So can black people be racist?

The last few months have exposed the loopholes of the fabled rainbow nation. We’ve been reminded of the structural faults beneath the image of black and white people singing kumbaya while dancing the Madiba jive. The outcry surrounding Ntokozo Qwabe’s refusal to tip a white waitress at a cafe in Cape Town has reopened many debates around white supremacy and reparations for Apartheid. Qwabe has since been accused of being a racist and being no better than white oppressors but let’s be clear here, can black people be racist?

TO Molefe, published author and writer

Reverse racism is the fictional invention of disingenuous people who care neither for reality nor what is just. Racism, for those who take a view of it embedded in reality, is a function of the distribution of structural power within a society, which is determined by the ideologies that have historically shaped that society. In a society like South Africa, shaped structurally by the interlocking ideologies of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism, it is possible and accurate to argue that black people cannot be racist. An ideology of black supremacy has not shaped the reality we live and black people lack the means to have it do so now or in the foreseeable future.

The reason why this pseudo-debate about whether black people can be racist persists is that many of those who hold up the theoretical definition do so to draw a false equivalence in racism in order to immobilise anti-racist work. They want everyone to be held equally responsible for racism, whereas the reality is that the historical application of the ideology of white supremacy has given white people the power to enforce unfairly their anti-black prejudices against black people both as a group and, generally, as individuals. It is the rare black person who possesses both the ideological basis and the means to unfairly prejudice an individual white person or white people as a group. Every powerful black person today espouses ideologically some version of non-racialism or anti-racism, and none have the means to unfairly prejudice white people as a group. Discrimination can be fair if it is in the interests of justice. Our Constitution provides a framework for discrimination that redresses the harm black people, women and the disabled suffered and continue to suffer under the oppressive ideologies that have shaped our society – white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism and such.

Hlonipha Mokoena, associate professor at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER)

Racism is any attitude or behaviour that is premised on the assumption that one group of people is superior or inferior to another. Racism can occur in interpersonal interactions but it can also be sanctioned by national laws. This question whether or not black people can be racist is itself a problem. I believe it is itself a mask for another kind of conversation we should be having but aren’t. There are many types of prejudice and racism is only one. A person can be a bigot, an anti-Semite, a chauvinist, a fascist etc. I’m not sure why black people are being exempted from these prejudices as if there is a hierarchy of prejudices and racism has somehow become the worst thing that a person can be. Bigotry is as bad as racism because both cause harm to others. Black people can certainly be bigoted since they have the power to cause harm to others. To say that black people can’t be racist is to say that black people are superhumans who are incapable of engaging in anti-social behaviours.

Racism is to South Africa what a phantom limb is to an amputee. In the same way that an amputee will feel sensations and pain in a limb that is simply not there, South Africans are aching for race. We are just itching to bring race back into our daily lives. But, unfortunately for us, that is a limb that was amputated in 1994. This is not just a trite analogy. In the same way that phantom limbs are a recognised medical condition, ours is a serious psychosocial problem in which we can’t creatively find new things to talk about so we simply fall back on race. It seems that as South Africans we don’t know anything else but race and racism. This is not to say there are no racists in South Africa. There are plenty of them and we should not expect otherwise. As a society we have to have our fair share of stupid people (and racists are just one variety of stupidity). The abolition of apartheid did not mean the abolition of stupidity. Globally, I would also say that there is a growth of wilful ignorance in which young people, especially, choose to be racist because they think it’s “fun”.

Andile Mngxitama, national convener of Black First Land First movement

Obviously black people cannot be racists. I wrote about this years ago and there was a lot of resistance towards it but things have changed over the years and we’re more conscious as black people. We know what racism is and it’s got nothing to do with us. People who are still asking whether or not black people can be racist are still behind, the real question should be how to get justice. The primary step is to return the land stolen by whites then return the economy to the black majority. Racism is simply a system of power – political, economic, social, and cultural designed by white people for the oppression of black people. Reverse racism is a joke. Discrimination can be fair, it shouldn’t be called discrimination but rather redress.

Dave Steward, director, FW de Klerk foundation

Racism is the attitude or action of people who apply negative stereotypes to all the members of another race. It is particularly unacceptable when it harms the interests or dignity of other people on the basis of their race. Of course black people can be racists. Black people have been involved in racial clashes throughout the continent of Africa. Racism occurs when one race applies negative characteristics to all the members of another race – often with the intention of belittling them or doing them harm. Reverse racism exists, as soon as one race – that has suffered racism – starts to denigrate or harm the interests of another group on the basis of their race – one has reverse racism. Because of our deeply divided past, race continues to play a prominent role in South Africa. Most people continue to support political parties and policies on the basis of race – not interest.

What do you think, can black people be racist? Tweet us @thedailyvox or let us know in the comments.


  1. Sally says

    Blacks can’t be racist (due to systemic power) but can choose to be racially prejudiced. Maybe it’s time to also clarify what it means to be a racist in the prejudiced sense. Adam Habib outlined it in one of his interviews recently, he also dealt with the issue of systemic power, using Zuma as an example of a black man with a lot of power who could use his power in a racist way.
    Yes, racism exists systemically as oppression by one group over another but it also exists within everyday life amongst ordinary people. Whites can be and are also victims of racial prejudice at this level. Qwabe chose to be racially biased towards this waitress within this scenario. He didn’t know her personally but saw her white skin and his actions were dictated by stereotype and racial prejudice.

    1. Roberto says

      That’s an etymological fallacy, racism in the current vernacular means racial prejudice.

  2. Jon Low says

    Blacks have — and wield — power. Ergo, they are indeed capable of being racist. The question is as simple as “Can a duck swim?” The answer is a simple, self-evident truth: yes, they can and yes, some are.

  3. TheRealMidnite says

    TO Molefe and Andile Mngxitama are true racists to the bone – they even have pseudo-ideological claptrap to “justify” it. Just like every racist I have ever known.

  4. Fred says

    In order to answer the question let us examine the term racist. The word racist is not allocated a skin color or ethnicity. If an ethnic group dominates or strives to dominate another that is racism E.G if a zulu tries to dominate a xosa he is being racist if an Irish person does this to a Welsh person this is racism. Over the years this has been lost and a color qualification has now crept in. Reverse racism does not exist racism is racism. Under apartheid there was legislation giving job reservation we how have the same animal but now called BEE. At the end of the day none of this is helping forward our nations cause. If a white person rants about black people this is racism however if a black does this about a white it appears to be acceptable. If we go back to the roots of what was envisaged as being achieved nether is acceptable. To answer the original question any ethnic group trying to dominate another is guilty of racism read the South African constitution it is entrenched there.. let’s stop playing with words and look at the real meaning. One ethnic group trying to dominate another led to i ternary revolution which was backed by the world. It seems the south african nation is doing a full circle and once again reaching the stage of treating other groups in an unacceptable manner. Why don’t we learn from our mistakes embrace our fellow citizens and go forward as south africans to make our nation a sucessfully. Yes any group can be racist the trick is rather to be part of the solution and not the problem. True freedom comes from respecting others even if they are different to you

  5. Bruin-o says

    Blacks can’t be racist? I suppose they can’t invent either! Anyway, if thats what you wish to believe, then many more wishfull thoughts for you. Has anyone ever asked a coloured person if blacks can be racist? Or are we black when it suits the black agenda, like Barack Obama or Lewis Hamilton, and white when it doesn’t? Who knows? Julius Malema perhaps.

  6. Benjamin Coetzee says

    When a person have power over others you see their true nature. That applies to all nationalities.

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