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Toxic racial attitudes begin in the home

Pupils from Bishops displayed ‘elitist’ behaviour at a rugby match against Wynberg Boys’ High School. File photo.
Pupils from Bishops displayed ‘elitist’ behaviour at a rugby match against Wynberg Boys’ High School. File photo.
Image: Bishops via Facebook

Dear white SA parent. We need to talk. Again.

Two recent incidents once again drawn attention to the racism and classism that children bring into schools and universities.

A group of boys from Bishops threw stacks of R2 coins at supporters of Wynberg Boys after losing a rugby match. That there were lots of coins means this was pre-planned.

Some parents swear this has happened before.

Having visited and spoken at both schools, the message is clear.

You are less than us, you public school boys. You are inferior to us rich private schoolchildren.

You suck, in children’s parlance.

Where do you think those children got these stinking attitudes about social class from?

On the other side of the country, at a boys’ hockey match between two super-wealthy private schools, Michaelhouse and St Johns, a white boy from the Midlands school let fly with a racial slur against a black boy from the Johannesburg school.

The word got out and the annual derby between the two schools was promptly cancelled.

The white boy was suspended pending further investigation.

Where do you think that child got those filthy racial attitudes from?

I know. It’s not your child. Think again.

These kinds of aggressions happened all the time in white schools; I hesitate to say “former white schools” because a minority of black students, virtually no black permanent teachers and an entrenched white culture hardly makes these institutions “former” anything, as we showed in our book, Who Gets In and Why? (UCT Press 2020).

Your child is part and parcel of the class privilege that sneers at the poor and the racial privilege that sparks “white flight” when black enrolments reach a tipping point.

You know what I’m talking about.

The reason your child grows up with deformed attitudes about race and class is a foundational problem; that is, something that starts in the home.

It’s who they see among your trusted friends at the braai, in the church and on the family outing.

It’s the racial content of what dad says about the corrupt black politician when his face appears on television.

It is about how you speak to the domestic worker or the gardener in earshot of the children.

It is the kinds of books you bring into the house that confirms whiteness through the content and the characters represented.

It is the silences in the home when racial atrocities happen.

It is your observed body language when you drive with your child past the beggar at the robots.

It is the lies you tell over the dinner table about how you got your wealth — no sense of unearned racial privilege, you just worked hard for what you have, compared to the rest of us.

Here’s how not to reason when the charge of racism comes to your school or to your home.

“My son has black friends” or “I speak a black language”.

That is an embarrassing response which is at once meaningless and patronising.

Familiarity is not friendship. Rapport and resentment can coexist comfortably in interracial relations.

Intimacy, as our research also showed, can be a catalyst for violent conflict in contexts of unequal racial and class relationships.

Neither should you ever utter that other senseless phrase common among white SA parents: “I am not a racist.”

Those empty words usually springs from the misconception that racism is offensive language such as using the “K” or “H” or “C” word depending on your target of choice. Not so.

Racism (or classism) is much more than words; it is an superior attitude, a set of beliefs, an ensemble of practices that express white supremacy in your home and in your school.

Let’s make this simple. There are still many of you who have separate crockery and utensils for your black workers.

Most of you fight tooth and nail against having your child in the class of the only black teacher in the school.

Why? Because deep in your heart you simply cannot accept that a black teacher can be as good or better than a white teacher.

All of this can happen without every using a racist or classist word.

Unfortunately, white schools often reinforce rather than counter foundational bigotry learnt in the home.

I still remember how a white Bishops principal insulted me in front of my marketing team by making it clear I could not address the boys to present the University of the Free State to them as another option for degree studies.

His boys go to UCT or overseas, he told me.

More recently I visited Wynberg Girls to drop off one of my books for a teacher I was mentoring.

Dressed in jeans and cap, my face covered by a mask, I was happily anonymous.

I will never forget the haughty, snobbish ways in which one of the secretaries — a coloured woman — addressed me that day.

No greeting, no approach (she stayed in her chair at a distance), but a very loud “do you have an appointment” as if I were deaf.

By the way, in these kinds of institutions, coloured people often feel they must be more white than the whites to justify their access to these privileged spaces.

In short, your children are not the problem.  They bring to school (and university) a set of poisonous beliefs and destructive attitudes they learnt from their parents, and, sadly, keep learning from their teachers.

School leaders should stop pretending they are “shocked” or blame “a minority” when these incidents break out in public.

That is precisely why destructive performances of race and class will reoccur.

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