I am in an airplane travelling to Vrije University in Amsterdam to teach a seminar at a Summer Institute titled “Working through Historical Trauma: Societal and Transgenerational Dimensions.” I watch the film Race, which chronicles Jesse Owens’ rise during pre-civil rights America from spectacular college athletic wins to a multiple gold medallist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film is uplifting in its portrayal of Owens’ shining legacy—it ends with a breath-taking image of Owens’ character flying high, as if into the sky, in a scene that is a re-enactment of Jesse Owens’ magnificent long jump win at “Hitler’s” Olympics.
Watching the film, I feel a deep sense of sadness when it depicts Owens’ encounters with raw hate and disdainful treatment in his own country. At one point, the film shows Owens’ character with his wife, arriving at a gala dinner organised in his honour. But he is sent away to use the service entrance. The film shows Owens to take all the racially charged insults in his stride. His eyes are fixed on the goal. To achieve it, he has to “crowd out” the noise, as his coach advises him in the film.
Eighty years since the harsh reality of American racism depicted in Race, and more than 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement, racism is still rife in that country. No longer can racism be reduced to mere “noise” that should be “drowned” out. “Black Lives Matter” is the new “Black Power,” a rallying cry for recognition in the face of the seemingly disproportional deadly force used by police on black American male citizens.
Why are we still witnessing the violence of racism, after so many struggles, and after gains made, in America and in South Africa? Yes, “gains”: the segregation of blacks in the United States was outlawed, and the apartheid state collapsed in South Africa and ushered in democratic rule.
A few months ago, I wrote as in one of the Cape daily newspapers: “Racism, it seems, refuses to go away, from the pulpits to the corridors of the corporate world, from the beaches and coursing through the digital sphere, the language of hatred is deepening the divide in our society. I am inclined to think, with Derrick Bell [in his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well] ‘racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component’ of our society.”
I said this because the system of power and control that produced apartheid—and slavery in America—polarised our society into white superiority and black inferiority. It is now reproducing itself through a range of strategies, such as enforcing “cultural values” at institutions of learning. At these centres of education, where blacks and whites study in proximity, there is certain dis-ease among whites who still experience equality with blacks as disruptive and rupturing their sense of identity. Blackness in relation to whiteness has to be constructed as “other,” Frantz Fanon informs us. In order for these white South Africans to feel white, to reaffirm their status of superiority, they have constantly to devalue blacks in whatever way possible.
I was confronted with this countless times at Rhodes University where, through a special permit granted by the apartheid government’s Minister of Education in 1983, I was the only black person doing Masters in Clinical Psychology, and the only other black person (besides the woman offering cleaning services) in the Psychology Department. My encounters with the woman who was department secretary would always end up with her telling me stories about “my maid Sylvia” and John “the Gardner” in a way that used these stories to put me in the same category as her workers. One of my classmates, and the only male student in our class of six, would try to play peekaboo with me. Every morning when he arrived at our offices at the Rhodes Psychology Clinic, instead of greeting me as he did my other classmates, he would hide his face, pop back and peep through the opening between the door and the frame with a broad smile, as if he were playing with his little daughter.
Some may view these examples as inconsequential “personal” stories. But they illustrate a common strategy among whites who struggle with recognising a shared humanity with blacks, or whites who struggle to accept black people’s status of seniority or equality. Equality with blacks shatters their sense of how they see themselves: as members of a group imbued with a sense of racial superiority.
The tragic aspect of this is that this belief system may be transmitted from the previous generation, and it operates at an unconscious level. Eva Hoffman, literary scholar and child of Holocaust survivors, refers to this phenomenon as “indirect knowledge.” The paradoxes of indirect knowledge, she writes, “haunt many of us who came after. The formative events of the twentieth century have crucially informed our biographies and psyches, threatening sometimes to overshadow and overwhelm our own lives.”
If racism moves across generations, is internalised into individual psyches, and manifests through spoken words, through institutional cultures and structures of power and control, what is to be done to “eradicate” it? The first step is to recognise this reality, that it is alive in some people and exists at a very deep level. The second step is confronting the problem—I think we underestimate the power of dialogue. I have wondered whether the language of rage without reflection is suited to redressing the contemporary challenges we face in our country, and whether rage and anger alone will help build the kind of future that we will not be afraid to face. Frantz Fanon writes about the violence of decolonisation; we have also witnessed the violence that continues to plague our post-colonial continent. Yet Fanon challenges us to imagine a more humane world. He speaks about the need for “an authentic communication”—understanding through dialogue—between black and white.
“Both must turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors,” he writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “in order that authentic communication be possible… Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply the attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself.”
We may not succeed in “eradicating” racism. Racial proximity at schools, universities, the corporate sector and in churches has proved insufficient on its own as a strategy for inspiring change and transformation. In order for racial integration to lead to shifts that may open up the possibility for transformation, the “diversity” training offered at these institutions should go beyond teaching about prejudice and stereotypes. What matters are opportunities for genuine human connection and respectful understanding that can transform dialogue into a profound ethics of care that reaches concern for the other and for issues of social justice.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.