I was biased against Afrikaners on coming to South Africa. In my mind, they were some of the worst “oppressors” in South African history, it was at their hands that black South Africans suffered the most. When we were in our initial training with Peace Corps, we were taught greetings in Setswana (the language of the black people I would be living with) and we were also taught greetings in Afrikaans (the language of the white people I would not be living with, but the language that all of the black people that I would be living with would assume that I would be speaking.)By far the worst racism I've ever seen in my life has been watching some drunken Afrikaners in Kimberley and Kuruman shouting about the "fucking kaffirs." But it's worth remembering:
I bristled at the thought of learning Afrikaans. I DID NOT WANT TO LEARN OR SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.
Mercifully, I was brought me to my senses rather quickly when I realized, “Wait. I SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.” (Having realized, of course, that the native language of the Americas is not English, and that my country was indeed, colonized by ‘an oppressor,’ and I spoke that very same language of that oppressor!) [...]
A few months back a fellow PCV invited me and others to tour a school with a 100% pass rate. Since we all work in black schools and the pass rates average 50% or lower, I was greatly interested in seeing a school with a 100% pass rate and jumped at the chance to go: How were they managing such an impressive pass rate? What kinds of resources did the school have? Was there some kind of outside funding? [...]
A white school? Well, of course they had a 100% pass rate! Everyone knows that the whites here (much as in the States) have all of the privileges, all of the resources, and all of the benefits. Why waste my time seeing a white school? I thought of cancelling on my host and returning to my site—and in a huff at that!
Ah, racism you ask? Racism of another color—or lack of color? Of course!
But I went. I went to the white, Afrikaner school and I saw a wonderful school full of wonderful people doing wonderful things. The Afrikaner kids and teachers were thrilled to be meeting Americans, and we, as Americans, were treated to learning about another people of South Africa.
My hardened heart melted when a young, Afrikaner girl, bristling with excitement, approached me and gave me the warmest and excited hug I’d gotten in South Africa. She was so excited to be seeing an American and so excited that an American would take the time to come visit her school. She could barely contain herself. In her happiness, a tiny bit of my racist heart melted, just a bit.
Before I came here I had a vague impression of [the Afrikaners] as horrible racists who were forced by the rest of the world out of their apartheid system kicking and screaming. There’s some truth to that, but personally every Afrikaner I’ve met here has been kind, courteous and generous. The apartheid system is surely one of the worst injustices in the modern era, but I knew almost nothing of the Anglo-Boer war, and the radicalizing effects of the British savagery (the usual concentration camps, salting land, poisoning wells, etc.). In the end, one must also remember that the whites gave up their power, grudgingly or not, in what is arguably the greatest diplomatic victory in postwar history. They also didn’t flee their country like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe—whose white population halved overnight).We Americans, as Karen says, are the living embodiment of 500 bloody years of war and slavery and genocide and imperialism. We'd do well to find a little sympathy even for the Afrikaners in our hearts.
I’m not trying to romanticize the Afrikaners—I’ve met some real racists—but I don’t want to demonize them either. Situations like this are always messy and complicated, and it seems like there are more victims than genuine evil.
PS: One of my pet peeves is people mispelling "Afrikaner." The language is "Afrikaans," while the people are "Afrikaners," or just straight "Afrikaans people." I normally go easy on spelling, but given that Afrikaans is one of those crazy languages that has phonetic pronunciation, it makes a noticeable difference.