Students hold placards at a protest against alleged racism on campus brought to light by a documentary, Luister (Listen), in Stellenbosch on Tuesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH
Students hold placards at a protest against alleged racism on campus brought to light by a documentary, Luister (Listen), in Stellenbosch earlier this month. Picture: AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH

THE central tragedy of our first two decades as a democracy is that, unless something changes fast, the life prospects of South African children born today will still to a large extent cleave to their race. No sober reading of the statistics can offer you a different conclusion.

Look at the prevalence of childhood poverty, access to early childhood development, performance in primary and secondary school, access to and dropout from tertiary education, and ultimate household earnings, and you will see how little we have done to change the outlines of the picture that our colonial forebears and the architects of apartheid drew up ages ago.

Bringing a different country into being, where race has no impact on your life prospects, should be a project that everybody can get behind. But we will not be able to achieve this as long as powerful voices — such as that of Gareth van Onselen in his column (The great race debate, November 20) — are promoting denialism instead of a steady gaze on the problem at hand.

If white people want to belong in this new country, there are a number of places at which we have to part ways with Van Onselen.

First we must stop denying the simple asymmetry involved in antiblack racism: if you do not inhabit a black body, your opinion on whether something you did or said was antiblack racist is just not that relevant. A similar asymmetry applies to sexist acts.

Van Onselen writes that some people make accusations of racism but that "they are often wrong". How would he know? Because, as he then goes on to imply, he thinks the people so accused are, in general, good people?

This is the ancient and rather ridiculous notion that virtuous acts are simply acts performed by virtuous people. These days, ethics tends to focus more on consequences. When the consequence is feeling hurt, belittled or unfairly treated, then the person so affected has far greater authority when reporting on it. Of course they are not the only authority, and everyone deserves to be heard. But you are not an expert on somebody else’s experience. Even when you really feel you were misunderstood, sometimes the adult thing to do is to listen and learn, apologise, and endeavour not to make the same mistake again.

And this, by the way, in case you were temporarily misled by the abuse of George Orwell, does not constitute the policing of a "thought crime". This is not even in the realm of the criminal. It is people holding each other accountable for how we all wield power over others through discourse. You can disagree with them, but nobody is setting the police on you.

Secondly, we have to face up to the fact that people who wear their racism on their sleeves are a sideshow. Real racism inheres in a system that keeps whites at the top of the socioeconomic pile. The everyday way to keep blacks down can seem quite banal: agreeing on the job panel that the black candidate doesn’t have the "communication skills" for the leadership position, or that your shoppers would rather see a white face on the poster, because Marketing 101. Racism is also secretly thinking your security Whatsapp group is right to share photos of the dark-skinned undesirables on your street, but never wondering why you don’t see the white friends who visit you similarly photographed and shamed.

Sometimes you can keep blacks down by treating everybody as if they were the same. When most black people still have to work harder and sacrifice more than most white people to compete in an open market, real fairness does not consist in creating the illusion of an "open opportunity society". Failing to intervene is basic complicity in a racist system.

This is why Van Onselen’s analysis of "occasional blatant racism" misses the point so badly. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are not hung up on Steve Hofmeyr: they want land, they want control of the economy. I doubt Gwede Mantashe loses much sleep over David Bullard. The political issues are structural: they are about our economy and the fabric of our society. When commentators like Van Onselen wade in, and fail to see this obvious fact, they just show how tone-deaf they are to the actual debate.

The third place we can part ways with Van Onselen is refusing to feel so sorry for ourselves. Being called a racist "destroys the possibility of introspection", he moans, "any objection is admission" and it is all just a little unfair. Well, get over it.

White people inherit privilege unwillingly from our history and our culture. We live in a system that is skewed to our advantage in ways we don’t always think about. We should stop pretending we are also owed redemption, forgiveness or moral purity. If there is one thing that has unravelled Madiba magic it is white people who have remained complicit in an unjust system walking around as if it was their right to be forgiven, telling black people who remind them of injustice that they are somehow stuck in the past.

Being called a racist hurts. But if you are a white person in South Africa, even a foreign white recently arrived, you are participating in a racist system. You are benefiting from a privilege you didn’t really ask for. You should be working every day to dismantle that system because it is your current advantage that indicts you, even more than the sins of your ancestors. And you will still not escape your privilege.

And yet this weight is nothing compared with the weight that people who are on the receiving end of racism have to deal with every day. So when you not only fail to engage with your privilege or ask people how they actually feel, but then also go on to call the current upsurge in intelligent discussions about race a "nondebate", all you are really doing is trumpeting your apathy. You’ve already forfeited your illusory moral purity.

Of course, what Van Onselen was really talking about was the extent to which the African National Congress ANC and the EFF use race as a red herring to divert the electorate’s attention away from more pressing issues. But any even semi-news-literate person observing the unfolding drama around racism at the moment would have noticed the extent to which this issue cuts across party, social class and region.

Students across the country, including activists who have rebuffed every attempt to entrain them to a political party message, are furious about persistent, gnawing, ubiquitous racism. This is not a diversion tactic by a political party: this is what people really feel.

You would do better to listen, to engage and to apply your mind to what it all could mean. Wanting a better future for South Africa means countering the senescent liberators and the young fascists without pretending that we don’t also have to slay the demon of white racism.

• Burnett has an MSc Philosophy & Public Policy and is a PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies.