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[OPINION] South Africa, actions speak louder than words

The news for the past couple of weeks has been fraught with violent acts of racism and discrimination and then, of course, the institutional more “subtle kind”.

And these are just the events that made it to the media.

My personal life has been fraught with the same challenges as well. And I have once again had to stand face to face with the ugly face of adversity. This is an existential crisis of Olympic proportions and every couple of years it challenges me to go out there and win gold – as I am sure it does for many people of colour.

But this time, something different happened. For the first time, I questioned what it actually means to win gold.

Does it mean to rise and fight and speak? Or does it mean giving up, giving in? Or is it just plainly an act of mental strength? Was it the permission to let myself grow once more, to suffer through the crisis and come out the other side with an extra muscle in my mind?

I gave it some thought, and it was a difficult journey, but I came out the other side with the gold in mental strength - the resilience of not allowing myself to break once more and additional techniques to practice so that that doesn’t happen again. Perhaps getting gold will be easier next time.

"Mental toughness" is described as being strong in the face of adversity. It’s being resilient and focused when faced with difficulties and challenges and not letting these things throw you off centre. Mental toughness is tenacity. It’s a lesson in how to hang on to yourself when you face a devastating blow. It’s emotional armour.

A lot of research has shown that when people of colour are exposed to acts of racism, the repetitive acts over the course of their lives is processed as trauma and this race-based trauma can manifest in different forms – including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Feelings of hopelessness, a state of fear and acute anxiety can further lead to depression. A lot of people of colour take these emotions for granted. We just accept it as the status quo. It is accepted as a natural emotional state in response to a “natural” racialised society and what it means for us to exist in it.

But psychological tests have proven that these feelings can lead to long-term mental illnesses, and those who already suffer from mental illnesses need to be extra careful of confronting the disorders brought on by racism. One of the first pieces of advice when it comes to any other sort of textbook emotional trauma is to “ask for help”.

Other pieces of advice on psychology websites and academic articles advise that the following steps can be taken to deal with this kind of trauma:

  1. Disengage. Disconnect from triggering situations and interaction that may result in the fight or flight response.

  2. When something happens, when you are the victim of racism or acts of discrimination, channel that energy into some physical outlet. Go for a run to let go of some anger.

  3. Eat healthy, breathe deep, get sleep and avoid toxins.

  4. Find or create a community. Reach out with information and share your experiences.

To all of this I say, “What?” Are we just supposed to remove ourselves from society and live in the shadows of silence? Are we not to read the news and engage with events? Should we not go to work, or to restaurants like KFC and Ocean Basket? Should we stop sending our children to schools? Instead, should we spend our time running away from all of this? Physically and mentally?

I can almost assure you that being vegan and doing yoga does not remove the pain of how I have to move through the world every day. And lastly, a lot of our trauma is mostly perpetuated by the fact that when we do share our experiences, when we try to inform and when we engage, we are only faced with more hateful words and acts.

So, in a society where all of this is so standardised, and so… accepted, how can we deal with it? And who, really, is equipped to help us? No one. Only the strength of our own minds. And minds are meant to be spoken.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.

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