Racism works in complicated ways. Often this is not clear to those whose acts may be racist despite their thinking that they are innocent of it.
Occasional efforts to have extreme racism classified as a serious psychological illness have foundered against the general wisdom that although it constitutes unacceptable social behavior, it is the product of economic, social and political factors rather than illness. One argument for this is that if we were to classify everyone who is part of a group that oppresses another, or expresses hate against it, as ill, then we would all be ill. How else, when this would involve the range of bigotry from Nazi murderers, fundamentalist Islamist and right-wing terrorists to many good citizens of Western democracies?
The result is that we come to consider racism as something to be condemned but also as “natural.” This argument, however, overlooks the fact that as society changes, so does that which it considers natural. Conversely, that which was condemned can become acceptable. That is why the recent trend of accepting casual racism in Greece is so dangerous. Although there is a healthy reaction to this from many, there is also an unacceptable tolerance for it – and encouragement in many cases, from part of the political world and news media. Because racism can establish itself even when people may believe that it does not exist, poisoning everything and everyone, turning people into perpetrators or victims of it.
I learned this growing up in Africa. Not so much when I was young but as an adult. As a young boy in Mozambique, I had a couple of black friends, the children of people working in the white people’s houses in our neighborhood. Sometimes we would play together in the afternoons and then go our separate ways. In South Africa I would not have had this opportunity, because the apartheid regime was so strict that black parents were obliged to leave their children with grandparents in the distant so-called “black homelands.”
In Mozambique things were less stratified. At primary school there, I had no idea of what was going on. At my high school in South Africa (which only white boys attended and where I was a boarder), we had the great fortune to find teachers who sowed the first seeds of understanding that apartheid was evil, that all people were equal and should have equal opportunities. Suddenly, many of us saw things differently. Some tried, through a local church initiative, to get to know black children of our age. But, again, at the end of our meetings, they would go back to their impoverished, separate townships and we would go back to our school and homes in affluent suburbs.
The same applied at university. We may have believed that because we had the right idea about the evil of apartheid, this meant we were not racists.
What I understood years later, though, was that even though many white people took a stand against apartheid, and some of them paid a high price, this did not change the simple truth: Institutionalized racism made all whites accessories to the crime and all blacks victims. Wherever we were – school, university, the workplace – we were most likely in a spot from which black people were excluded.
The end of apartheid liberated South Africa’s black people from oppression and its whites from the shame of institutionalized racism. South Africa may be facing huge problems, notably crime and low growth, but when the whole country united to celebrate the World Cup triumph of the national rugby team – a team of white and black players, with a black captain – the message was both beautiful and hopeful. (I feel the same way when I see the enthusiastic and widespread acceptance of the Antetokounmpo brothers in Greece – and the angry response of young people when Giannis or Thanasis are the targets of racist comments.)
In the past, I found it interesting that Greeks who had never been out of the country declared with great self-assurance that they were not racists. They had not met people of other races but they knew enough to know that they should condemn racism.
Today, after many years of being exposed to populist anger, of feeling victims of events beyond their control, of having become accustomed to irresponsible activism, some have come to believe that whatever they consider to be in their interests is justified. And many see the arrival of migrants and refugees as a threat and an excuse for outbursts of rage.
This is not a disease, it is the product of social and political factors, of the cultivation of bigotry. It is not institutionalized and the perpetrators may declare that they are not racist, but as long as racist behavior is not dealt with directly and determinedly, by the state, by politicians and citizens, it poisons society to a greater extent than would any outside threat.