by Paulina French

Racist. Racism. Two words that represent a lot of hurt and pain for so many people, not just in South Africa, but all over the world. National Geographic, in April 2018, published a brave and bold statement from its editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, under the heading “For decades our coverage was racist. To rise above our past we must acknowledge it.” She wrote: “We thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze on others.” This statement resonated with me deeply as I reflected on some work that I have been involved in at the Jesuit Institute, specifically on the issue of racism.

I have been working closely with a colleague. My colleague is black and I am white. The preparation work that we have done has not been easy for both of us. At times it has been painful for both of us as we have worked through and shared our personal experiences and perceptions of each other. This helped me realise again that there are many challenges facing me, our society, schools, places of work, faith communities and homes.

Last week we hosted a few leaders from a small group of private schools in Johannesburg. The purpose of the gathering was to dialogue on how schools face the issue of racism. The issue of diversity is high on the agenda for many schools. People shared that they work in diverse environments with many different races forming part of their student body; or that schools have “diversity committees” dealing with issues around race. It is very uplifting to hear that there are many schools that are aware of the issues facing us as a society. They are also aware that racial justice is more than simply putting people of different races in the same room. This is a good place to start but are we really asking the tough questions?

What was apparent during the working session, based on the feedback, is that in some places  learners are willing to grapple with racism, staff and parents are not. It seems as if we choose over and over again to try and sweep the issue of the pain and hurt suffered by non-whites in South Africa under the carpet – at worst it gets reduced or negated – in the hope that it will miraculously disappear. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the past and engage on issues around it, suggest too that we do not see ourselves as part of the solution.

On 18 July 2017, Pope Francis tweeted: “We must overcome all forms of racism, of intolerance and of the instrumentalisation of the human person” (@Pontifex). To do this we need to spend time reflecting on our lives and engaging with others about where we come from and where we want to go, together.

Parents, we must work towards a better country for our children. It begins when we step outside of our comfort zones and take the first step in becoming the change we want to see. The words of Bishop Michael Curry at the Royal Wedding are so true: “When we discover the redemptive power of love, we will make of this old world a new world”.