Lessons from a Troubling Video
A video clip is currently circulating which accuses Cardinal Stephen Brislin of racism for not embracing and kissing an African cardinal in the way he greets two European cardinals during the consistory on September 30. The clip is short and captioned: “Racism is a disease and it’s happening even inside the church.”
While most Catholics have dismissed the allegation of racism, some have been repeating and amplifying it. Evidently, they do not know Cardinal Brislin. Anybody who does — in the dioceses he has headed, in the bishops’ conference region, in the universal Church — will dismiss the suggestion that the man is a racist as absurd.
During apartheid, Brislin stood and marched with the oppressed, living in a township with the people, in defiance of the law. He has included a Basotho hat in his coat of arms. This is a public and permanent symbol of self-identification by a man who bears the SeSotho nickname Motlalepula (“He who comes with the rain”).
We can assume that Cardinal Brislin knows the African cardinal in the video clip. In his two terms as president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, he took part in many continental meetings of African bishops. The fact that Cardinal Brislin spoke twice as long with that cardinal than he did with the others in the clip suggests familiarity.
The African cardinal’s body language provides a further clue: unlike the white cardinals, he doesn’t lean into a hug. He shakes Cardinal Brislin’s hand.
The clip does not show how Cardinal Brislin greeted the other 100-plus cardinals standing in line. It is reasonable to assume that he took the cue from them. Cardinal Brislin does not normally greet people with kisses on the cheeks. His default mode of greeting is a handshake, and he is also known for his sensitivity to the norms and traditions of other cultures where hugs and kisses can be uncomfortable and even alienating.
It is a shame that a happy day for South Africa and its Catholic Church has been stained by an unfounded accusation of racism. The way the video’s narrative was shaped and its original source suggests that there was an agenda at play in its dissemination, with the Church as its target. Everybody, especially Catholics, should treat that narrative with extreme caution.
At the same time, the instinctive acceptance of the video’s false narrative by many people, even by normally rational Catholics, should move us to interrogate why it is that racism is so easily presumed. Why did so many people jump to a judgment that a white man must be a racist on the basis of a brief, out-of-context video clip?
Of course, the inflammatory caption and the temptation to knee-jerking reactions, to which social media has conditioned us, provide part of the explanation.
But the other part of the explanation is this: white racism is still so prevalent in South Africa that the idea of a white cardinal acting with racial prejudice is not in itself irrational. Seeing a white man treating a black man in ways that are different to how he treats fellow whites will arouse suspicion.
That can be exploited, as the creators of the video’s caption have done and as populist politicians regularly do. But that does not mean that racism is always an illusion.
Racism comes in different forms: the old-style ways of domination, discrimination and exclusion; or casually in the treatment of people (which is the kind of racism the video claims to show); or even in condescending language. It can manifest itself in a refusal to address and redress the apartheid past, usually by referring to the undoubted failures of the post-liberation government.
This is aggravated when concerns about racism — whether real or perceived — are waved away with phrases like “Why must everything always be about race?” and “Why can’t we let bygones be bygones?”
Well, everything is about race because race still determines where and how most of us live. Apartheid still exists in the ownership of wealth, in the spatial distribution of the population, in opportunities.
Bygones cannot be bygones because the bygones have not gone by. The ANC’s dismal failure to adequately redress the past, and the clumsy racial discrimination it has used in the process, does not absolve three centuries of white rule of responsibility for the way things are. For as long as white South Africans collectively deny that reality, true reconciliation will be impossible.
The race debate is frustrating, of course, because the loudest voices in it are marked by belligerence, disinformation, generalisations and lack of charity. The willingness to find one another that defined the early Rainbow Nation era has given way to hostile rhetoric and lack of charity.
In many good people, that frustration finds expression in pleas such as, “Why can’t we just get along with each other?” — which, generally in daily life, South Africans across racial lines probably do. But the more pertinent question should be: “What can we do to create the conditions whereby we can all get along with each other?”
And his record makes it clear that Cardinal Brislin is trying to lead the way in finding answers to that question.