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OF MONKEYS AND A SPARROW!

Publishing Date : 12 January, 2016

Author : MOGOTSI D BALOYI

I didn't see it coming. I didn't even hear it fresh off the press. In fact, I heard it late. By chance. A chance Facebook post led me to Twitter where supposedly a war had broken out over a racist post made on Facebook. So, I went to Twitter. Then back to Facebook. And there it was! A fight between a sparrow and a troop of monkeys! What a way to begin the new year! Don't get me wrong; I'm not celebrating anything here. There's nothing to celebrate. But there's a lot to talk about. Racism. Yup! It hasn't gone anywhere, mate. It's 2016 and racism is very much still alive and well, thank you very much. It's a smart animal, you see.

Sometimes it goes all Machiavellian and successfully fakes its own death! Sometimes it just swoons or goes into a comatose state; but one thing it never does is die. Even when it has at times looked dead and buried, like the mythical Phoenix, it has risen from the ashes and left us all bewildered and bemused. And so here we are again, fresh into the new year, and a White South African woman has stirred the hornet's nest. It's on! Where did this furore come from? I'll tell you where, in case you missed it. Around Christmas time and leading up to the New Year, close to 500,000 people, mostly, if not all, Black, converged upon the beaches of Durban. When they left a few days later, the litter left in their wake was the stuff of fiction. Well, to be honest, there's nothing new there. It pretty much happens every year around that time.

Enter Penny Sparrow, a White woman who was so disgusted by both the swarming masses and the litter that she went postal! She went nuts! She went bananas! She likened the holiday makers to monkeys! South Africa went into uproar. When she tried to do damage control not long later, she only managed to add insult to injury. She said she was misquoted and misunderstood. She said she actually likes monkeys because they are cute! Cute! Cute? Well, South Africa and every Black person who got wind of the news didn't think there was anything cute about the whole thing. Monkeys are cute. I'm from Kgatleng. We've got them. In fact, they're our tribal symbol - our totem. They are a cute species. Naughty, but cute. So, I'll give her that. However, her comments about Black people were uncouth and unacceptable, no matter how she meant them.

For any younger readers unaware of the history of racism, likening Black people to the simian species is an old and effective way of conveying the idea that White people are higher up on the evolutionary chain than Black people, who must be at the lowest rung because they are closer to apes. That most of us understand this to be a complete misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t matter. The preposterous suggestion works on the idea that there’s no smoke without fire. It’s also effective because enough people (both Black and White) really do think Black people are closer to apes than White people, having been conditioned to think that way. It's all a matter of repeated psychological reinforcement. Sadly, it has worked. It also gives permission to supposedly smart people like Nobel Prize winner James Watson to keep trying to demonstrate that the Black race is inherently less intelligent than the White race; an endeavour that also has a long history premised on a pseudo-science called "Scientific Racism." Scientific racism is the use of scientific and pseudo-scientific techniques and hypotheses to try to support, reinforce, and justify racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority; or alternatively the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes into discrete races. As a body of theory, scientific racism employs anthropology (notably physical anthropology), anthropometry, craniometry, and other physiognomy-based disciplines, in proposing anthropologic typologies supporting the classification of human populations into physically discrete human races that might be asserted to be either superior or inferior. This unfortunate and withered branch of science gained a lot of traction during the New Imperialism period (c. 1880s – 1914) where it was used in justifying White European imperialism, and it culminated in the period from 1920 to the end of World War II.

Since the latter part of the 20th century, scientific racism has been criticized as obsolete and has historically been used to support or validate racist world-views, based upon belief in the existence and significance of racial categories and a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. Such a science certainly has no place in the modern world nor should it ever have had a place in any world for that matter. Racism is something we've all either witnessed or experienced, whether blatantly or subliminally. Here in Botswana, perhaps most of us are fortunate enough never to have been victims of racism. But our forebears who worked the South African mines know it all too well.

Many people fail to believe that race isn’t a biological category, but an artificial classification of people with no scientifically variable facts. In other words, the distinction we make between races has nothing to do with genetic characteristics. Race was created socially, primarily by how people perceive ideas and faces we are not quite used to. The definition of race all depends on where and when the word is being used. In American history, the meaning of the label “White” has changed over time, eventually adding groups like the Italians, Irish, and Jews. Other groups, mainly Africans, Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Asian descendants, have found the path for worldwide social acceptance much more difficult.

The irregular border of ethnicities touch educational and economic opportunity, political representation, as well as income, health and social mobility of people of color. So where did this type of behavior begin? There are many ideas thrown around as to how racism began, though the truth lies in the history of mankind. Before people were able to travel and experience different groups of other people distinct from themselves, we predominantly stayed in the same kind of area with the same kind of people. We feared things that were different, and we lacked the power to face those kinds of things. All this changed once we did, in fact, obtain this level of human advancement, but the fear never drifted. The truth is, racism began as soon as people faced those of different races.

