A Small Pat On The Head Words about low-key racism that burns and burns and burns.

In Words
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The worst kind of fear is the one you cannot confront head-on, the kind that is always hanging over your head, palpable but not tangible. You cannot yank back the curtains and shout out “There it is!”

But it is there. You know it is. All you lack is the proof.

It is a terrible fear to live with because you can never get any closure – you never know when it will creep up on you, what devious plans it is working behind your back or how it will come for you. Racism, and institutional racism at that, is that niggling fear that you just cannot put your finger on.

Spiders I will attempt to deal with if I am given a nuke or two, snakes and rats can be cured with a machine gun. Flat Fanta – Yes! That is a legitimate fear – and even losing my music collection I can confront and face admirably, but institutional racism will have my tail tucked in so far up my rear end it will come out of my mouth.

I have never had any fear of engaging in debates about climate change, homophobia in Africa, the needs of budding entrepreneurs or who the best Spice Girl was – clearly it was Scary! – and as far as Transformers (I, II and III) are concerned my opinions have been peer reviewed. I have always dived into these kinds of debates eagerly, with pen and paper, keyboard and mouse, or just my slightly obnoxious voice at the ready. Perhaps it is because I have always had the moral high ground – there is something slightly godlike about a person who drinks Fanta and has an Optimus Prime belt – but such debates are always safe to participate in. The consequences of picking a particular side are not long lasting. Unless of course you showed your heathen ways and said something against Bumblebee – fire and brimstone wait for you.

It is interesting to note though, that whenever the issue of race crops up, my mouth would do one of two things. If the debate happened to be with black people, I would of course toss in my two cents’ worth; passionate enough to be one of them, but not aggressive enough to be one of those. If you are in South Africa and have the faintest grasp of the country’s politics, you will know what I mean by one of those. Debating with black people about race issues would prompt carefully constructed and logical arguments – arguments that made sense to me and the people that I was arguing with; arguments that would either be agreed with or ones that would have some counter-argument thrown my way.

If the same debate happened to be with white people though, my mouth would fake a hamstring and limp of the field. To describe it aptly, I would be putting up arguments in the same way Wenger fielded the Arsenal side that faced Manchester United this year – more for pomp and circumstance. We all know how that panned out.

My once impeccable reasoning would vanish and be replaced by stuttering and bumbling statements that were not worth the air it took to make them. In short, my arguments would be mounted, ridden and then given a small pat on the head for providing a good time.

I cannot put into words why this is so, but I know I am not the first (or the last) black person that this will happen to. For people of my age (and here I am referring to the ’88 babies around me in general) and background (black middle class babies who attended all of the right schools to make it this far) it is incredibly difficult to engage in debates about race issues from the middle ground – or insulated shelter as some would say – that we have gotten used to all of our life. I am black, but my life experience is saturated with so much “whiteness”, “Chineseness”, “Indianness”, “Spice Girlsness”, “Nikeness” and most other kinds of -ness that are apparently not black.

For me, where normal everyday activities like watching sport, hanging out or kicking ass at 30 Seconds are concerned, race is almost a non-issue. I say almost because, let’s face it, this is the world that we live in and a day would not be complete without some reference to race being made once or twice. It is inevitable that at some point in time, someone will say something about a certain black player on a team, or suggest that a certain place it “too white” to go to or that only a black person who attended a larney school would know who “Katherine Hepburn” is – that is where the problem starts.

That is where the small workings of race and issues related to race start coming in and more often than not, I think that people in my age group, whether black or white, find it hard to engage in meaningful debates about race. It is how people like me (remember: black middle class – good  school – sheltered life) are able to argue so strongly and forcefully in one camp and fade to black when we play away from home.

It would be remiss though, to say that I do not know what racism is, and that when I encounter it I am not affected. Regardless of whatever class of black person you are, it is inevitable in the same way that the red side of Manchester will be celebrating again at the end of this season, that you will encounter racism in one way or the other. Of all the different kinds of racism, I put institutional racism right at the top of my list of fears.

Because it is there, hiding behind an administrative form with a filter for unpronounceable surnames, never really showing its head, but still affecting you in ways that you might think you are aware of, but ultimately are not.

