The Racial Literacy Project

Reasonable responses to common questions and perceptions on race

Who is this site for?

It is for white people who recognise that racism is ‘a thing’ and want to equip themselves to speak out on these issues with confidence.

What inspired it?

I’ve had numerous conversations with white people who acknowledge that racism remains a problem in this country. They are worried that if they speak out publicly they will  unintentionally offend black people.

 The purpose of this resource is to make it easy for white people to ‘do the work’. It is not up to black people to educate white people on issues of race. It is up to us to take this on. We need to recognise it in ourselves and call it out in others. To do so we first need to understand…

Do not delete me 🙂

In an excellent video by Robin DiAngelo she highlights that people often mistakenly understand racism as follows:

  1.       Intentionally malicious acts
  2.       Carried out by an individual
  3.       Who consciously discriminates against people on the basis of race

This commonly-held understanding of racism has blocked many white people from examining their own racism. Racism is often seen as a binary state and is associated with ‘bad’ people. Many white people believe that you have ‘bad people who are racist’ and ‘good people who aren’t racist’. If we don’t commit acts against black people that are intentionally malicious, we see ourselves as being non-racist, good people. In fact, individual racism can be completely unconscious and not intentionally malicious. It also isn’t binary, but exists on a continuum from ‘very racist’ to ‘less racist’.

Many white people are also unaware of or don’t acknowledge institutional racism. Institutional racism can be defined as:

A form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organisation. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.

Institutional racism is far more damaging to black people as a collective. It is also harder for white people to spot than individual racism. We don’t easily notice the things that help us; the things that hinder us are difficult to ignore. Institutional racism helps white people and so it goes largely unnoticed. It hinders black people and so they are confronted with it daily.  

Reflection question

Can you think of an example where you didn’t intend to harm a black person but treated them differently than if they had been white?

What can we do?

Acknowledge that institutional racism exists

Recognise that just because we don’t commit intentionally malicious acts against black people, it doesn’t mean we aren’t free of racism

1. What is racism?

In an excellent video by Robin DiAngelo she highlights that people often mistakenly understand racism as follows:

  1.       Intentionally malicious acts
  2.       Carried out by an individual
  3.       Who consciously discriminates against people on the basis of race

This commonly-held understanding of racism has blocked many white people from examining their own racism. Racism is often seen as a binary state and is associated with ‘bad’ people. Many white people believe that you have ‘bad people who are racist’ and ‘good people who aren’t racist’. If we don’t commit acts against black people that are intentionally malicious, we see ourselves as being non-racist, good people. In fact, individual racism can be completely unconscious and not intentionally malicious. It also isn’t binary, but exists on a continuum from ‘very racist’ to ‘less racist’.

Many white people are also unaware of or don’t acknowledge institutional racism. Institutional racism can be defined as:

A form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organisation. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.

Institutional racism is far more damaging to black people as a collective as it pervades everday society. It is also harder for white people to spot than individual racism. We don’t easily notice the things that help us; the things that hinder us are difficult to ignore. Institutional racism helps white people and so it goes largely unnoticed. It hinders black people and so they are confronted with it daily.  

Reflection question

Can you think of an example where you didn’t intend to harm a black person but treated them differently than if they had been white?

What can we do?

Acknowledge that institutional racism exists

Recognise that just because we don’t commit intentionally malicious acts against black people, it doesn’t mean we aren’t free of racism

2. Why is it uncomfortable for many white people to talk about race?

The term ‘white fragility’ was coined by Robin DiAngelo. It refers to the discomfort we experience when issues of race are raised. These conversations often elicit responses from white people that range from defensiveness to outright anger and aggression.

When negative generalisations are made about white people the common defense is, ‘Not all white people’. This happens because we instinctively measure ourselves against that statement. If the statement is not true of us as an individual we feel it to be an unfair personal attack. 

This again points to a limited view of racism which pins racist behaviour to individuals rather than to systems and the collective. White people generally feel very uncomfortable being referred to as a collective.

Our obsession with individualism helps us avoid complicity and distracts from recognising that there are distinct patterns in society that hinder and harm black people. If we can’t recognise these patterns we cannot change them.

Reflection question

Can you think of a generalisation about white people that you heard which made you feel angry or defensive?

What can we do?

