The Constitutional Court recently made it clear that racism is defined by the recipient, not the perpetrator (Sibanye Rustenburg Platinum Mines (Pty) v Saewa obo Bester). It’s not what we think we mean that matters; it’s what our words and actions mean to the other person given our hurtful and hate-filled past — a past that still lingers.
It is true, of course, of all communication. What I mean is not as important as what my listeners understand.
Don’t be tempted by a sign I found outside a university admin office:
‘I am responsible for what I say. I am not responsible for what you understand.’
The Constitutional Court has just ruled against you.
Yes, the context is important, but the context of the receiver is more important than that of the speaker. In the cases that have attracted legal sanction, the perpetrators ignored that context and continued to proclaim their ignorance.
It is similar to sexual harassment. When an innocent hug or touch (appropriate in other contexts, perhaps) is rebuffed, the ONLY acceptable response is to apologise — quickly and sincerely.
‘I didn’t mean it like that, therefore you must just accept it,’ is never an appropriate response. Just ask H&M.
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Picture created by STC for Department of Canadian Heritage