A practical way to help end racism: Learn isiZulu

UnknownThere’s an article going round on the Huffington Post right now, talking about how racism isn’t just having prejudiced feelings towards people, or saying nasty things about people of another race. It has to do with a bigger system that shapes the way the world works, and who has access to privilege and power, and who does not. If we think racism is only about saying mean things or personally hating people of another race, then we don’t ever stop and question a bigger system— and we can actually feed into that system.

For white people who read that and were like, “Yes! Agreed… okay, so…and now what can I actually do? I’m putting together a post with lots of links for you to click on. (hopefully. There’s a whole move to Texas thing in there, too. But hopefully). When you’re talking about a big system, it’s hard to see how an individual person’s actions fit. But for my South African friends, here’s one practical thing that I didn’t find many articles on, but I think is super important: Learn the first language of the majority of people in your province. If you live in KZN, that’s Zulu.

In the US, racism is tinted by a long slave history, but in South Africa, racism is tinted by colonialism. Part of that means that if you’re an English first-language speaker, the system is built to privilege you in many ways, including economic advantage. You have access to better jobs (in South Africa or globally) and since everyone is trying to learn your language, and you don’t have to learn anyone else’s. Also, we live in a world where we judge people’s level of education (and often intelligence)  by their level of spoken English. Pause and think about what that would be like if you were in France, and you were judging people’s intelligence based on their spoken English, and told everyone in France you weren’t going to bother to learn French because you’re “just not a language person”. It would be weird, right? Yet we do this–and I am just as guilty of this! I have baby-level Zulu (and church vocabulary, whoop whoop!) but 80% of the people in the provence of South Africa speak Zulu. Why is that okay?

If we as white South Africans are really committed to not just intellectually assenting to the idea that racism is a system of privilege built on an unjust history, (and not just thinking mean things about people), then we need to do what we can to:

  • acknowledge privilege (expose it to ourselves & others)
  • work to create fairer systems
  • leverage our privilege for others rather than for ourselves
  • listen, learn from, and stand in solidarity with people who are experiencing racial injustice

And one way that we’re privileged is that we don’t have to learn another language to get by in our country, and we expect everyone to communicate with us in our first language. In our church denominations, in our work places, in our schools– as white people we are often in positions of authority or power, and language plays into this. (Sometimes we say we’re on equal footing with our Zulu peers, or even their subordinate, but because of our history many times we’re unconsciously asserting authority over over them rather than listening. Other times, others are wrongly holding us up on a pedestal because of their false beliefs in their own inferiority). Playing into this dynamic is the fact that we’re communicating in English, our words, our terms, our standards. Hopefully anyone who has taken a good English course has learned how language and worldview are closely linked–how our words shape what we see, and how we see it. And anyone who has seriously studied any foreign language (with a good teacher) has hopefully seen for themselves how this is true.

What if we were willing to be the one that brings chuckles and smirks because the word order of our sentences was wrong, rather than making fun of the way a politician speaks? What if we were willing to put ourselves in a position of being the student? What if we were intentionally in a position where we were not the expert?

And what if doing that opened up a whole new world of understanding? What if we were no longer afraid to shop downtown, because we understood what “all those people” around us were saying? What if we weren’t afraid to drive through a township and have our car break down, because we knew we could ask anyone around us for help? What if we were liberated to find out how the people in our homes were really doing, instead of just giving instructions? What if we had access to the music, the poetry, the stories and histories of everyone around us? We would gain so much. And perhaps it would give us just a bit more sympathy for the people who are speaking English around us. We’d understand how your personality just doesn’t shine through well when you’re communicating in a language you’re not confident in.  Maybe in Zulu someone would say, “The newspapers today are just inflating the egos of the local authorities, but are not taking into account the needs of the working class,” but in English they are forced to say, “The newspapers are bad.”

And just because more and more people  can communicate in English (even better than some of us first-language Englishers) doesn’t mean we don’t have to bother— many of the poorest in our province (often the ones that racist systems hurt the most) still don’t communicate in English at all.

I think of several reasons why people (like me!) in KZN don’t learn Zulu. One is that it’s hard to learn another language, and putting in lots of effort into something we’re not forced to do (because we’re privileged) is difficult. Also: it’s time consuming and we have only been given a finite amount of time by God to accomplish what he wants us to do with our lives–if we can get by with English, why spend time on another language? And perhaps another (or maybe this is just me) is we feel awkward and embarrassed. Learning another language is embarrassing. It’s vulnerable. You sound foolish. It’s like being a two-year-old all over again. I still have nightmares that I’m in Afrikaans class and have to give an oral.

So I’m not saying you have to go and get your PhD in Zulu, but I do think we’re called to at least try. At least entertain the idea. At least make a genuine attempt. Some people may be super gifted and be able to fly ahead, but what if the rest of us signed up for a conversational Zulu class and actually tried? Here are some baby steps we could all easily take:

  • Learn how to pronounce words in Zulu (especially the “hl” sound, which anyone can do, and it’s in more words than the c, x and q which terrify so many of us) so you can at least say the names of your friends and the town where you live correctly.
  • Learn how to greet, and have a basic conversation about the weather, and then use it. The general rule for language learning is learn a little, use a lot.
  • Learn something about the grammar and vocabulary by taking a basic 6 week course. Even if it moves too quickly for you to retain much, you’ll learn invaluable things about the language, which will also give you more understanding when interacting with second-language English speakers (for example, if you understand Zulu word order or the fact the passive voice is used often, you’ll understand why these two things are carried over into English by many second-language speakers. Then rather than being confused or making fun of it, you’ll see it as a sign that they actually know multiple languages pretty decently and are quite intelligent).
  • Don’t settle for Fanagalo, or speaking English in a “Zulu accent”. If you know a small amount of Zulu and speak it correctly (or at least attempt to speak it correctly), you’ll have lots more respect from first-language speakers than if you try to speak lots of Fanagalo. Give learning Zulu the same respect you’d give learning any foreign language. You wouldn’t go to France and speak English through your nose, then tell people it’s basically the same as French.
  • Don’t mock second-language accents. This is a touchy one, I know. In South Africa, we love telling a good story, and we’re good at mimicking each other and having a laugh at ourselves (and each other). But here’s the thing: There’s a difference between impersonating people when you’re really getting into telling a story, and mocking the way people speak. If you can’t tell the difference, then tell stories and jokes that mock yourself, not other people— you’ll be safe from hurting others, and from perpetuating stereotypes about people of other language groups that aren’t true. Our problem is that in South Africa we often rely on these stereotypes to make sense of the world, instead of making fun of the world.

Okay, ball’s in your court: Any first-language Zulu friends want to share their thoughts on English people learning some Zulu? What have I failed to mention? Any other South Africans want to chime in? Have any English-firsties learned Zulu? How did you go about it? 

4 thoughts on “A practical way to help end racism: Learn isiZulu

  1. As a young white person in SA I have been keen to learn isiZulu for years but this article has challenged me to actually take action instead of simply thinking about it.


    1. Hi Jules,
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts! That’s super inspiring!!
      I’d be interested to know if you’re able to find a good conversational isiZulu class in your area, and would be able to share the info on it below. I’ve had several requests from people on Facebook asking for information…so if you find any good ones in your hunt, let me know! I have heard that this online course is pretty good: http://www.learnzulu.co.za


  2. Hey, happened upon your site through facebook. Really appreciate your thoughts here, particularly as we look toward being first-language English speakers in a predominantly Zulu speaking environment.Have you ever read More Than Just Race by Willliam Julius Wilson? Was eye-opening for me. Might be right up your alley.


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