We’ve always had the fear of change, not to mention the unknown. It seems that racism has been around so long that by now we would have been able to overcome it as our species developed. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Frequent contact with those of whom we are afraid continues to lead to disputes, which, in time, is what caused racism to transform from people simply disliking each other, to the permanent and indestructible foundation of common racism and prejudice. Contemporary racism is said to have been derived from many places, one of the most common ideas being upbringing.

As a child, you are reliant on your parents to help you become who you are. Part of that involves their own, distinct opinions, that of which children don’t have the maturity to form on their own. They need the help of their parents, and this is often where the problem starts. If you were told that all Asians were sneaky or all Whites are evil or all Blacks are criminals, you can bet that you are going to feel this way about them. Upbringing is the biggest cause of racism. Even if you allow yourself to get to know some of them, this will always be in the back of your mind. We've been taught that Nigerians are crooks, for example. We've been told not to trust a Nigerian. And so, even when dealing with the most upright Nigerian, at the back of your mind, the fact that they're Nigerian makes you treat them with suspicion. It's psychological conditioning. The same applies to racism. Another suggestion as to how racism makes its way into our heads is through the almighty media. As we grow up, media becomes a factor of our lives whether or not we want it to be, and is also a major source of how racism keeps itself active. Since the 70’s, the media has been giving us racial labels, one of the largest supplies coming from crime shows like “Law and Order”, and “CSI”. When dealing with crime, people of color are reflected in the demarcation of “them” and “us”. Whites are often represented as the “good guy”, or the strong, law obeying citizens. They often the targets of the people of color, sometimes without any sort of evidence.

Directors and writers use racial stereotypes to make a more complex story with more suspects. We even have bumper stickers cheekily written things like, "A Black Man Is Always A Suspect." In the novel, “The Power of One,” by Bryce Courtney, which was also made into a movie starring Morgan Freeman, a young, White, African boy named Peekay lives in a world where the government, the country, and the world revolves around racism. World War II is coming to an end, and in South Africa, the Whites seem to hate the Blacks just as much as the Blacks hate the Whites. Peekay was raised by a compassionate and loving Black woman he refers to as “Nanny," due to the unsafe conditions at home with his bad, mentally ill mother. He grew up with Nanny and his best friend, who was also Black.

To Peekay, racism didn’t exist. The author, Bryce Courtney, didn’t intend on writing a book fully based on racism in South Africa. He grasps a trace of apartheid by Peekay’s experiences as a White boy by unhurriedly soaking it into South Africa as a toxin. “Adapt, blend…develop a camouflage.” This thought went through Peekay’s mind once he had been exposed to racism, having been forced to attend a boarding school full of bigger, darker students. In Chapters One and Two, as a mere five-year-old, the bright protagonist Peekay is already addressing the necessity of affecting camouflages in order to survive the system. He is often forced to act differently around people of different skin colors in order to fit in better to prevent himself from getting beaten or teased. He faces his first taste of racism the very first night at the boarding school. One boy, known as “The Judge," who was much older, stronger, and darker than Peekay, comes up with the nickname “PissKop” for Peekay, because of Peekay’s habit to wet the bed that was caused by The Judge’s, along with the help of many other older Black students, tendency to beat Peekay and spit in his face.

The Judge also convinces Peekay that Hitler is determined to march all Englishmen in South Africa into the ocean, and even forces Peekay to eat human feces. Upbringing is a very strong factor of what influences people to become racist, or to have even slight racial views. In Peekay’s case, he had gone from one extreme to another. At home, Nanny and his best friend were the only people he could call family, besides his mother who spent time at what Peekay called “The Mental Breakdown Place." When sent to the boarding school, he wasn’t expecting the Black students to dislike him because of his skin color. He saw the Black kids as merely bullies, and before they started bullying him hadn’t anticipated them to gang up on him because they were Black. This is what caused Peekay’s neutrality with the racist society in which he lived. He gave each person a chance to be a good person, because he had seen the good in different ethnicities to which many people were stubborn to open up their minds. The power of one, or the idea of how one person can make a significant difference, is an important idea in relation to challenge in the novel. Giel Piet (played by Morgan Freeman in the movie), one of Peekay’s boxing coaches who had been sneaking tobacco to all of the prisoners, was forced to eat feces by Sergeant Ballman, a White racist who works at the prison. If Giel Piet had refused to eat the feces, the guards would have found the tobacco, resulting in the prisoners getting beaten along with Giel Piet .