Avoid becoming defensive when hearing negative generalisations about white people

Develop ‘racial resilience’ by seeking out conversations on race

3. Is referring to ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ racist?

Many white people feel it’s more racially sensitive to say ‘African people’ rather than ‘black people’.  Using the term ‘African people’ can be seen as tip-toeing around the issue and usually indicates discomfort with talking about race.

If society as a whole treats black and white people differently, then avoiding the use of these terms prevents us from addressing those negative patterns.

Some people use the terms ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ in reference to the collective. I personally don’t feel comfortable doing so and always add the word ‘people’ to the term. It humanises the people you’re referring to and infers respect and dignity.

Reflection question

How does/would it make you feel to use the term ‘black people’ instead of ‘African people’?

What can we do?

Start getting comfortable using the terms ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ in conversations about race

4. Why is saying ‘I don’t see colour’ problematic?

This statement is often well-intentioned to mean, ‘I don’t consciously discriminate against black people’. What it unintentionally communicates is that we don’t see the pain that black people experience. It effectively sweeps the issue of racism under the carpet which works to perpetuate it. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that there are differences between white and black people.  The problem is when those differences are used to elevate white people as superior to black people.

White and black people have will typically have different hair, for example. When ‘white’ hair is constantly depicted as the picture of beauty, then ‘black’ hair inherently becomes portrayed as ‘not beautiful’. The problem is not only that white people develop this perception, but that some black people themselves cannot associate ‘blackness’ with beauty. The ‘Doll Test’ is an experiment with disturbing results that highlight how these perceptions can be formed at a very young age.

Reflection question

Have you used the phrase ‘I don’t see colour’ before with good intentions?

What can we do?

Get comfortable with the idea that white and black people are different but equal

5. How can we talk about ‘white privilege’ when there are poor white people and black people born into wealthy homes?

The concept of ‘white privilege’ is perhaps best summed up in this single quote:

‘White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means that the colour of your skin is not something making it hard’

Reflection question

What are one or two privileges that you benefit from simply by being white?

What can we do?

Acknowledge that we benefit from white privilege and be sensitive to the fact that black people have to work harder for the things we take for granted

6. Can black people be racist against white people?

Black people can be prejudiced against white people sure, but not racist. Anyone can be mean to someone because they are from a different race. That is not racism.

White people, in contrast, have a certain power conferred upon them when they live in a society where the rules and norms are in their favour. Our actions against black people therefore reinforce the prevailing rules and norms to our benefit. The same is not true if black people act against us.

In an interesting article titled ‘Can Black People Be Racist? Here’s Why They Can’t’ the writer refers to a Netflix show called ‘Dear white people’ which pokes fun at stereotypes of white people. She shares the claim made by many white users that the show is racist, because a show called ‘Dear black people’ would be considered offensive.

Reinforcing negative stereotypes of white people has no real impact on our daily lives. Black people face discrimination on a daily basis because of negative racial stereotypes.

‘A tweet about white people not using enough seasonings in their food won’t affect how you get treated during a trip to the grocery store. Stereotypes about black men being violent thugs do translate into them being physically assaulted or killed. Every experience that black people have — from going to school to driving to seeking housing — is affected by racism.’

Reflection question

Is there an instance you can think of where you felt a black person was being racist? How do you feel about that now?

What can we do?

Stop joking about stereotypes of black people, whether they are present or not

7. Is affirmative action racist?

The principle behind affirmative action is to level the playing field in creating business and career opportunities for black people. It is in response to the fact that in every other area of life white people as a group are at an advantage. The overwhelming majority of white people are born into situations with decent housing, proper nutrition, quality education, access to capital and strong social networks.

All these advantages, when weighed against the single disadvantage of BEE, still produce a net positive scenario for white people, compared to black people. This is borne out by the average earnings and rates of unemployment per race. In 2016 the average salary for white people was just below R12 000. For black people it was below R3 000. In 2019 the unemployment rate was 46% for black people, compared to just 9.8% for white people.

Despite affirmative action there is no question that white people still have far greater opportunities to succeed in business and in the job market than black people.

Often the argument is made that instead of affirmative action we should be fixing housing, nutrition and education. It’s not wrong that these should be priorities both for government and civil society. It’s not an either or; we need to do both. It is unfair to expect the current working generation of black people to accept that only their children or their children’s children have any hope of a better life.

