Why Are We Afraid of Race?

Why Are We Afraid of Race?


In my semester in South Africa, I’ve come to appreciate many of the privileges of life in the United States. In most aspects — access to education, public transportation, anti-corruption mechanisms, etc. — America is leagues ahead.

That being said, the United States remains far behind South Africa in one major area.

Unlike Americans, South Africans talk about race. No one pretends to be “color blind.” The word “black” is not treated as a curse word. Politicians don’t shriek about the other side “pulling the race card.” Heck, South Africans even crack jokes about race in public and no one bats an eye.

This is just 20 years after the fall of apartheid, one of the most racially oppressive systems in modern history. Blacks and whites were strictly segregated, blacks couldn’t travel without documents and (though blacks comprised the vast majority of the population) there was no hope of electing a black president.

Why, then, is South Africa — which has just shaken loose the chains of legalized, commonplace racism — so far ahead of the United States when it comes to race?

The answer is simple: Americans hate to talk about race. We hate even recognizing it. Privately, in the comfort of our own homes, we talk about how different and strange the “other” is, but in public we simply pretend these differences don’t exist.

Granted, race is a weird, confusing thing.

After all, how do you even define “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” etc.? Do you measure the amount of melanin in your skin? Do you trace back your ancestry? Do you just eyeball it?

Race is a social construct, but unfortunately it has become very important in the United States. When we refuse to address race, we don’t make it go away. The reason South Africans can joke about race is that they know it’s kind of stupid; they understand that it is simply a social construct. The barriers between black, white and everything in between are artificial. The labels are contrived, and — though it may be subconscious — South Africans realize this, and it affects the way that they act.

Make no mistake, race is still a huge problem in South Africa. Remnants of apartheid can still be seen. Enormous economic disparities persist on the basis of race throughout the country, and racism still exists.

However, South Africa is in a much stronger position to move past race, simply because its people are willing to talk about it.

Americans need to recognize that race does not define a person, but it is part of a person. In order to move beyond race, first we need to acknowledge that it exists.