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[OPINION] Agrizzi: The confessions of a racist

We watched a movie the other night after receiving a recommendation from my partner’s dad: A Bronx Tale. The film was based on a play about the relationship between an Italian boy and his father, desperate to warn him away from the mafia boss who hangs out on the corner.

The film takes place in the 60s and hatred amongst Italians and African Americans is rife. The boy is faced with a moral dilemma when he falls in love with a black student. You want him to be a good guy. You want love to win. And then, in the heat of the moment, when the student’s brother accuses the lead of participating in a racial attack, the boy shouts at him: F&&k off you n&&&a.

It’s clear, his implicit bias cannot be erased by the pulling of heart strings. No love will undo that word. The movie had a happy ending, so to speak, but the ending wasn’t happy enough for us to forget the harsh truth: If he was pushed to use that word in the first place, if his racism emerged so quickly, how many times would it emerge again after that and was his racism excused just because he was in a relationship with a black woman? I can one hundred percent guarantee you that he thought it is - “I’m not racist, I have a black girlfriend”. Incorrect.

Earlier this week, Angelo Agrizzi, former Bosasa COO, sat once more in front of the Zondo Commission, knee-deep in testimony. In an audio recording, listeners could hear Agrizzi meeting with his family members and Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson. It wasn’t long before Agrizzi’s bulky voice could be heard bellowing the K-word.

First the former COO said he was coaxed into saying the word so that meeting members could purposefully discredit him. Then, he admitted: “I am embarrassed and ashamed of myself,” he said. “I am a racist, I agree.”

Racism lives in the racial slur. It sits there and breeds injuries, and a valuable product of these injuries is that of an elevated white status. It’s why powerful white people instituted racism to begin with. To bolster whiteness and assuage wounds of class within the white race itself. It’s how indentured Irish labourers (white) maintained a higher status than enslaved black people in the US in the 1680s. You see, white power compensated white poverty with mental reparations. The “wage of whiteness”, as W.E.B Du Bois put it, and the wage of whiteness means that even if you have an interracial shared economic interest, black can never coalesce with white because white is better.

What better way to appositely house a rather complex strategy than with one word: N&&&a, or in South Africa, k&&&&r. Or c&&&&e for the Indian. Or b&&&y for the coloured. Really, there’s a dictionary. It says all of the above and much more about those who weaponise it without them having to understand too much. Part of the equation of that understanding is admitting you are, in fact, a racist. Like Agrizzi. But does he really understand?

After Agrizzi’s confession, EFF chairperson Dali Mpofu tweeted that Agrizzi’s admittance of racism was many steps ahead of “millions” of South Africans who were racists, but in “denial”. I have to agree here. I do not applaud it, but I agree with it. I have written many times, I would rather deal with an open racist than a closeted one in denial. If you show me your colours and conviction, I know what I am dealing with. Will I congratulate you for your racist convictions? No. But admittedly, you will earn my respect, we can’t deny that there’s something to be said about honesty.

US author Robin DiAngelo penned the book 'White Fragility' and in it she discusses why white people get defensive about being called racists, or deny racism as a whole. “Addressing racism makes many white people feel anger, fear and guilt, which leads to denial, minimization and defensiveness, even though racism inevitably touches everyone,” she writes. “No one, no one can escape the messages of white superiority,” she adds, writing that the reflex to shut down conversations about racism helps keep it alive. We have a great example in this in another avid denialist and trigger-happy Twitter user, Ernst Roets, who doesn’t pretend to be a progressive, but who won’t openly state his racism either.

White people are everywhere. They are in our work places, our social spaces, our banks and our buildings. There is no way that their implicit bias will not affect us in some way. Regardless of any degree of confidence, they cannot deny their racism, even though they try. But trying is only proof that excuses and ignorance are not innocent and complacency is not a victimless crime.

“I’m not finding excuses,” Agrizzi said after the recording was played. “I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed of myself for ever doing that. I am a racist. I agree. Judge me on that,” he said. And then he added: “It’s fine.” Judging him is fine? – It’s not fine.

I’m pretty sure that by giving the commission permission to judge him, Agrizzi thought he was offering himself us as some sort of humble martyr. Being “nice” in a way. Ready to fall at the hands of the Human Rights Commission – which is being argued for as well now. But being nice will never be the same as being brave. Eating humble pie is a strategy that will not strike racism off the record. In fact, all it does it keep racism wrapped neatly in its sleeve, when all we really want to do is play it on full blast and hear its faults. Let the record scratch.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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