What Biko would have told young black people about racism
Biko did not say black is right; he said black is beautiful
When a white Randburg teacher was recorded telling black school pupils that they were “idiots” who did not achieve academically and had “only invented peanut butter”, I braced myself for the inevitable. The recorded message would be posted on social media, outrage would fan across the country, the teacher would be called all kinds of vile names, and there would be a call for his head. This Hoërskool Burger educator, of course, joined a growing list of white South African adults from estate agents to fellow teachers who had recently written their names into infamy with their naked racism.
But the visceral reaction from us as black South Africans has me puzzled. Why are we so easily rattled by idiots such as this teacher? This was the question I posed to my Stellenbosch University colleague, Professor Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, a world expert on trauma studies. After all, we are a black majority country in full control of our social institutions and in growing control of our economy. Racists could be dragged before criminal courts and human rights agencies. And most importantly we could speak back with authority and dignity and make the offender feel the searing heat of their racism. Except we seem to fall apart and fall all over each other in the rush to point the finger down the throat of the racist.It struck me from the discussion with my colleague that in the 1970s we had internal resources that fortified us against such acts of racism whether institutional or personal. Our standard bearers were people like Steve Biko and Neville Alexander. Biko said that “black is beautiful” and afros sprouted on the heads of black students as statements of independence, self-confidence and pride. Alexander once told me: “Biko did not say black is right; he said black is beautiful,” and with that the Robben Islander taught me both to be self-critical and to be proud.These two black men, among many others, stand out in history because they were confident in themselves. Racist policemen in the Eastern Cape could not bend Biko and a decade on Robben Island made Alexander even more committed in his radicalism. Their confidence stemmed from a conviction deep within themselves that they were not defined by the racist but by their own sense of human worth. And they certainly did not come apart at the seams because of the idiocy of ignorant, racist whites. Rather, they were unperturbed by these morons and went on to achieve at the highest level, the one pursuing a medical degree and the other achieving a PhD in German Literature from the University of Tübingen.
To them the racist was small, diminished and insignificant. To give the idiot undeserved attention was to descend to his level of debasement. They knew who they were as proud black men and they had an understanding of the kind of society that produced such depraved individuals. In other words, they were also men of intellect whose ideas and ideals about society (Black Consciousness for Biko and radical socialism for Alexander) made them enlightened thinkers rather than mere reactors to racial depravity.I sense that the current generation of black young people lacks that sense of dignity, pride and self-worth that the education and commitments of the Bikos and Alexanders instilled. As a result, the only thing contemporary young people can do is respond with explosive anger because they do not have the internal resources — emotional, spiritual, psychological and intellectual — to swat away these racists like unwelcome flies.
The irony is that when we disintegrate in anger the racist laughs; he has won. He has shown his power to disturb us, to affect us deeply with his hurtful invective. His anger about black advancement at his expense, or so he reasons, finds a ready reaction from the angry target. And that is why he does it again and again and again. It works, in other words.
I realised early on as a young parent returning to South Africa after studies abroad that I would not be able to protect my children against every act of racism. I knew they would encounter such vile acts from Johannesburg to Durban to Pretoria, where they attended school, and in Cape Town where the extended family lived. What I could do, however, was to prepare them with such a strong sense of themselves that when these ugly things happened, it would not disturb them. I could instil in them not black pride, this side of apartheid, but a profound sense of their human worth, so much so that their response to the racist was to pity the depraved idiot.