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If someone experiences an action or utterance as racist does it necessarily make it racist, or does the intention of the "perpetrator" make a difference in how harshly someone should be judged for their words or actions? 

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These questions have arisen with a renewed sense of urgency for me during the debate that erupted after Ashwin Willemse walked off the set of SuperSport recently.

Although I don't want to debate the specifics around this case, it did raise fundamental questions about experience as well as the role of intention for me.

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In certain cases of crude racism, such as the use of the k-word or explicit racial or sexual stereotyping, there can be no debate. It is racist or sexist no matter what the perpetrator claims to have been the intention or circumstances. Thus, the courts could rule on Penny Sparrow's tweets and Vicky Momberg's outbursts.

Although there are undoubtedly many people who are still guilty of these overt incidences of racism, I believe it is the less crude forms of prejudice, which are so prevalent in our society, that often cause the biggest damage. It is in the tone of voice, the patronising smile, the body language, institutional cultures and systems. Yet, despite or perhaps because of its insidious nature, it is often tolerated until some trigger causes a dramatic reaction.

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As a white person, I have only on the very rare occasion experienced racism – and it was horrible. But as a woman, I deal with sexism on an almost daily basis. (I immediately want to acknowledge that I am conscious that I am at the tip of the pyramid of injustice. As a woman I experience sexism, but because of my race, class and sexual orientation I will always experience far less discrimination than, for example, a black, gay or poor woman.)


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Although I experience crude sexism far less these days (perhaps men are a bit more careful around me), I can think of at least three instances in the last four days where I was patronised by men. I'm sure that all these men would argue that they did not intend to patronise me. Yet, it was without doubt patronising. How can I be so sure? Because, you know it when you feel it.

That is, for me, the key and part of the answer to my original question. If it is experienced as racist or sexist it almost certainly is. You know it when you feel it.

Of course, given upbringing and conditioning linked to our political history, it is also true that people honestly do not always understand that or why something they say or do is racist. Thus, they are honest in their defence of "I did not intend to be racist". However, that can too easily become a blanket excuse. "I did not mean to kill that person" could still result in a manslaughter conviction in court. Equally, "I did not intend to patronise or racially abuse you" can never alleviate the burden of injury or need for restitution.

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So what does restitution involve? On the most basic level it requires the willingness to listen and hear the "other" (both individually and collectively) when they express their pain, hurt and anger. There must be a willingness to accept the point of view of the person/s who have been offended, no matter what the intention was. So, not to say: "I did not intend it that way" or "don't play the race card" as I so often hear people say. The listening should be followed by a sincere apology and measures or actions to fix the problem.

Importantly, we should remember that institutional and systemic racism and sexism are even more insidious and thus more difficult to pin down. However, they exist – big time. Those who feel them, know it. As with individual cases, systemic and institutional apologies as well as restitution are extremely important (think: land debate at the moment).

Of course, it does require that someone has to express the hurt or offence that was felt. Often that does not happen and when it finally does people are surprised and shocked.

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I have to confess with all three cases of feeling and being(!) patronised I did not say or do anything. There are many reasons for it. I did not want to make a scene, I did not think it would change that person and sometimes I am just tired of fighting a bunch of sexists.

My guess is that many people who experience racism would give similar reasons for not always reacting.

But, I also know that even though I often don't react to sexist behaviour, every incident finds a home in my body and mind where it quietly waits till the one day when I have just had enough. Enough of being patronised through words, body language and actions. Enough of a system that assumes that I am inferior, must earn less and behave in a certain way purely because I am a woman. 

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As many men would be able to testify, once I reached that point of "enoughness" I certainly did not just politely walk off "set".

And so, when someone says, "I feel patronised" or "that is racist" we need to understand that it is always just the tip of the iceberg and all of us (individually and collectively) need to react in a manner that shows some humility and acceptance of our prejudices – intended or not.

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Read more on:    prejudice  |  racism
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