The reignition of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the protests against police brutality against unarmed people of colour in the USA has caused an online storm here at home and exposed ways of thinking within our society which should worry us tremendously. Jennifer Morris, a new spotlight.africa contributor, writes.
This is my opinion. I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist. I am a fervent supporter of #BlackLivesMatter and believe that it’s long overdue.
People of colour – specifically Black people – have had to endure centuries of inhumane abuse at the hands of every conquering power since the age of exploration began. This is well-documented fact. Unfortunately, the degradation of Black people didn’t end with the abolition of slavery, the close of colonialism or the final defeat of apartheid. It has continued and been perpetrated by racist systems that were never demolished, and schools of thought that were never successfully challenged. That’s why #BLM has happened, and that’s why it’s necessary. It’s time to change things at a foundational level.
I would have thought this to be self-evident, so the many arguments put forward almost immediately by white South Africans as a counter to the movement came as a shock.
All Lives Matter
Was this ever in dispute? Of course, All Lives Matter, but all lives are not affected by institutionalised, systemic racism. All lives are not the victims of government-sanctioned abuse. All lives are not deliberately kept in poverty by racist, segregationist economic interventions. All lives are not where our focus should be. Our focus needs to be on the glaring injustices visited upon people of colour — until everyone can claim the same privileges of their society.
Why is the All Lives Matter retort only ever used to counter #BLM? It’s as if the singling out of Black people as a specific racial group in need of support is threatening to everyone not in that particular racial group, and their immediate response is to lessen the focus on Black lives by claiming attention for all lives. If we do that, we undermine and delegitimise the issue at hand: that Black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.
And they don’t. Not yet. That’s why #BLM is needed until they do. Absolutely no one said #BlackLivesMatterMore. Calling for respect for the rights of other race groups does not mean that your race will be respected less.
What About Farm Murders?
The most commonplace argument against #BLM has its roots in a false equivalency: that the institutional violence against people of colour is the same as the criminal violence against whites.
The example that pops up most often is that of the farm murders in South Africa. Yes, I’m going there. The fact that 70 percent of the victims of farm attacks are white and nearly all the perpetrators are Black is used to counter #BLM. There are many problems with this argument. But the main point I’d like to stress is this: the attacks on white farmers are criminal offences, not sanctioned violence by government entities such as the police or the army.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is aimed at the sort of institutional thuggery that allows people in positions of power, like policemen, to abuse people of colour and get away with it. To treat Black life as if it’s worth less than white life.
The attacks on farmers in South Africa are criminal acts. To use these acts in a ‘What About…’ argument to counter the importance of Black Lives Matter – a revolt against state-sanctioned violence – is nonsensical. They don’t cancel each other out.
I abhor the violence done to farmers in South Africa. I experience a paroxysm of white-hot rage whenever I read about another child found raped and murdered in the veld in our tragically violent country. I weep in despair when I hear of another beautiful South African woman murdered and disposed of like trash. We live in a deeply scarred and damaged society and every South African suffers because of that — regardless of their race.
None of that changes how I feel about #BlackLivesMatter. The two things are not related.
The victim-blaming argument
In the death of George Floyd — a Black man who was brutally killed in the United States while in the custody of the police — it took only a day before everything he’d ever done wrong was exposed and touted as justification for his murder. Armed robber. Drug user. Convict. Fraud.
Let us be clear: George Floyd isn’t the movement — although his death was the proverbial final straw. He wasn’t killed because he deserved it. He was killed because he was Black. Accused of a minor crime, he was set upon by four armed officers who had no idea of his guilt. He was handcuffed and prone when Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. Handcuffed, unmoving and unarmed, Floyd was nevertheless treated like a violent offender requiring lethal force to subdue. A clear case of racial profiling by a historically racist institution, leading to the death of yet another unarmed Black man denied the right to a fair trial.
The list of men and women of colour who have suffered the same fate in the U.S. is a very long one. The list of people of colour killed by state-sanctioned entities the world over is even longer and goes to show just how little Black lives do matter when compared to white lives.
The case of Collins Khoza in South Africa highlights another sad truth, the perpetrators of racially-biased violence can be the same race as the victim. I defy any fair-minded South African to argue that Khoza would be dead if he were a white man having a drink in his own back yard. Khoza is dead because he was a Black man, living in a Black neighbourhood, having a drink in his own back yard. The fact that his killers were also Black does not make this any less a racist incident. Sadly, it shows just how successfully the racism of our past has infected every single part of our society, enshrining the idea that Black life just doesn’t matter. For this reason alone, I will support #BlackLifeMatters until all lives really do matter.
