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How violence and racism are related, and why it all matters

Students make their feelings known during a fees protest at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Nic Bothma/EPA

Racism is a form of both visible and invisible violence. Veteran peace researcher Johan Galtung has shown that violence is cultural, structural and direct. This triad was adapted in South Africa as interlinked symbolic, structural, psychological and physical violence against “otherness”.

This conceptual framework can be applied to direct and indirect experiences of racism, as well as to other forms of violence. The most recent manifestation of these has been the outcry over black hair. Some referred to it as a hair war. It revealed a cumulative visceral, tacit and explicit knowledge of racism as violence.

The hatred of the physicality, cultures and identities of “othered” groups is a global phenomenon. America’s “Black lives matter” movement arose out of the deaths of black people because blackness has effectively been criminalised. The “animalisation” of blackness has its roots in slavery.

States do not record the structural violence of racism as part of crime statistics. But this invisible violence has driven some people to self-harm. It has masked [forms of suicide](]( It shortens lives and kills babies.

Internalised white superiority and internalised black inferiority remain resilient in South Africa. This is despite resistance to racism over centuries. It begs the question: after 22 years of democracy, what have most of colonialism and apartheid’s beneficiaries done to understand these evils? What have they done to delink from them, and to dismantle racism?

A “post-conflict” society?

The end of apartheid in 1994 only interrupted racism at a political level. It did not automatically turn South Africa into the “post-conflict society” many claim it is.

In this sense, feminist writers Pumla Gqola and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela help us to think differently about violence.

They look beyond visible manifestations of violence in their analyses of physical violence (rape, bodily harm and murder). They show violence also to be symbolic (othering), structural (patriarchy, economic inequality) and psychological (intimate partner abuse and trauma).

Pupils protest against racism at Collegiate Girls High School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Eugene Coetzee/The Herald

It is easy to suggest that black people are in charge of South Africa and must “stop acting like victims”. But this only shows a tragic disregard for the intersection of visible and invisible ways in which racism continues to afflict people. These experiences are routinely written off as anecdotes.

Jamaican psychiatrist Frederick Hickling argues that even in countries

where blacks are in the majority and are in political control of the society, the tangible elements of the racist delusional system still control the reality for black people.

These elements link individual perpetrators and victims to a visible and invisible violent structure in four important ways.

Racism as symbolic violence

Symbolic violence is a form of “othering”, defined as

the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how this ascribes inferiority and superiority. The case of school rules about hair is an example. Galtung argues that symbolic violence justifies and legitimises structural, psychological and physical violence.

Racism; the preference for Eurocentric knowledge and methods of producing it are key examples of symbolic violence. The second and third examples marginalise and silence indigenous voices. They lead to assimilation and self-hatred. Oppressed people internalise everything about the oppressor as superior.

Racism as structural, psychological and physical violence

Vusi Gumede seems to suggest that structural violence is economically driven. “Othered” people around the world continue to be over-represented in society’s stigmatised institutions. This is especially true in its prisons.

This is a result of inequality, unemployment, poverty and exclusion. It is driven by criminalisation and constant surveillance. It could also be because of engagement in counter-violence defined as crime. Hickling points out that

without control of the commanding heights of the economy, black people are destined to eke out an existence […] in a social reality that relegates them to an economic second class.

Racism produces inter-generationally transmitted trauma. This can persist for decades and even centuries after the original trauma. It takes far more than talk therapy and the processing of emotions to address the internalised superiority and inferiority induced by racism.

No one is held criminally liable for the uninterrupted invisible violence of racism. Unless, of course, it manifests in some forms of psychological and interpersonal physical violence.

But black people are held legally accountable for visible counter-violence against racism.

The understanding of violence as both invisible and visible provides a framework within which “othered” people can understand that experiences of racism are socially patterned. And that it requires a holistic solution.

This might include our knowledge of dehumanisation, humiliation, silencing, alienation, exclusion, economic dispossession, shame, grief, trauma and other masked experiences. All represent multiple and simultaneous effects of racism.

It can also counter the pervasive denial about the ways in which racism is kept in place culturally, socially, economically, psychologically and physically.

This framework can contribute to dislodging not only racism’s manifestations, but also its structure.

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