I’m also not saying that affirmative action has been implemented to the maximum benefit of black people. There are huge flaws in how it has been executed. We should seek to fix those flaws rather than dismissing the idea out of hand.

Reflection question

Have you agreed with white people before that affirmative action offers unfair advantage to black people? Do you still feel that way?

What can we do about it?

When engaging with other white people on affirmative action show your support for the principle of it, even if it has been poorly implemented

8. Are all white people racist?

If you have grown up in South Africa as a white person, believing that you won’t have racist behaviours is like expecting to go swimming believing you won’t get wet. We are immersed in a system that favours white people. It is the air we breathe. It’s the only system we know and so we see it as normal, particularly because it’s a system that helps us rather than hinders us. We have been socialised in a racist society and so the patterns of racist behaviour and the expectations that we are somehow special and more deserving than black people is ingrained in us.

Having black friends, or saying your domestic worker is ‘part of the family’, or sharing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ social media post or the fact that you learnt an African language are not proof that you are in no way racist.

I once caught myself getting overly aggressive with a black security guard who clamped my car and was simply doing his job. If I’m honest I would never speak to a white person the way I did to him. This situation occurred despite the fact that I am consciously working to be anti-racist. We will always have blind spots. We never arrive at a point where we are completely free of racism. We must however ensure that we are on the journey of becoming less racist in our behaviour.

Reflection question

Can you be comfortable saying to yourself, ‘I can be racist sometimes without knowing it’?

What can we do?

Accept that being a white person in South African means that you are inherently racist in some of your behaviours and then get to work on changing

9. Why is it unfair to ask black people, ‘What can I do?’

Black people have borne the burden of racism for centuries. All that time they have been trying to make white people understand and change.

Time and again when black people discuss these issues they are met with aggression or defensiveness by white people, because of ‘white fragility’. This response puts black people in a very awkward position where they either need to remove themselves from the conversation or comfort the ‘fragile’ white person. I’ve heard black people describe this experience as ‘an unfair emotional burden’. Author Dena Simmons put it best perhaps, saying ‘Don’t ask the wounded to do the work’.

We now have unprecedented access to information and thought leaders on these issues. You can find a great list of some resources here. There is also a great video series with some helpful content called ‘Race with me‘. It’s up to white people to ‘do the work’ of educating ourselves. It is entirely possible to do so without being coached by black people.

Reflection question

What are the barriers that prevent me from ‘doing the work’?

What can we do?

Do the work

10. ‘What does apartheid have to do with me if I wasn’t even there?’

No-one is claiming that white people are responsible for what their forefathers did. We are responsible however for acknowledging that we continue to benefit from what they did. We are also responsible for undoing what they did, as it relates to racism and other injustices.

Reflection question

When people talk about apartheid, do you feel you need to defend yourself?

What can we do?

Try and hear people’s pain without becoming defensive

11. ‘Why can’t we just move on from the past?’

Apartheid might have ended but racism it didn’t die with it. Racism is something that all black people in South Africa still experience on a daily basis. The unwillingness of white people to understand and acknowledge this is a key reason why it remains a problem. When reference is made to apartheid, it doesn’t refer only to what black people experienced then; it also refers to the lived experience of black people today. The past continues to have a huge impact on the lives of black people today. Apartheid was a political, economic and social system of oppression. The political system has been overturned. The economic and social systems of apartheid have remained very much intact. This is largely the case because white people still hold most of the economic and social power.

Reflection question

What are some of the ways in which you as a white person have more social power than a black person?

What can we do?

Be patient. The discomfort of these discussions is nothing compared to what black people experience daily. We must accept that these conversations will continue beyond our lifetime.

12. Why are ‘blackface’ and other forms of lampooning black people a problem?

Blackface is when non-black people darken their face to impersonate black people. It is most common in the US, mostly on university campuses and often for Halloween. Make-up is often used to exaggerate facial features, such as oversized lips. It originates as far back as the 1820s when white people would paint their face black and perform as minstrels for money. Perhaps the most famous example is Jim Crow:

Throughout the 1830s and ’40s, the white entertainer Thomas Dartmouth Rice performed a popular song-and-dance act supposedly modelled after a slave. He named the character Jim Crow. Rice darkened his face, acted like a buffoon, and spoke with an exaggerated and distorted imitation of African American Vernacular English.’

 The segregation laws passed in Southern States from the 1870s onwards are often referred to as ‘Jim Crow’ laws.

