Emerging from a past of racial discrimination and prejudice, one of the hopes for a new South Africa is that young people will be born and grow up in a society where they are simply human beings rather than being racialised human beings. There is a hope that our children will escape the scourge of racial profiling and live in a non-racial society.
This assumption is ill-informed and dangerous because we fail to see that our children are being raised in communities and homes where racism is still part of their experience. As a high school teacher, I interact with young people everyday and I have been aghast and appalled at the level of prejudice amongst them. I have been confronted with sexism and racism from children that have been dubbed as the “born-free generation” in South Africa. Most of the time these comments are said in jest and the humour is meant to shroud the racial undertones. These are the children who know nothing of apartheid except what is written in history books. However, they are not interested in history and what it means for their future. They do however experience the backlash of apartheid South Africa and this is prevalent in their conversations and how they relate to one another.
I recently had a conversation with Grade 8 girls who openly and crudely racially classified themselves as black and because of their blackness, they choose to be rebellious. They misbehave and show a lack of interest in their work and have a bad attitude towards others who aren’t part of their group. They openly give in to the pressure of being cliquely and only hang out with other black girls in their grade. They have a mob mentality and they attribute this to the fact that they are black in a school that is not racially diverse—where racial diversity means having more white people in our school. Their identity is complex and revolves around their idea of what it means to be black in relation to being white and coloured. They define their role in the school in relation to an abstract idea of what it would mean if there were more white learners at the school. These teenagers are hardly 14 years old; younger than South Africa’s democracy but their attitudes show me that the “born free” generation is not free but part of a racist society where they are willing participants in negative racial stereotyping where white is seen as better and black is seen as negative.
My learners’ attitudes about race speak to the need to challenge the way we perceive blackness and whether it’s possible to address non-racialism without acknowledging the current racism. The idea that children will become colour blind because we do not talk about race or simply eschew the need to talk about people being black or white assumes that race will go away over time. The challenge with the ideas I’m presenting here is that the complexities about race are always centred around the question of being black or white without the nuances of other identity markers that people choose to take on. In South Africa, we have a limited discourse about race where it’s about being black or white that we can’t move onto other possibilities about what it means to be in the world. We treat race markers as though people wake up in the morning and the first thing they think of is “I’m black”.
This always leaves me wondering about what non-racialism means. Do we ignore and obliterate racial markers or engaging them so we can find new meanings about our way of being in the world? Or do we question race in its crude form as was the case with the Black Consciousness Movement?