RADICAL RACIAL CANDOUR MADE POSSIBLE BY TECHNOLOGY OF OUR TIMES
January 1st, 2018
Living in South Africa can be an emotional roller-coaster. One minute there are encouraging signs of progression, cohesion and social advance, and the next the fractures in our society reveal themselves in the ugliest ways.
In the past week, the “Joburger” Facebook page (which has 139 000 fans) was able to spark a conversation that made it easy for people of different racial backgrounds to participate authentically and learn new, funny and important things about each other without fear of judgment or persecution.
For some, it may have even felt like a cathartic exercise that made it okay to be inquisitive across racial lines.
A few weeks prior, a friend posted about an unfortunate incident of racial profiling and the use of a simple “procedural” rule to create an awkward and completely unfair situation for his wife.
She walked into a store and was asked to leave her laptop bag at the check-in counter. This “instruction” was barked at her as an order, not even a polite request, and it turned out to be an extremely forceful interaction.
During her desperate attempt to stand her ground and push back, a couple of women sporting fairer pigmentation were allowed to proceed into the store, unchecked and without the same “instruction”, and carrying more bags than she was.
The fact that South Africans are increasingly participating in conversations like this seems like a clear sign that they are ready to start having more candid conversations about the idiosyncrasies that come with being a “rainbow nation”.
Some of the questions were hilarious, like “white people, why do you lose your minds when you hear Nkalakatha” or “Black people, what’s up with African time?”.
A number of the questions were also serious, but couched in such a way that one could reflect without feeling attacked.
You’ll recall that following the fall of legal apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ran for seven years and staged 1004 hearings, locally and internationally.
The TRC took the testimony of about 21000 victims; and 2000 of them appeared at public hearings. In total, 5392 amnesty applications were refused, granting only 849 out of the 7112.
In just two weeks, a conversation started by the “Joburger” Facebook page had spread to 18000 people commenting on the thread, asking questions. There were also 14 000 shares of the thread and its responses, so the organic reach was likely broader – in just two weeks, compared with what it took the TRC to hear the testimony of 21000 victims.
I think that a process like the TRC was necessary and made sense at the time, but I believe that we cannot rely on such processes to engage openly. I believe that technology can amplify the discussions, broaden perspectives and build in an exponential way.
The conversation had empathy at the core – the use of humour in the posts appealed to such a primal sense of every human: laughter. The ability to laugh at oneself, at the silly differences between us and the strange commonality, made this conversation really successful.
The conversation was wrapped in persuasion – people started creating memes, gifs and all kinds of user-generated content in an attempt to illustrate understanding or amplify their confusion about different races.
Because this was so authentically orchestrated, the credibility of the resulting user-generated media made it that much more appealing and persuasive to participate in the conversation.
The conversation was amplified by the power of technology – without cellphones and social media platforms, this would not be possible.
The online world gives a level anonymity that makes people feel as though they can share anything.