Ridicule is a subtle but powerful way in which dominance and superiority are asserted by white people. Casting black characters as buffoons with exaggerated physical features and accents reinforces the depiction of white people as the picture of sophistication and beauty. It also deepens the pain for black people when white people co-opt their identities to make money through mockery.

Recently Showmax made the decision to remove Leon Schuster movies from their platform. Their decision created a huge uproar, primarily amongst white people. Schuster used blackface and often cast black people as buffoons in his shows. Often the argument is made that we should all be able to ‘laugh at ourselves’. This argument is not wrong. Except when the humour is based on negative stereotypes of black people. The reason why is explained more fully in the question 6, ‘Can black people be racist?’

Reflection question

Are there instances when you have used accents of black people sounding stupid to get laughs?

What can we do?

Stop using caricatures of black people as part of your humour

13. Not all black people love Mandela the way we assume

Mandela was the leader of the struggle movement which led to the political emancipation of black people in this country. He suffered tremendously for the cause and is held up as an icon of our time. There are however many black people who feel that Mandela ‘sold out’ to white people. Many argue that after centuries of oppression by white people there was little redress offered to black people under the deal that Mandela made in negotiating a peaceful transition. An often-cited failure in this regard is the so-called ‘Sunset Clause’. Under this clause of the deal:

‘The foundation of the economy and property rights would remain intact. And the same people the ANC fought against would remain in their jobs for 5 more years. Once the 5 years were over there was no clear proviso that they would be replaced.’

There were other political leaders involved in these negotiations, but Mandela was the figurehead. It can be argued that his handling of the negotiations and the subsequent agreement prevented South Africa from descending into civil war. However, many black people who find themselves impoverished directly because of the oppression of white people feel that Mandela was too lenient. The economy was never restructured to match the conditions laid out in the ANC’s Freedom Charter.

Countless white people and white-owned corporations prospered because of apartheid. None of that ill-gotten wealth or ownership has been redistributed to black people.

Reflection question

Did you also assume that all black people loved Mandela?

What can we do?

Use every opportunity we have to distribute our wealth to others, by paying black people in our employ –domestic workers, gardeners – a living wage (at least double the minimum wage).

14. Does the statement ‘Black lives matter’ mean that white lives don’t matter?

The intention behind the statement ‘Black lives matter’ is not that white lives don’t matter. It is to highlight the fact that we continue to live in a society where black lives appear to not matter in the way that black people are treated. 

This is perhaps most notably the case in the criminal justice system in the US where black people have been killed simply for playing with a toy gun, wearing a hoodie, sleeping in their car and sleeping in their own bed.

Even with video recordings of these incidents as evidence police officers involved are rarely held accountable. This is partly due to a culture of protectionism within the police force and the broader criminal justice system. It is also in large part due to the law of ‘qualified immunity’. This law provides police officers with virtually unlimited protection from prosecution.

The results for black people have been devastating. Black people in the US are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police than white people. The lack of accountability for unnecessary police killings has sparked outrage in black communities.

In 1992 the so-called ‘Rodney King Riots’ broke out in Los Angeles after the police officers filmed beating Rodney King nearly to death were acquitted on all charges but one.  

 Black Lives Matter was formed in 2013 after George Zimmerman, the shooter of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, was acquitted.  The protest movement has remained active since. It made a strong resurgence globally in 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police offer.

The sentiment behind ‘Black lives matter’ is exactly that ‘All lives matter’. The movement is a challenge to society to address the burning issue that black people are being treated as if their lives don’t matter.

Reflection questions

Does the statement, ‘Black lives matter’ trigger a negative response in you? If so, why?

What can we do?

Make the effort to explain to other white people that ‘Black live matter’ does in fact mean ‘All lives matter’.

15. How can protest movements justify the destruction of property?

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said,  ‘Riots are the language of the unheard.’

Rioting and the destruction of property are rarely the starting point for activists seeking to highlight an issue. They are typically the last resort when all other efforts to be heard have failed.

 In 2016 NFL football star, Colin Kaepernick began to take a knee every time the national anthem was played before the game. He did so to protest police brutality. This sparked outrage with people calling him a traitor. He lost his NFL contract. This type of peaceful protest did little to effect real change and the frustration in the black community continued to grow. Until the killing of George Floyd when people decided they had had enough.

