‘Treating everybody as if they are the same is racist’

White people inherit privilege unwillingly from South Africa’s history and our culture, a system that is skewed to their advantage.

This is according to a column penned by academic, Scott Burnett, on BusinessDay, which argues that real racism inheres in a system that keeps whites at the top of the socioeconomic pile.

“The everyday way to keep blacks down can seem quite banal: agreeing on the job panel that the black candidate doesn’t have the ‘communication skills’ for the leadership position, or that your shoppers would rather see a white face on the poster, because Marketing 101.

“Racism is also secretly thinking your security Whatsapp group is right to share photos of the dark-skinned undesirables on your street, but never wondering why you don’t see the white friends who visit you similarly photographed and shamed,” Burnett said.

“Sometimes you can keep blacks down by treating everybody as if they were the same. When most black people still have to work harder and sacrifice more than most white people to compete in an open market, real fairness does not consist in creating the illusion of an ‘open opportunity society’. Failing to intervene is basic complicity in a racist system,” the academic said.

He said that white South Africans should stop denying the simple asymmetry involved in antiblack racism: if you do not inhabit a black body, your opinion on whether something you did or said was antiblack racist is just not that relevant.

He noted that a similar asymmetry applies to sexist acts.

“We should stop pretending we are also owed redemption, forgiveness or moral purity. If there is one thing that has unravelled Madiba magic it is white people who have remained complicit in an unjust system walking around as if it was their right to be forgiven, telling black people who remind them of injustice that they are somehow stuck in the past,” Burnett said in his opinion article.

“Being called a racist hurts. But if you are a white person in South Africa, even a foreign white recently arrived, you are participating in a racist system. You are benefiting from a privilege you didn’t really ask for.”

He said that white people should be working every day to dismantle that system because it is your advantage that indicts you, more so than the sins of your ancestors. “And you will still not escape your privilege,” he said.

“And yet this weight is nothing compared with the weight that people who are on the receiving end of racism have to deal with every day,” Burnett said.

Burnett was responding to a column published by Gareth van Onselen on 20 November., entitled: The great South African nondebate.

Burnett has an MSc Philosophy & Public Policy and is a PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies.

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‘Treating everybody as if they are the same is racist’