so smart’.

I was raised a racist, and like most other aspects of my childhood, I will carry it with me all my life.

Recently there has been cause to reflect on the shrill reception this news–that we’re all racist–has prompted amongst white South Africans who believe themselves to be  not racist. And the following mode of analysis is, I think, perhaps a useful one for reframing what it means to be called racist, or be called a racist, and how to respond.

The crux lies in the subtle but important distinction between culpability and responsibility.

There are some who are culpable: Penny Sparrow. Adam Catzavelos. Vicki Momberg. Many others who remain unindicted. This is deliberately acting in a racist manner by choice, to act out power and dominate and humiliate another.

And then there are all of us, who are responsible.

To be culpable is to be guilty… it is a position that attracts and warrants blame. And that sense of being blamed for something you didn’t choose, or didn’t do, when a white person is sure they haven’t used the K_ word, or beaten a person because they are black, that is what evokes a disproportionate angry and defensive response. But such an angry response is to mistake responsibility for culpability.

To be responsible… is to be honest. And here’s why.

We were all raised racist. But none of us chose how we were raised, or who we were raised by. To hold a child culpable for being raised a racist is like holding a child with emotional issues culpable for being raised in a dysfunctional household,  whatever that may entail: irrational insecurity, learning to resolve conflict through aggression, not learning how to cooperate with others.

It is fairly well accepted that we learn problematic behaviours as children which we carry into our adulthood to our own detriment, and the detriment of those around us. Psychotherapy, whether Freudian or not, often delves into the family of origin to find the source of problematic behaviours. We learn how to be, and how to be with others, at home. So when that being, and being with others, doesn’t work out well, it is fruitful and revealing to go back to the blueprint that shaped all the interactions that followed.

The first part of dealing with childhood trauma or issues is to acknowledge them. Most of the time this is prompted by a conflict with another who points out that our behaviour is problematic. The next step is that we listen to them. We reflect. We acknowledge that perhaps we are part of the problem. Perhaps we go for some therapy. After unpacking how and why our current behaviours are problematic, we hopefully get to a point where we recognise that while we are not culpable for what happened to us as children, only we can do anything about it. That is: we are responsible for doing the work required to change ourselves.

That’s a hard place to reach. Accepting responsibility without culpability. Reflecting and dreaming a different way of being. Admitting that a different way might be better. It involves an enormous amount of ongoing work. But it is the only route through which we can disrupt intergenerational cycles of abuse and trauma that are well documented in psychology.

Just like I have to be aware of how my insecurities from how I was raised affects how I treat my friends, my partner, my children (and I have to actively work at choosing differently because I know that I am *not* just the deterministic product of my upbringing), I also have to be constantly vigilant of the fact that I was raised racist, and that this affects how I treat others. I  need to remember that there is another way, and I can choose differently if I want to. Not because I’m guilty. Not because I woke up one day and decided being a racist was my life goal. I was, to use the Heideggerian term, thrown into racism from a young age. But I can also choose to enact a better me, if I care to.

Imagine the difference if white people framed being racist in this manner? For example, it might yield a different interpretation of the phrase ‘check your privilege’. ‘Checking our privilege’ could mean to understand the deeply embedded framings we have been raised under and operate in; to be more conscientious about how our actions hurt and undermine others, because it is habituated into us from a young age and our default, instinctive, behaviour is a bit rubbish. This doesn’t make us bad to the bone. It doesn’t make us ‘damaged goods’. But it does mean our ‘normal’ is not okay and we need to change.

No one else can do that work for us. We are responsible: and we are powerful! If we wish to be and become better in this world, the locus of change is only with us. Not our priests. Not our politicians. Not our psychologists…

And certainly not our fellow black compatriots. That’s like asking the partner upon whom you visit the dysfunctional nonsense you learnt by watching your parents troubled marriage to fix your messed up view of what love is.

The analogy stretches even further. The most obvious evidence of learnt dysfunctional behaviour is the hurt (and yes, often violence, emotional or physical) we inflict on those around us. But, as any person who has worked on their learnt dysfunctions will tell you, you hurt yourself too. You become less. Racism is no different.

And no, the choices of individuals as I have outlined will not be sufficient to undo structural racism built into our models of economics, built into our discourses of meaning. Racism is more than just bad decisions by individuals. But structures do not exist independently of individuals actions and choices: they are as much constructed by agency as constructive of it. Our individual decisions on a daily basis, and our shifts in how we interpret the world, in turn transform structures and institutions slowly.

We are already seeing evidence of this shifting: racist behaviour once sanctioned and rewarded by structural forces are less profitable than once they were. Culpability where it is appropriate is important in this regard: that Momberg, Sparrow, Catzavelos are being held to account explicitly for overtly and deliberately racist acts matters. It is akin to holding a husband who beats his wife accountable, even though he watched his father beat his mother. The pursuit of justice when people are culpable requires a shift in the courts, a structural shift which is the product of hard lobbying and activism… when once it was not illegal to beat your wife, now it is. Where once being racist was allowed by law, now it is, quite rightly, not. However, structural shifts aside, the point about the individuals concerned remains: childhood trauma and dysfunction is no excuse for being shitty.

But neither is childhood dysfunction a guilty verdict on its own.

No one is born racist. We are raised thus. We need to see our daily racist decisions for the antisocial dysfunctional behaviour they are, and treat them like we would other problematic behaviours we learnt as children: by taking responsibility and grasping the opportunity of becoming better versions of ourselves. Before we infect our own children with it in that intergenerational cascade of BS.

We are not children anymore.

After thoughts:

Really enjoyed listening to Asad Haider and his description of racism and racialised power as a relational function of how we relate to the Other, rather than as an intrinsic essentialized component of our being itself. Check it out at The Dig.

Please note that this piece is purely written from the perspective of the individual and their options. It is in no way meant to unpack the issues around capitalism, economic stratification, the symbolic violence or physical violence performed by racialising power. Like most psycho-analytic frames, it does not bring social power into view. But it also does not deny that such power exists. For example, that so many white people think they are not racist is indicative of the hegemony (in a Gramscian sense) of ‘whiteness’ as the normative base against which all other ways of being are constructed.

Personally I’m firmly of the view that the vast majority of psychological dysfunctionalities are traceable to macro- and meso- social issues. The political is indeed personal.