As I approach the end of my time here in Cape Town and look forward to returning to Duke, I’ve been reflecting more and more on how the South African perspective on discrimination differs from that which exists in the US. I’ve been thinking about how one might compare the two for a large portion of this trip, don’t get me wrong, for there are sadly too many similarities between these countries’ histories of racial injustices. But last week I heard a refreshingly honest opinion on the issue of discrimination that I agree with entirely but know would undoubtedly (and very sadly) receive a lot of backlash in the US.
Last Tuesday, I attended a meeting discussing the constitutionality of Section 6 of the Civil Unions Act, which allows marriage officers in South Africa to refuse to marry a same-sex couple by conscientiously objecting on the grounds of religion or personal belief. For obvious reasons, discrimination was the issue at question here.
As I listened to the opinions being voiced around me (all of which were anti-Section 6, to give you an idea of the politics in the room), I remember thinking that, as interesting as the discussion was, I wasn’t really learning anything new in terms of the debate on discriminatory policies. At some point, however, the conversation shifted away from discussing discrimination under the specific context of Section 6 of the Civil Unions Act and towards the topic of affirmative action. And that’s when my supervisor from the Women’s Legal Centre said something regarding her opinion of affirmative action that really resonated with my understanding of these issues of injustice and remedying past wrongs. Something that honestly shouldn’t have been so surprising for me to hear someone say as it was.
“It is discrimination. But discrimination is fair if it advantages someone who was previously disadvantaged.”
Now, the argument that affirmative action is ‘reverse discrimination’ is not one that is new to me, of course. I’ve had far too many an argument with one person or another (usually white and/or male) who believes affirmative action allows for reverse racism/sexism/you-name-it (ugh). But I had never heard someone who supports affirmative action voice that such policies are actually discriminatory. I don’t think I had ever heard someone use the words ‘discrimination’ and ‘fair’ in the same sentence either, let alone use the latter word to describe the former.
It was refreshing to hear. It was even more refreshing to hear everyone in the room – of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and walks of life – clap and nod their heads in approval upon hearing this. That is the difference between the South African and US perspectives on discrimination. While South Africa recognises injustice for what it is and is not shy to admit that discrimination is needed against the other side in order to be able to restore equity, the US believes it is in a post-racial society, that people are too sensitive, and that attempting to move towards some sort of equity by helping those who were oppressed, and continue to be oppressed, is for some reason wrong. I know I’m making a generalisation, but that’s just my observation. One that I’ve made in these past 7 weeks. One that I will stand by.
Although South Africa definitely has a way to go in terms of equity, at least it recognises that there is a problem. At least its government is currently having real discussions on how it might try to rectify, or at least contribute to some kind of reprieve for, decades of oppression to create a more equitable society.
The US needs to wake up.