Confessions of a Recovering Racist

In the last month I’ve listened to two sermons where the minister said, “I’m a recovering racist.”

The words were followed by an almost palpable, collective intake of breath. A small shock charge seemed to run through the congregation. I felt it in myself—a slight internal cringing. Should you be saying that? Here? In South Africa? In 2017? Two white ministers. One nearing retirement. One a young father. Both confessing a struggle with racism.

A week or two later Sihle Mooi (Director of Rays of Hope) told his remarkable story. Following his account of being a victim of Apartheid-era violence, he confessed his difficult relationship with privileged ‘whiteness’.

More honest, emotion-laden words in a country where issues of race feel like the great open wound that just doesn’t heal. Every slogan-slinging political rally, every heated #FeesMustFall discussion, every ill-considered tweet pulls that wound open wider, exposing the racial rift in our country.

I’m a recovering racist.

I don’t remember all the details of the sermons, but I do remember those emotive words. Those deeply vulnerable and courageous words. And because they were spoken by men I have come to respect and look up to, they made me pause and take stock. They actually made me ask, “Am I a recovering racist too?”

It’s not a comfortable question, let me tell you. You know that little cringe I felt as I listened to the sermons? Well, asking myself this question was like maxing that cringe-factor to almost unbearable levels.

Every fibre in me wants to shout, No! I am not a racist. I see past the superficiality of skin colour. I’m always respectful to everyone, no matter their race.

But then I remember another thing Sihle said about the way he was treated. He said it wasn’t the overt, abusive racism that he struggled with the most. It was actually the subtle racism. Teachers who thought he wasn’t quite as capable or moral as their white students. People who smiled kindly but spoke ‘down’ to him in a patronising tone.

And then I am forced to admit that I have been, and often still am, guilty of such ‘covert racism’. Some of the toxic evil of Apartheid has seeped into my soul.

Yes. I am a recovering racist.

For me there is hope in that word ‘recovering’. It says, I do not want to continue in this behaviour. I want to change. I want to do better. I want to ask forgiveness of those my attitudes and behaviour have hurt. That from now on I want to be someone who mends the rift in my country, not somebody who widens it.

And there is power in the confession itself. I felt it in church during those sermons. Truth sets free. It sets me free, because it loosens the power of that sin in my life. I hope—and pray—that it sets free those who have been hurt by my sin. And it can set others free if they take the opportunity to ask themselves the same tough question.

Finally, it allows God to begin to work in a deep place in my heart, one I’ve kept hidden from His touch. I claim His promise for myself and for every other person who admits this struggle with racism and discrimination:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)


A heart of flesh—of love and compassion and mercy towards every person in this country, no matter their race, status or creed.

This is what we need to heal our beloved country’s wounds.


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  1. Wat een mooi oprecht stuk heb je geschreven Joan, respect daarvoor! x

    • Joan Campbell

      Bedankt Daniella.This is such an emotive issue in our country. The blog has been a bit hard for some people to read, but it felt like something important for me to write. I appreciate your comment.

  2. Brave and true, Joan – thank you! x

  3. My father was raised in the southern part of the US and definitely had a racist point of view which rubbed off on me. About 40 years ago I confronted my viewpoint and made a conscious decision that that was not what I believed and set out to change. Christ did give me new heart of flesh!

    • Joan Campbell

      Thank you Dean. I found it so liberating just to look into my heart and let God have this area. It already feels like something has shifted in me. Thank you for the confirmation that He does give us hearts of flesh!

  4. Thank you Joan for baring your sole in your blog. Such introspection shows great depth of character and courage. I applaud you.
    As a recovering racist myself, I can recommend a visit to the Apartheid Museum (we went on Saturday) and it really gave me a new, wider perspective on the struggle against racism in our country and how alert each of us has to be in our daily experience to stand firm against racism of ANY form – especially the covert form you mentioned in your blog. I am striving to be more alert to recognising God’s likeness in every person around me.
    Thank you for your thought provoking blog!

  5. Yes,thank-you Joan for your infectious and courageous honesty…I too must confess that I carry symptoms of the infection/addiction of racism. It is easy to ‘justify’ it in those terms, because it implies that I can’t really help it. The hardest part is to look at myself squarely in the mirror and take responsibility for the truth that I see.

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