As a therapist, I am most interested in understanding the cause and effect (both negative and positive) of people’s ways of coping. While everyone copes (or defends) in the best way they know how, these ways of coping are not necessarily the best ways available.
It is fair to say that underlying any form of racism is fear. And last week in South Africa, it was almost impossible to say anything about racism without opening up a discussion about the student documentary, LUISTER.
The documentary laid bare the struggles of 32 black students on Stellenbosch University’s predominantly white, Afrikaans-speaking campus.
If we disregard the blatant name-calling, harassment and other differential treatment of black students reported in the documentary, the viewer gets a clear sense of how language (specifically Afrikaans in this case) becomes a “subtle” marker of race.
In the context of the film, language becomes a demographic variable through which racial exclusion – and its counterpart, racial inclusion – operates.
Racism and racial inclusion/exclusion is a complex and multifaceted process that interacts with various forms of racism in order to fortify its hold on social systems. The term “structural racism” is one form of racism that I believe is particular relevant to part of what is described in the film.
The US Center for Social Inclusion offers the following definition of structural racism:
“Structural racism is the silent opportunity killer. It is the blind interaction between institutions, policies, and practices that inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities. Conscious and unconscious racism continue to exist in our society. But structural racism feeds on the unconscious. Public and private institutions and individuals each build a wall. They do not necessarily build the wall to hurt people of color, but one wall is joined by another until they construct a labyrinth from which few can escape. They have walled in whole communities.”
Stellenbosch University’s language policy illustrates one way in which structural racism operates and how language and language use is never value-neutral.
LUISTER becomes another important text for South Africans to reflect on and offers the opportunity to broaden the discussion around racism, its devastating consequences, and dismantling.
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Fred Walter is a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist offering short and longer term therapy to adolescents and adults.