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OPINION: Racism will not ‘come right’ by itself

Racism shows up in thoughts, words and deeds. Every day.

After our six-year-old son had a stroke, we were advised to enrol him at a school for learners with physical disabilities. My shock and shame poured onto the messenger, a seasoned special needs teacher. It was easier making her wrong, than dealing with what that implied for me: What would people say? How will I look? Surely he will 'come right'?

Two years later he swam against the tide, a small fish in a big pond. Only once his wellbeing was threatened did I explore a school for differently abled. He was disappointed, "It looks like a hospital, mom". His current private school was the lap of the luxury, large spaces of lush greenery, airy classrooms where everyone felt safe, free and mostly contained from the mainstream schooling crisis. Soon, we knew it was the best thing for him. He fitted the school like the big fish he is. With the necessary support and therapies he participated in sport for the physically challenged. He represented our province at national championships. The lesson we learned is that disabled is not unable.

Unravelling racism, prejudice and fears will require a similar process of acceptance and awareness. His physical disability got him the opportunity, his willingness, commitment and a supportive environment helped him reach his potential. His sense of wellbeing in a society where different is not safe, he has now set his sights on a driver's license and a waterfront apartment.

Being able to see the potential of every other person, irrespective of skin colour and our perceptions about their ability, is a choice we make. Our stereotypes inform our opinion about everybody we see, so we block ourselves from experiencing who they are. Our thoughts are framed by our life experiences and are involuntary; we do get to choose how we feel though. Being aware of this can change how we show up in the world, giving us an opportunity to meet some people for the first time, though we have known them for a long time.

In South Africa everybody born before 1994 was received into the environmental hazard of legislated racism. Everybody born post 1994 was born free, but is not free because elections do not make us non-racial, the aftermath of apartheid design strewn everywhere. The rainbow nation has no black or white. We have to build a non-racial South Africa. I prefer multi-racial where we are acknowledged, not punished, for our back story. Racism will not 'come right' by itself. It needs support, understanding, remedies. The wounds still ooze. It is part of us; we get to choose which part.

When someone publically calls their spade a spade in the form of a racist rant, people point out "that racist!". How dare they voice a resentment, frustration and now unacceptable behaviour. Seldom do I encounter people calling racism out in private, at a braai, a dinner table, a sports event standing around with other parents. This is where we need courage, to enrol someone into the possibility of their racism. Most people take offence, no matter how you raise it. The silence is loud and awkward.

We can't only be offended by racism; we must repair the damage to take away its power. Public outbursts are opportunities to listen and teach each other. Instead, people get the backlash of the public, whipped through social media; there is no return from the persecution. Who wins there? Racism does. This is an overflow from people thrust into an unfamiliar environment with new rules of engagement: A student given a much sought after scholarship to Oxford is to some a lost opportunity; a beach shared with multiracial bathers; a job market where the competition is proportionately tougher than it was; and adults who have to look overseas for job opportunities. The list is endless.

We have to examine our fear. What will happen if we agree that racism is in our DNA, like an unwanted familial disease? It is our disability, but doesn't make us unable. It makes us uneasy because some of us feel ashamed, some feel owed, some feel unable to fix it, some feel exposed, some prefer how it used to be and some want reconciliation and to create a new future. None of these feelings can be acknowledged without dealing with our racism.

We are at a critical time in South Africa, again. Citizens can actively channel frustrations, disappointments, wishes, demands, in useful and inclusive ways. We have a National Development Plan, natural and other resources, a Constitution and resilient people. Let us acknowledge racism as our special need, let's look there and see our opportunity to heal from its limitations. Will it be uncomfortable? Yes. It will also inform how we leave this country for our children. Proudly South African is possible. The rainbow? Not so much.

It is naive that people don't understand that we can all fathom where racism comes from. It's easier to take the self-righteous freeway, than the potholed, dangerous path that needs to be resurfaced. Some effortlessly conclude that they are not racist. I suggest that we would prefer not to be. Sadly, the system we were born into predisposes us. Some in thought, some in deed. Our country's infrastructure was designed deliberately to favour the minority over the majority. This is visible in spatial planning, most people are displaced, other than working in the city and suburbs, and they are not seen or heard. We keep our noses above water, furiously treading to survive racism. We are in an abnormal society, where the majority were legally oppressed and disenfranchised.

When we confront racism, as I had to do with the physical disability of my son, it is unglamorous. But it draws less attention and brings relief and freedom to those who acknowledge it.

Many are unwillingly racist. When we are aware, we can curb our thoughts and deal with our feelings. When aggravated by a taxi driver, for example, race won't have to be part of your ire; lack of respect for road rules is where the focus should be.

After apartheid, some were elated or petrified at the looming recoup of the family jewels. Tins of tuna and preparation for violence and refuge were made. New rules for everyone, open racism became a no: all protected by an internationally renowned Constitution.

The reality is that none of us had had to deal with democracy before. Instead of locking arms and working it out together, we clenched our teeth and fists. The people who always had rights realised what a big deal it was going to be to have to share that. The people who were previously without rights didn't know what to do with their new rights. All of us unskilled in the practise of freedom. Shock and shame covered all parties. The system was not designed to carry so many people, infrastructure started malfunctioning. The bottleneck saw our tireless leaders putting out fires through trial and error.

We got a lot of things right, but this is about racism. Instead of using the past as building blocks for a collective future, everything was collapsed into a series of blame, excuses, frustration. The resentment between the haves and have nots fuelled by unmet expectations.

Until we change this fight from 'us and them', to 'us and racism', it will rage. We can address racism by being a person in another person's shoes. I am because you are.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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