A few days ago, I wrote about the incident in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Free University involving a video of black students being humiliated by white students. The fallout from the video continues to roil the university and the country as a whole according to reports from South Africa. One blogger (affiliated with the BBC) writes that there is a “lot of soul searching in South Africa” right now and then poses this question:
In a country anxious to shed it’s divisive past, is this just another example that society can never really be totally rid of racism?
The responses (13 so far and the post just went up earlier today) suggest a resounding pessimism about the possibility of eliminating racism, and it’s one I’ve encountered in my classes when I teach about racism. I can’t begin to count the number of undergraduate essays I’ve marked which begin with some variation on: “Racism has always existed.” Uhm, no. “That’s simply not correct,” I invariably write in the margins of such papers. Racism as an ideology emerged at a specific historical period as a justification for the practices of global capitalism at the time known as colonialism and the slave trade (See for example, Snowden, Before Color Prejudice). By asking the question in this way: “Can you ever rid society of racism?” you leave open the possibility that the answer is “no,” as most of those 13 people commenting suggest. I think we can do better, frankly. Instead, let’s ask: “How can we dismantle racism given how persistent it seems?” The answer you get depends on the question you ask.