As Peekay witnessed this happen to his coach, he thought, "It made me angry. Angry it was done. Angry I couldn't do anything to stop it." But how does racism really affect society? Visibly identifiable members of racial and ethnic oppressed groups continue to struggle for equal access and opportunities, particularly during times of stringent economics. Often, the targeted race has a harder time doing things such as finding a well-paying job or house. While there have been some sizeable gains in the labor force status of racial minorities, significant gaps remain. Racism is rampant in all areas of employment. For many members of exploited racial and ethnic units, there is always an economic depression. Studies show that people of color are the last hired and the first fired. As a result, budget cuts, downsizing, and privatization may disproportionately hurt people of color. In February 1995, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 10.1 percent as compared to 4.7 percent for White Americans (Berry, 1995). The unemployment rate for adolescents of color is approximately four times that of White adolescents. What's more, in America, the majority of unemployed men are Black, and compared to other races, Blacks and Latinos on average have disproportionately low incomes. Perhaps the American correctional system also betrays an ugly message of subtle racism.

Blacks constitute only about 12% of the American population but more than 50% of the prison population. So bad is the situation that prison is known as "The Black Man's College." There are more Black young men in prison than there are in college. But what can be done? There are several methods proposed to reduce racism and promote tolerance. These include education, changing the attitudes of both the "oppressed" and "oppressor"; legal and political change, enforcing equality until it becomes normative behavior; and change to social structures believed to be the root causes of racism. All of these methods include a belief that as more "others" are included in social institutions and power structures, familiarity itself will erode fear and stereotypes.

Individual Change

Some believe that racist behavior stems from racist attitudes and beliefs that can only be changed on the individual level, in individual minds and hearts. Tactics here include public education and changing portrayals of racist minorities in the media, as well as individuals speaking up against demeaning language, jokes, and use of stereotypes, as well as racist violence and racial discrimination. A corollary to changing the attitudes and beliefs of racists is changing the attitudes and beliefs of people who have been targeted by racism, a refusal to accept being demeaned or discriminated against.

Legal and Political Change

Others believe that racist individuals are the product of a racist society; that the legal and political system must be changed first before social and individual change can follow. The great civil rights campaign in the U.S. in the 1950's and 60's was an expression of this. Root Causes Still others search for connecting causes at the root of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, agism, religious intolerance and all other forms of discriminatory behavior, in hopes that addressing the root causes will create the most social change.

Economic Change

One argument proposed by the radical left is that all social discrimination and oppression is the result of an exploitative economic system. Any economic system that creates "Haves" and "Have-Nots" will sooner or later create racist justifications for maintaining the status of the "Haves" over the "Have-Nots." According to some on the radical left, the few who exploit the labor and resources of the many now promote social divisions as a "divide and conquer" strategy. By turning men against women, Blacks against Whites, Christians against Muslims, Arabs against Jews, young against old, etcetera, they disguise the fact that the true battle is Corporations Against Everybody.

By this argument, a truly socialist economic system will result in eliminating racism and all other -isms. Socialists are not the only ones, however, who claim that a different economic/social system will eliminate the evils of racism and other discriminatory practices. Libertarians and the followers of Ayn Rand have claimed that a "Real Capitalism" would eliminate such social evils; Democrats and Republicans both claim that a "Real Democracy" will eliminate racism; the Christian Right claims that a real (i.e. Christian) social morality will eliminate racism; Communists claim that Real Communism will save us and anarchists claim that Real Anarchism will; etcetera. Sin and Salvation A similar argument, one that I identify with as a Pastor, says that all these -isms, like all other social evils, are the result of humankind's sinful nature. The only cure is the salvation of humanity and the establishment of a society based on religious virtue and/or under religious rule. Christians argue for Christianity as the world's salvation, Muslims argue for Islam, and so on. Psychological Healing Those who believe that all discriminatory -isms are rooted in human psychological insecurities believe the way to eliminate all of them is to focus on raising emotionally healthy and secure individuals with high self-esteem who don't need to feel superior to anyone else. For those who are already adults, we should try to understand them and teach them a more healthy way to deal with their fears and emotional needs. Attacking "racists" as "the enemy" only compounds the problem.

Behavioral Therapy

Another argument says that since human beings try to make their beliefs justify their behavior with at least as much (or more) energy than they make their behavior conform to their beliefs, energetically enforcing non-discriminatory behavior on all fronts and making sure that all individuals are exposed to the widest possible variety of human beings and cultures will eventually erode all racist and discriminatory practices and attitudes. This could be called "behavioral therapy for society." Penny Sparrow has stoked ancient fires pitting the Black man against the White man.

I doubt she foresaw the backlash that would ensue following what she thought would be an innocuous and isolated comment by a random stranger in the vast world of social media. How woefully wrong she was! She has unwittingly demonstrated that the hope of a "Rainbow Nation" is just a fantastic myth. South Africa is as racially divided as it was before the ANC assumed power. Granted, gains and strides have been made here and there and a Black man finds himself leading a predominantly White party, but that doesn't change the stubborn facts of entrenched racial attitudes. I hope that not too far away, we can fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'” In the meantime, "His eye is on the sparrow..."

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