On White Privilege
I find it hard to understand why white people deny white privilege. Can you really repudiate the fact that being white has given you advantages over people of colour? How is this deniable?
Of course being white, here, is easier! Whiteness as rightness was enshrined by law for decades. That attitude didn’t magically disappear when apartheid ended, and it’s going to take much longer than 26 years to erase it. The U.S. has had even longer — 400 years and counting — to dispel the myth that a Black skin makes you inferior as a person and that’s clearly still an attitude that prevails there.
I’m a white South African and, even though more than half my life has been lived in a Black-ruled country, I still enjoy the privilege my white skin brings. I’m better educated than the vast majority of my Black peers because the schools for whites were better, and my parents’ education wasn’t curtailed by Bantu Education.
I had a head start because my parents could afford to send me to university, to buy my first car and to rent my first apartment. I already spoke English and Afrikaans very well, as I hadn’t been corralled into a ‘Bantu homeland’ where exposure to other languages was non-existent. I could afford to travel at a young age and walk into a good job when I came home. Advantages I took for granted that were entirely out of reach for Black South Africans. We weren’t wealthy — we were just white in a country where that mattered.
Does that mean I haven’t worked for everything I have now? Of course not. That’s not what white privilege means. It means that the obstacles I’ve had to overcome were not made harder by the colour of my skin.
When I walk down the street in a new neighbourhood, people assume I’m there to visit friends. No one calls security because I don’t belong there. No one makes assumptions about me because of my skin colour.
Actually, that’s not true. Some white people make a very specific assumption about me all the time because we share a skin tone. They assume that I agree with their racist rhetoric. It’s awful, and I cringe to remember all the times I didn’t storm out in a huff after calling them on their bigotry. I’m trying to get better at that.
This week, it became apparent that people disputing the need for #BLM also have a problem with acknowledging their privilege. Perhaps they feel that to do so is to take on a burden of guilt for the misdeeds of the white race. Akin to the guilt that the Germans of today bear retrospectively for the Holocaust. Except that I don’t know a single Black person who blames me for apartheid, or expects me to live in a state of eternal shame for the sins of my father.
While recompense and retribution have been used as political platforms ever since our democracy began, I don’t feel hatred from Black South Africans. It costs me nothing to admit that I’ve had an unfair advantage due to the ovarian lottery that saw me born white instead of Black, and it costs me even less to stand in solidarity with all people of colour when they demand the respect and fairness that I enjoy and take for granted. White privilege isn’t a badge of shame — it’s a statement of fact. If we all used our whiteness to help the cause of Blackness in levelling the playing field, the issue of race would resolve itself in a generation.
Why protests are necessary
I’ve always loved this quote by John F Kennedy:
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.
John F. Kennedy
Or this, by Howard Zinn:
Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.Howard Zinn
Protests such as those we’re seeing in the U.S. are inevitable when people reach the end of their collective tether. When all the other avenues of peaceful resolution have been exhausted and enough is enough. Given the amount of racist rhetoric and bullying that Black Americans have relentlessly had to endure from their own President, Donald Trump, I actually applaud them for their restraint.
Looting is the inevitable result of any breakdown in public order. Some people, when the opportunity arises, will steal. Using their actions to somehow negate the importance of the protests is illogical.
The protests are necessary. I wish they weren’t, and I feel very sorry for those innocents caught up in it all. Don’t blame the protestors though. Blame those who have forced their hand and made it so that no other option remains. In fact, if you can, pick up a placard — join them.
Politicians don’t lead – they follow. If everyone with a conscience joined a protest and made it known that their vote would go to the party willing to finally commit to change, the government would make sure that change was their first priority.
In South Africa, we have more subtle legacies to overcome. Racism taints every part of our society.
The fear-mongering that was the hallmark of government control has left its mark. I was in my 30s before I recognised that the overwhelming reaction I had to Black South Africans was fear and that the basis for this fear was the indoctrination of my childhood. I was astonished to learn that Black South Africans feared me and my whiteness just as much, and for similar reasons.
Apartheid robbed me of half a lifetime of friendships, understanding and learning. Of participation in the rich cultures of all South Africans. Of community and a shared history. Of ubuntu. I’ve made a concerted effort since then to confront my learned behaviours and inherited ideas. To expunge the racism that insidiously poisons all of us. To learn, unlearn and relearn.
Until we’re all truly equal, I support #BlackLivesMatter.