God's Word for today

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Playing the "race card"

On a more serious note, though, I’m currently working through an issue that I’ve been struggling with for some time.  Now that I am on a much-needed break after a hectic term at seminary, and with my family being up in Johannesburg for two weeks, I am enjoying a bit of time spent just chilling out, relaxing, and watching the occasional movie on TV.

This past Saturday I watched a rather thought-provoking film called "Crash".  I can't really remember too much about the storyline, since it was quite complicated and, being late, I was quite tired, but what kept my interest going (apart from the presence of my girlfriend, Sandra Bullock **) was the way in which the film portrayed the whole dynamic of race relations.

In one particular scene, a politician (I can't remember if he was a senator or a city official, but that's not important) had his car hijacked.  The difficulty that he faced, however, was that he was white, and the hijackers were black.  Being a high-profile public figure, the incident would soon become public knowledge, and his dilemma was that if he mentioned the fact that the perpetrators were black, it would be turned into a race issue, whereas if he did not mention this, he would be seen as being soft on crime (I haven't quite fathomed out why this would be the case, but then again, I didn't write the movie!).

Another scene involved a well-to-do black couple being pulled over by the traffic police, who were white.  Because this appeared to be a routine stop, the husband (who was driving) made every attempt to co-operate, but his wife (who had had a bit to drink) got a bit agitated with the cops.  Unfortunately, the cops then reacted quite aggressively, with the one cop using the cover of a search for weapons to frisk the wife in, shall we say, an inappropriately sexual manner.  Once again, this incident could be put down to an inappropriate (and abusive) response to a drunken overreaction, except for the respective race of the parties involved.

Then on Sunday night I watched "Ali", starring Will Smith, which was about boxer Muhammad Ali's life story, and once again the issue of race was prominent, given that Ali's boxing prime coincided with the years of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

So where am I going with this?  Well, I've been encountering difficulties in this area quite a bit lately, caused mainly by the fact that race complicates things - especially in South Africa, given our country's history.  For example, if two white guys have an argument with each other, it's called a disagreement.  If two black guys have an argument, it's also called a disagreement.  But if a white guy and a black guy have an argument, it's seen as racist.

Unfortunately, race ends up becoming the deciding issue.  You can't criticise the performance of a person who is of a different colour, because that is racist.  Your preference for using your own vehicle instead of the bus (because you need to be back at a specific time) is seen as racist.  Using examples of people who happen to be of a particular race in a presentation is seen to be motivated by racism.  Wanting to worship in a style in which you are comfortable, in a language you understand, is racist.  Even your taste in music is defined according to race!

The result of this is that you end up walking on eggs.  Because you don't want to be branded as a racist, the temptation is to behave in such a way that completely denies who you are and what you stand for.  And I find this unbelievably frustrating – probably because I'm a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy who values the intellectual freedom to speak his mind.  If something is wrong, then it's wrong, regardless of whether the action is carried out by a white person, black person, or bright-green-with-purple-spots person.  I also believe that, to use a tennis analogy, if I hammer a serve at someone and they respond with a good return, I should be able to take it.  So if I am the one in the wrong and therefore deserve to get my backside kicked, I should be prepared to accept it.  And this should be able to happen without someone reaching into their wallet and whipping out their "race card" because the point of conflict happens to be between people of different races.

The other problem I have is that, given South Africa's history, the idea has developed in some quarters that only one race group (i.e. whites) is capable of racism.  But while I don’t want to get into a pointless debate about which group is more racist than the others, or one about “who started it”, the truth of the matter is that, deep down, we are all racist.  I’m racist.  I'm not proud of this fact, and it’s something I’m working very hard to overcome (by the grace of God), but when you grow up in a society that is defined by race, this is not only difficult, it also takes time.  It was, after all, only once I’d turned 18 (and became a Christian) that I encountered people of different races for the first time as peers (first at university, later in the workplace, and now within the Church).

But the recent debate in the media about the use of certain words and slogans is a case in point.  The ANC has recently gone on record stating that the slogan “Kill the Boer – kill the farmer” should not constitute “hate speech” in terms of South Africa’s constitution.  This one baffles me.  Never mind any arguments about “context” – surely any slogan in which one chants words pronouncing death on a particular person or group (irrespective of whoever that person or group may be) is a form of hate speech?  If people had to go around chanting “Kill Steven Jones” in a song, I would certainly see this as an act of hatred towards me.  Yet commenting on the ANC Youth League president’s inappropriate behaviour is seen as hate speech?  The mind boggles!

One thing that I have observed is that when one encounters relationships where both parties are secure in who they are, race is no longer an issue apart from being a good source of humour, especially when it comes to my total lack of rhythm!  The key to such relationships, to use a rugby analogy (what makes you think I like sport?), is to make sure that you always play the ball – never the man!  Mature relationships create space even for the occasional rush of blood to the head, without such encounters being seen as an attack on the person.  If someone’s acting like an idiot, it has nothing to do with heir colour – it simply because they’re acting like an idiot!

The sad thing for me, though, is that although I have never encountered issues with race in the world of academia or in the workplace, it has been a problem for me in the Church – the one place where we should truly understand what it means to be “neither male or female; Roman or Greek; Jew or Gentile”.  In fact, I have had more issues around race since entering the ministry than at any other time in my life.

Perhaps we need to get to a point where we can all agree to suspend the use of labels, and truly commit to addressing issues rather than people.  When we can discuss issues of race without being labelled as racist.  And perhaps then we can feel free to be ourselves, enjoy our particular preferences and cultures, speak our own languages, and worship in our own styles without being excluding or feeling excluded, and without our motives being questioned that these things are based on race.  Nine times out of ten, race is not the issue at all.

** PS: My wife fully understands and accepts the infatuation that I have with Ms Bullock – after all, she harbours similar feelings towards Cliff Richard (sorry, love – SIR Cliff Richard!), with 21 Cliff CD’s bearing testimony to her devotion.  However, seeing as Sir Cliff is 30 years older than my wife, and happens to live in England, I guess she’ll have to make do with me!  Unfortunately for me Ms Bullock happens to be white, so I guess that makes me racist (at least until Halle Berry’s next film comes out).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello Steven,

I am answering a call to ministry and came across your blog by accident... (is there such a thing?)

I wanted to chat to you about your experiences at SMMS and your journey in general. I have to make the decision in July about my next steps and would value a dialogue with someone of 'an age' who has been through the process.

If you're ok answering a couple of questions or 10, would you mail me at: philippa@musgravemethodist.co.za.