In a powerful video author, Kimberly Jones, talks about protest, rioting and looting. Others have made the point that the destruction of property and the resulting outrage highlights the lack of empathy by white people: they are more easily outraged by the looting of goods than they are by the killing of innocent black people.

Reflection question

If you were aware of the George Floyd protests, did you find his murder or the resulting protests more upsetting?

What can we do?

Listen to black people when they are protesting, try to understand the cause and acknowledge their pain

16. Is removing statues of colonial leaders erasing history?

Countless writers have dealt with this topic. One recent article characterizes these statues as, ‘The memorialisation and fetishisation of empire, violence, subjugation and accumulation in the West’. In the same article a Belgian activist commented that, ‘These monuments are present not just in public space, but also in people’s mentalities.’ They serve as ever-present reminders to black people of the pain these people wrought on their people. Their mere presence is also a reminder that present-day society continues to turn a blind eye to the pain of black people. 

There is not a single statue memorialising Hitler in Germany. No-one would argue that we are in danger of forgetting the Holocaust. 

17. How can people support the removal of the Rhodes statue yet support the continuation of the Rhodes Scholarship?

Many white people have called for exclusion of black people from the Rhodes Scholarship if they support ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and other movements which have pushed for the removal of his statues. Cecil John Rhodes was part of the colonial project that plundered African countries and subjugated black people.

In 2016, when the Rhodes Must Fall movement began, 200 international black scholars said they ‘took a Rhodes grant as a form of reparation knowing that Cecil Rhodes did not intend it for us when he wrote his will.’ It is therefore not hypocritical for black people to insist that we stop celebrating Rhodes as a hero AND to also accept a Rhodes grant. 

18. Why is it OK for black people to use the n-word but unacceptable for white people to do so?

Context is everything here. The n-word is a word that black people have claimed for themselves to use as they wish. White people have no right to decide how black people deal with their pain. In the same article mentioned earlier the writer points out,

‘When black people say it (the n-word) to other black people, they can be sure that there is no racism fuelling its use. Because white people originally used the word as a racist term against black people and racism is still alive and well, white people are permanently uninvited to the n-word party.

‘It’s kind of like those people who have a nickname that they only let friends and family who are close to them use. You cannot meet those types of people and suddenly begin calling them their nickname like you have a space in their inner circle.’

19. What about black people who refute or downplay the claims of injustice against black people?

In 2018 famed rapper Kanye West said that ‘slavery was a choice’. This statement was both hurtful to black people and clearly showed his ignorance on the history of his people. More recently, in 2020, Candice Owens released a video explaining why she doesn’t support George Floyd, who was murdered by a white policeman. 

With a simple internet search you could find many examples of black people refuting all of the points made on this page. Many white people love these videos. They give comfort to fragile white people. They give white people an excuse to avoid acknowledging racism within themselves and within broader society. 

One cannot assume the exact motive for black people making these statements. What is certain however is that in doing so, these black people will have improved their position in a society that favours white people and their allies. We should be shocked that black people have to speak against their own community as a means of gaining acceptance. 

 Reflection question

Are there videos you’ve seen of black people refuting or downplaying the injustice against black people? How did those videos make you feel?

What can we do?

Steer clear of videos of black people addressing social issues if they are widely supported by white people and not at all by black people.

20. Are farm murders an indication of an impending ‘white genocide’?

Any murder is tragic and we should all mourn the unnecessary loss of human life. It is also true that people who live on remote farms are vulnerable. More so at least than people who live in the suburbs. 

If we were to believe social media, then it seems clear that farm murders are spiralling out of control and that these are racially motivated attacks against white people. 

In fact farm murders have been steadily declining, down from 140 in 2001/2002 to 57 in 2018/2019. These figures include non-white farm labourers. By comparison, a single township in Cape Town, Nyanga, recorded 289 murders in 2018/2019.

There is also no strong evidence to suggest that farm murders are racially motivated.  There is a great video which unpacks this question in greater detail. White people are less likely to be murdered in South Africa than any other racial group.

Reflection question

How does hearing about farm murders make you feel, compared to hearing about a murder in the townships?

What can we do?

Turn to the facts when emotive stories of persecution are put forward by white people

21. ‘What about all the good things colonialism brought to black people?’

We should judge the colonialism project on both its intention and its outcome for black (and brown) people. 

