8 May

Racism in the Twenty-First Century

Is there such thing as ‘reverse racism’? May statements be deemed racist only if uttered by white people? There has been a growing debate around these questions in universities and academic circles more widely in recent months. The student radicals who now occupy positions of power within their unions throughout the United Kingdom seem to think there is something structural about racism. Society at large – they say – privileges white males. Therefore – they argue – what people from ethnic minorities say or write, even if deeply offensive, may never be construed as racist.

Such an argument was put forward by Bahar Mustafa some months ago. Mustafa, then diversity officer for Goldsmiths University, attracted media attention after a Facebook post in which she asked white people and men not to show up for a BME (Black or Minority Ethnic) women and non-binary event she was organising. Her polemical stance was highlighted when she allegedly tweeted ‘kill all white men’. Faced with accusations of racism, Mustafa asserted at a student assembly that, ‘I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describes structures of privilege based on race and gender’.

Something similar happened last week, when Ntokozo Qwabe shared a now (in)famous Facebook post. Qwabe is a South African Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford and also a leader of the unsuccessful ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign. His Facebook post told of what Qwabe considered as a ‘black’ and ‘wonderful’ political act for South Africa’s ‘decolonial struggle’. The said act was nothing less than refusing a tip to a white waitress in Obz Cafe, Western Cape. When Ashleigh Schultz, the waitress, saw a note saying ‘We will give tip when you return the land’ attached to the bill, she burst into tears – described by Qwabe as, ‘typical white tears’. Qwabe finishes the post by saying that ‘no white person shall rest’ until the land is given back.

The evidently hostile character of pronouncements like those of Mustafa and Qwabe constitutes strong empirical evidence that racial tensions in the twenty-first century are far from diluted. Racism undoubtedly does carry at times a structural component, but it is also manifested in the language we use and in the individual acts we perform. By marginalising and indeed attacking white people, one does not make up for the grievances of the past. Qwabe’s deed was not of a political nature, as he put it; it was rather an offensive act directed against a blameless individual, employed in fact to offer a service to blacks and whites alike, who cannot be held accountable for what white racists did decades or centuries ago. Black racism exists, it is alive, and it is gaining force among the student radicals of the twenty-first century.

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