What scares me most about institutional racism is that its proponents will not come out and face me outright, they will stay hidden behind a form I did not conveniently fill in, a necessary person I did not call or a sentence in an essay that was slightly off even if my commas and full stops were in the right places. It is this kind of racism that has me scared every time I submit an assignment for grading at UCT. I have toyed around with the idea of changing my surname just once to see if the resultant mark will be different.

Racism of this nature is scary mostly because I am not completely sure it exists. It is impossible to know for sure what goes on behind closed doors. All a person on the receiving end can do is draw suspicions – both reasonable and unreasonable – depending on the circumstances. I am in the camp that has seen the institutionally racist Bigfoot but cannot show hide or hair of the beast.

I am more than confident in saying that for many black students in my situation, institutional racism seems like a myth. After all, we get the high marks – not me though, I am being dismembered by this Law degree – and we submit our CVs with confidence for most job applications. But you only need to look at everything we do to realise that in everything we do, we have always been subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) trying to avoid the consequences of institutional racism. A good friend of mine called it “whitening our achievements”, padding our CVs to compensate for the surname that has your potential employer’s tongue doing yoga in his mouth. I remember one of my high school teachers telling me at the end of a prize-giving ceremony in Grade 12 that I had come into the school a naughty black boy and left as a very “accomplished white girl”. At the time, I didn’t know which part to take offence to, so I let it slide.

He wasn’t far off though. Everything has always been a case of overcoming the default black stereotype that many cannot overcome because of factors and circumstances that better and more accomplished people than me have explored and thesised – That is a word, I tell you! – about. Successes I have always taken for granted are not always treated on their own merits. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the “For a black guy you are…” mantra. The scariest thing for me was when I actually started internalising it – I was kind of proud not to be the “average black guy”. A terrible and stupid thing to be proud of when you think about it – there are just people.

Avoiding the stereotype, and therefore avoiding the possibility of having my skin colour listed as a disadvantage is perhaps what every person like me has succeeded in doing for so long that we have taken it as the norm. It could be hidden by terms like “trying to get ahead in the job market” but I think we all know what it is – we are all merely trying to stay away from that invisible whirlpool of unpronounceable surnames with no qualifications.

As far back as I can remember there has always been Rémy and black people; when one talks of the one, they do not necessarily mean the other. It seems impossible for many people to reconcile the fact that a black person can be both successful and black. Lord knows, it has happened to me many times. It seems as though if you are black and successful you transcend being “black” and become quasi-white – almost white…but not quite. I know this. You know this.

It is the constant fear of never knowing when I will be required to justify myself that has me quaking in my shoes. Now? Tomorrow? Who knows. I just know that whenever you raise the issue of institutional racism anywhere, you are given the same treatment people give an endearing but annoying lick from a dog, you are given a small pat to the head…and the shooed off as though you suggested an impossibility like Liverpool winning a treble this season.

And that is starting to piss me off.

Author’s note: The Spice Girls have been mentioned twice in this article. I am working on cutting down references to them in future.

 I am not a sociologist or any kind of –ist that justifies comments asking for data or “proof”. It is the absence of evidence that this article is about.

Michelle Branch has a new song called “Loud Music”. I just thought you would like to know.

  • Amelie

    Institutional racism exists in the same way the wind exists. You can only point to the things it affects – sometimes those things are equally intangible. It’s the known Unknown that beats being lynched by a couple of white-hooded men. This is actually the one that is handed down to new generations in the same way we learn to walk and speak but never remember how we got there. At some point, you find yourself saying things like, “Those chinese people, BEWARE of their closed eyes!” or “Oh, I couldn’t get his name right, but he sounded black over the phone…!”. Worst of all, you know you have the potential to carry out a project, and some demographically correct person gets the heads-up for it because…well, that’s what the target group identifies with! Read an article about racial diversity of models on magazine covers…it was uncomfortably true!

  • M Irfaan

    there’s actually a fascinating study in Freakonomics (watch the movie if you don’t want to read the book) that shows if a white person and black person in the states, with exactly the same CV but different names apply for a job, the white person is twice as likely to get the job.

    It’s on the Kindle bundle I gave you, else see an excerpt here: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_dismal_science/2005/04/a_roshanda_by_any_other_name.html

    • I saw the documentary – that was some truly interesting ish. Thoroughly loved it. Such is the world that we live in.

      Remy, The Quill