Firstly, the intention behind colonialism was never to benefit local inhabitants by sharing (frequently overstated) medical and other advancements. The intention was always to enrich the coloniser nations at the expense of the local people. 

Secondly, the outcome for the black people who were subjugated was devastating, and remains so to this day. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported that 1 in 3 people globally don’t have access to clean drinking water. This is a direct result of economies and societies that were structured to benefit the white elite and impoverish the black masses. 

In a great article on this issue the writer make the point that, “It takes a highly selective misreading of the evidence to claim that colonialism was anything other than a humanitarian disaster for most of the colonized.”

He goes on to relate this example from India, “Although many cite India’s extensive rail network as a positive legacy of British colonialism, it is important to note the railroad was built with the express purpose of transporting colonial troops inland to quell revolt. And to transport food out of productive regions for export, even in times of famine.”

When we make the point that black people are ‘better off’ for all the ‘progress’ that Western colonialists brought, it is factually incorrect and merely serves to rub salt in their wounds. 

22. Why is referring to your nanny or domestic worker as 'part of my family' a problem?

This comes up often in households where people have a domestic cleaner or nanny who works for them on a permanent, or near-permanent basis. The intention behind the statement is usually to communicate, “I care deeply about this person”. It is also used to signal to others that we are a ‘good person’ who treats black people as equals. However well-meaning this statement might be, it is simply not true.

No matter the degree of affection that exists, the relationship is still dependent on the domestic worker or nanny behaving in a certain way, such as showing up to work each day. If a family member never arrives when they say they will, they still remain a family member. If a cleaner or a nanny never arrives for work, they would cease to have a relationship with their employer.

This is an important issue to point out because we need to recognise and be sensitive to the extreme power imbalance in our relationship with a cleaner or a nanny, or a gardener. When we ask something of them that inconveniences them and they agree, that decision is not only based on the fact that they like us as a person, it will also be influenced by their desire simply to keep their job.

Reflection question

Have you ever heard someone say that a cleaner or nanny is ‘part of the family’ and thought to yourself, ‘That is such a kind thing to say.”? How do you feel about such a statement now?

What can we do?

Be aware of situations where you hold power over people and avoid using that power to manipulate them or make unreasonable requests.  

23. Where does 'freedom of speech' fit into this?

A friend put it very eloquently, paraphrased somewhat here.

After reading all of this you are still free to say what you want. But, what do you choose to say?

Your freedom to say what you wish does not absolve you of accountability for what the things you choose to say, say about you.

The intention behind this website is not to guilt people into holding their tongue. The goal is to impart a degree of understanding so that people no longer want to make statements or commit actions that cause harm to others.

Reflection question

Have there been times where you have defended your right to say things that would be hurtful to black people?

What can we do?

We can stop saying some of the things we once used to. Not because we are not free to say them, but because we choose not to say them. 

Important terms


Allyship, in the context of race or anti-racism, refers to white people who stand in solidarity with black people in their struggle against racism. They work to understand and dismantle systems of racial oppression by listening, learning, speaking out and taking action. 

Assumed competence

There is a tendency for people to more easily trust in the competence of white people, as lecturers, doctors and any other profession that requires a high degree of knowledge and skill. When they walk into the room we trust their competence. When a black lecturer or doctor walks into the room, we wait for them to speak and give them a few moments to first demonstrate their competence. If they have an English accent it helps us gain confidence a lot quicker. This assumed competence bias is held not just by white people but by many black people too. As a result black people have to work extra hard to ‘prove’ their competence to both black and white people.  

 Black tax

‘Black tax’ refers to the financial support that black professionals are expected to provide to their extended families. In a useful article on the issue the writer explains that, “Real black tax is having to do everything twice as hard as white people just to do the things they get to do”. The current generation of black professionals is often referred to as the ‘Sandwich Generation’. They find themselves sandwiched in between having to support both their children and their parents.

Code switching

Code switching refers to altering the way one talks or behaves to fit in with the prevaling norms of your social environment. Black people are forced to code switch a great deal to fit in. This comes at a large psychological cost.  

