Overcoming racism and prejudice one step at a time


The death of Penny Sparrow, who was convicted on racism charges, elicited a renewed wave of vitriol on social media. Janine Scott-dos Santos suggests that we all have some prejudices. She shares strategies that helped her to become more aware and overcome her preconceptions of others.

South Africa’s most infamous convicted racist, Penny Sparrow, died in late July following a battle with cancer.  In 2016, Sparrow wrote a social media post that caused an uproar because of its racist content.  She pled guilty to criminal charges in the Equality Court and received fines amounting to R145,000. 

After 25 years of democracy, it would seem many have not managed to deal with inherent racism and prejudice. 

The truth is, I am a racist!

In one way or another, we all are.    

We would like to believe that we are impervious to base and irrational fears about “the other.” However, each of us occasionally has a fleeting racist, sexist or phobic thought. What we think and believe has been shaped by past experiences.

A sign of maturity is to reflect on our paradigms and recognise our prejudices. Only then is it possible to overcome them.    

Here are 10 strategies I have found helpful in identifying and eliminating my prejudices.

Start with yourself

Racism isn’t limited to the use of the “K” word. Sometimes, we find the habits of different cultures strange or offensive. We might feel affronted by the custom of slaughtering an animal, or by people who don’t greet us, or that that our view of marriage is the only one that is acceptable.

Spend some time thinking about the beliefs you hold dear.  Are they all your own, or are they influenced by your culture, religion, age, upbringing or race?

Check your privilege

The first step to change is to admit there are certain things that have given you privilege over others — either historical or current.  This does not mean you have not worked for what you have, but it does mean that your privilege may have deprived someone else of an equal opportunity. 

Don’t feel guilty about this, but accept it and appreciate it. Where possible, use that privilege to expand the opportunities of others.

… use that privilege to expand the opportunities of others.

Avoid racial slurs or stereotypes

In South Africa, we seem able to joke more about race than in many other countries. This may be obvious, but sometimes we don’t realise we may be saying something offensive. 

There is nothing wrong with a harmless joke, but if it deliberately belittles a person or group, or plays on offensive stereotypes, then it may be best to keep silent.

Be vigilant about systemic racism and prejudice

Try to see the underlying prejudice that you or others around you may be perpetuating without even realising it. 

For example, do you accommodate staff members who use public transport and are you aware of the difficulties this presents to them?  Do you or your company use the fairest and most objective methods to promote and grow people?

Addressing these systemic inequalities will additionally promote the economic transformation South Africa so desperately needs to overcome the economic apartheid that continues to exist 25 years into our democracy.

Addressing these systemic inequalities will additionally promote the economic transformation South Africa so desperately needs.

Do some research

Begin by understanding what race actually is.  Many of our beliefs of race are socially constructed. Read about the history of race relations in your country and around the world.  If you were at school in South Africa before 1994, read new history books. 

Don’t accept what you were taught as fact.  History is generally written by the victors, so the history to which you have been exposed represents only one side of the story. 

Reflect on how your understanding of history has impacted your perceptions of race.

Talk about race and diversity

Have the courage to speak to people of different races, genders, sexualities and ages. 

When you know a person personally, it is harder to make assumptions about them. Understand their stories; get to know them and understand the challenges that they face. 

Seek out culturally diverse experiences

Learn about other people’s cultures by experiencing them.  Seek out experiences by visiting cultural heritage sites, eating different types of food and sharing experiences with your colleagues. 

This may demystify issues to a point where things that once seemed strange become understandable and relatable.  You may even start to see the beauty in them.

Be a voice

When you start to enlighten yourself about the challenges of racism and prejudice, you’ll begin to see it more often.  You will notice “micro-aggressions,” subliminal racism and prejudice.

When you see something, say something in a non-aggressive manner that seeks to teach.  It is not our place to judge.  Calling someone a bigot or a racist will not change their behaviour.  Helping them to identify their own racism or prejudice, however, may effect change. 

Helping them to identify their own racism or prejudice … may effect change.

Check your information

Fake news abounds.

We saw how social media and fake news influenced political opinions in the 2016 US elections and the 2018 Brazilian elections. In South Africa, Bell Pottinger planted social media trolls and bots to create division along racial lines. 

Think critically about what you have read.  Does it make sense?  Are other news agencies reporting the same story?  Does it come from a reputable news site?  If the story seems ridiculous and confirms the narrative you currently have, check that it’s true before believing it and sharing it.

Practise forgiveness

There is a lot of anger in our country and the world at the moment.  The economy is poor, jobs are hard to find and the crime rate is high. The media love to play on these fears. It is easy to blame “the other” when we are angry. 

South Africa’s past means that many people have been hurt – by apartheid, by crime, by violence.  Is your anger directed at an entire group of people rather than an individual?  Is it causing you continual and unnecessary pain? Let it go. 

The reaction to Sparrow’s death has made it clear just how much anger and hatred there still is.  Her death was met with vitriol that was possibly not directed at only her, but rather at a country that still has so much endemic prejudice. 

We cannot change our environment where hate, anger and prejudice are rife, but we can change ourselves.  And that is a good start.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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