“It all started when I was 13,” said Basil who lives in Cape Town and happens to be black. “I was at a water fun park when these white kids started calling me very offensive racist names.”
A nearby lifeguard, a black lady, offered an explanation to him: “It’s because you look different.”
Basil Mlungisi Booysen, who is now 25, claims those words radically effected his teenage life. It was only after that incident that he became conscious of his skin colour.
What followed was years of a low self-esteem, feeling like a second-class citizen, wondering how he is seen by others. He began to question why, at least to his eyes, “white and coloured people were sometimes called pretty but black people never”.
His outlook towards white people also changed. He didn’t want to befriend them.
He began to make sense of another incident that had happened a year before when he was called names at the fun park. As he was walking with a friend down to a beach, a couple of miles away from his home, a policeman stopped them and questioned where they were heading.
“It’s not a place for you” he told the boys as if trying to protect them from the white surfers on the beach. But Basil, who was then aware of apartheid but convinced it was all over, didn’t think much of it.
“We are going to the beach and you are taking up our time officer. Good day,” he quipped.
While most teens deal with the usual stresses related to social life, academic pressures or hormone development, all carrying risks of depressive bouts, Basil at 13 became aware of yet another “layer of life” as he calls it: racism. Despite never experiencing any violent attack, the verbal abuse at the fun park at that young age was impactful enough.
Fortunately, Basil, who comes from a working-class close-knit family, managed to set his thinking and self-esteem back in order eight years later when he reached 21.
Some people do not even know they are harbouring racist tendencies- Malcolm Scerri Ferrante
His parents reminded him for the umpteenth time that he shouldn’t let the world define his worth and that he is beautiful and talented.
“At that point, at that age, I felt most comfortable with who I am and my appearance. I felt it was time for change, for bettering myself.”
But not everyone is so lucky to overcome verbal racist abuses during childhood. Also, many teenagers experience racism in other harsher forms.
Basil admits that today he is somewhat passive-aggressive towards some white people whenever he spots any behaviour and thinking that clearly stems out of racism. Otherwise, he grew up to become a humble, gentle lad with excellent manners and a full-time job. He is adamant of one rule, that to never look down on another human being.
There is no question black people have endured injustices and prejudices for many a lifetime, to the point that the situation became ‘normalised’. As famous Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri puts it, “Racism is the perception that one race is superior to another.”
And for racism to be real, there has to be power. Okri believes that every people, in the depth of their hearts, think themselves superior to others. They think themselves as the centre of the world until another people overpowers them.
“Strip people of their power and the justification of their racism vanishes,” he believes.
The recent incident of the Minneapolis police officer who held his foot over George Floyd’s neck until he died stems from social racism that is underlying societies, and not just the American one. The endemic problem of mankind on earth is the secret belief that one race is not quite equal or deserving than another. Some people do not even know they are harbouring racist tendencies.
As Okri wrote, racism can take different forms, as innocuous as being shown a table near the toilet in a restaurant or as vicious as having police call when you are birdwatching in the park. As indeterminate as being suspected of stealing a phone in a friend’s house when it goes missing or not able to hail a taxi while the driver stops for other passengers further down the road.
Then there are the horrible forms such as police attacks and wrong lifetime imprisonments.
He eloquently explains: “All people who endure racial prejudice just want the normal rights of human beings. They want to get jobs, have nice working experiences, enjoy friendships, fall in love, raise their kids and make their orderly procession through life just like everyone else.”
The core issue seems to be the lack of education. Okri strongly suggests every child be thought about race as part of their standard education. He feels that so many parents have no idea of the injustices into which they are raising their children. Parents needed to be educated first but weren’t.
Children should not carry forth the assumptions we make about the world. Their moral views about race and equality should be thought at schools as part of the curriculum.
While it is, justifiably, debatable whether racist leaders and slave traders of the past should be holding spaces in public squares, it is important that history is not eradicated but actually thought as part of our children’s education.
They need to understand the atrocities of the past, such as apartheid and colonialism, for the less forgotten they are, the less chance there is of history ever repeating itself.
It is not unnatural for people to prefer to do business or socialise with others of their own kind, but it is also because of prejudice. It is this crazy prejudice that needs to be eradicated.
As the Nigerian novelist and poet concludes, “Racial thinking is a toxic pathology, and at the heart of it there is a kind of madness. It is the madness of a denial of a reality which the inward mind knows to be true. The house of racial thinking is a divided, unstable house. It is unsustainable. And like the Berlin Wall, it will fall.”
Perhaps young Basil’s simple rule to never look down on any other human being is all mankind needs to eradicate this disease.
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