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Thoughts on Racism

When I was in my last year of high school, in the final year of school, growing up in a segregated, divided and pained South Africa I went on a school trip to an arts festival in Grahamstown. And there I saw street kids for the very first time. Freezing, starving, black children begging for money, or hope, or some semblance of dignity beneath the full moon. High on glue to keep the cold at bay. And I remember being shocked to my very core. For my whole life I had been protected from seeing this reality, privileged by the accidental coincidence that the colour of my skin - something that is entirely beyond anyone's control or influence - granted me benefits I had not earned or deserved.

At school, I studied history with a wonderful teacher who constantly reminded us that history was written by the victors, and policies made by the powerful for their own benefit. I was lucky enough to have teachers that allowed fierce debate about the ethics of apartheid and the implications of racism. Thank you Mrs Shepherd and Ms Edwards, wherever you are. My first frisson of the absolute immorality of racism (and apartheid, the system I was privileged by) came from a story I read in junior school. I don’t remember it – but I do remember the little black boy standing on the edge of the playground while white kids cavorted down slides and on swings, unable to enter and just wanting to be able to play too. Even now I can’t bare the pain in that simple image. But seeing those kids in the streets of Grahamstown moved it from theory to reality.

I don’t understand racism, and I grew up surrounded by it. I know people are taught it, and I know it plays on implicit cognitive biases around preferring people we are familiar with. But I also know some people take pride in their racism. Smart people, smug and stupid in their lack of compassion, lack of humanity, lack of perspective. They are deplorable and shameful, and of course deeply ignorant.

There is no doubt at all that we are one species – a single species with shared ancestors. We are foundationally the same, we share the same mother line, we all come from the same place, ironically, the Great Rift Valley in Africa. We share the same dreams and hopes, we fear and suffer and laugh and experience joy and sadness. We have the same impulses, the same longings, the same love for our children, the same pain at breakups and the same hopes for giving our kids more opportunities than we had.

And we are all capable of thought, of awareness, of recognising the idiocies of entrenched positions and the luck of privilege. I say all knowing full well that some people sit on the extreme of mentally inflexibility and are seemingly incapable of empathy. But most of us, the vast majority of us, have the hardware that allows us to rethink our perspective, even if the software needs updating.

I also recognise that we are all tribal. Groupishness is inbuilt and our evolution, which has not been one of globalised interconnectedness of different groups of people, has made it even more so. Responding violently to the other is not only a human trait. And we are fearful of the other, at a cellular level. Its how our immune systems work. Even bacteria attacks unfamilar bacterias (thank you, anti-biotics). Chimps will hunt down and tear a chimp from another group limb from limb if it strays into their territory.

But we have something that bacteria and chimps do not have, we have the power of reflection. We have the power of cognition, and moreover, metacognition. We have the power to think about the nature of our thoughts, and to investigate them. We have the mental and social capabilities to build systems and institutions and cultures that hack our instincts, our cognitive biases, our groupishness, to create nations that value all their citizens, in all their diverse wonder - diverse histories, cultures, sexualities, interests and abilities. We can and do build those systems. It is possible. We have to want and demand it. And we can.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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