Cultural hegemony 
Cultural hegemony is often associated with Marxist philosophy. Regardless of one’s political leanings it is a useful concept to understand in our context. It refers to how the ruling class imposes their worldview and values as the cultural norm. Despite more than 25 years of democracy the white European worldview (cemented in the apartheid years) still dominates and shapes the norms of society in South Africa. If you have been raised with strong Western cultural norms it is a distinct social and professional advantage. In a job interview you’d best give a firm handshake and look your interviewer in the eye. This is a Western sign of respect and confidence. Dropping your gaze and giving a softer handshake might well hinder your chance of getting the job, even though this might be your own cultural norm if you are black. 


‘Decolonisation’ was a term that came to prominence during the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2016. It refers mainly to the educational curriculum but has also been used in reference to other Western influences associated with colonialism, such as Christianity. An article that deals with the decolonisation of the university curriculum points out that it, “is not about completely eliminating white men from the curriculum. It’s about challenging longstanding biases and omissions that limit how we understand politics and society.” The writer goes on to say, “While decolonising the curriculum can mean different things, it includes a fundamental reconsideration of who is teaching, what the subject matter is and how it’s being taught.”.

Diversity & Inclusion

In the past the call was for organisations to embrace diversity. What society has learned over the years is that having a diverse workplace is not enough and we need to take it further, to ‘inclusion’.

A great article on this issue defines the difference as follows: “A diverse workplace is one in which a variety of people from numerous different backgrounds (gender, ethnicity, age, ability and sexual orientation) work. An inclusive workplace is one in which various policies and behaviors recognize and celebrate those differences, with everyone having the same access to opportunities.” I would add that an inclusive workplace is one where diverse voices are part of the discussions and decisions that shape the organisation. 

A step further is to aim for Belonging, where there is diversity and inclusion within an organisation AND where the norms and cultures of diverse groups are woven into the fabric of the organisation so that everyone ‘feels at home’.   

Dog whistling

An old, but good article defines dog whistling as “a phrase that may sound innocuous to some people, but which also communicates something more insidious either to a subset of the audience or outside of the audience’s conscious awareness — a covert appeal to some noxious set of views.” It is most often employed in political campaigning where politicians signal their alignment to a social grouping where overt support might hurt their popularity outside of that grouping. 

Internalized racism

An article on this issue explains that “People of color sometimes adopt a white supremacist mindset that results in self-hatred and hatred of their respective racial group. Those suffering from internalized racism, for example, may loathe the physical characteristics that make them racially distinct such as skin color, hair texture, or eye shape. Others may stereotype those from their racial group and refuse to associate with them. And some may outright identify as White.”


This is a phrased coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American Civil Rights Advocate and Professor. It refers to how different forms of prejudice can converge and compound the level of discrimination. For instance women experience sexism and black people experience racism. Black women have the double burden of both sexism and racism. 


Micro-aggressions are small insults or slights directed at black people (or women or gay people), often dressed up as compliments. For instance a white person saying to a black person, ‘You speak such good English’. Some are not however complimentary, such as a white women holding her bag noticeably more tightly when a black women steps into a lift with her. An article on this issue points out that, ” these actions are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

Taking up space

The Urban Dictionary defines this as, “Having the ability within yourself to feel visible, use your voice, and feel you belong in every room you’re in.” White people and men generally take up a lot of space; we are often quick to voice our opinions before black people or women. We do so because we are socialized into a society that has been designed to make white men feel like we belong in almost every setting we find ourselves in. Recognising this is hugely helpful in allowing space for others to also contribute.  

Tone policing

The Oxford Dictionary defines this as, “the action or practice of criticizing the angry or emotional manner in which a person has expressed a point of view, rather than addressing the substance of the point itself.” We see this in the context of race when white people criticise how black people respond to a situation involving racism. Comments like, ‘If she calmed down a bit and was less angry I’d happily listen to her views’. It’s a way of shutting down the uncomfortable debate without having to put forward a valid counter-position. 


This is when white people condescendingly explain something to black people, assuming they lack the understanding because they are of an inferior race. ‘Mansplaining’ is the version that men often do to women. 

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About the author ~ Joshua Cox

I have worked in social development and activism for the past 15 years. The last 8 years I have run a social enterprise, Fix Forward, which connects people to vetted building contractors from the community and empowers the contractors to develop and thrive. I also consult to the University of Cape Town on their anti-racism strategy. 

For us to build a more equal and just society white people need to understand the lived experience of black people and empathise with their pain. Having conversations with black people that go deeper than common interests is critical for gaining such understanding.