Race and Racism: Lexical Vigilance

In Zoë Wicomb’s “Another story” (1990), a fictional academic visits a relative to research the ‘reality’ behind the story another writer had written about their family in the first half of the twentieth century.  Wicomb’s invented historian wants her aunt to fill in the gaps, tell the family’s side of the published novel, and reveal the truths beneath the misrepresentations of Sarah Gertrude Millin’s God’s Stepchildren (1924), a book steeped in biologistic (mis)understandings of racialised difference.

The short story invites its readers to think about the role of language as the exercise of power in the construction of ‘race’, and in the deliberate political elaboration and explaining away of racist inequality: “Lexical vigilance was a matter of mental hygiene: a regular rethinking of words in common use, like cleaning out rotten food from the back of the refrigerator where no one expects food to rot and poison the rest”.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the official parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance, has issued a call to South Africans to overcome racism.  It is a well-intentioned call.  In many respects, it is a necessary and timeous gesture, while also obvious: the whole post-apartheid South African project was meant to overcome racism; in the first days of 2016 we have been reminded how much ‘unfinished business’ we have left undone, and for too long.  That we are still struggling with racism in these ways at this late date is both unacceptable, and hardly surprising.  And again, that Maimane wishes us to ‘hate no more’ (to invoke the title of gifted ‘Drum’ journalist Arthur Maimane’s book) is admirable; how he and his party propose to lead such a process may need rethinking.

When we speak and write about ‘race’, too often too many are mired in equating ‘race’ with ‘skin colour’.  The lessons of anti-racism learned in South Africa in the wake of the Black Consciousness Movement, along with its echoes through the United Democratic Front, and the reflection of such material political struggles in the critical race theories which informed the academic study of ‘race’ and racism in the 1980s, across disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, should not be forgotten or dismissed.

Similarly, the lessons offered by comparative studies of ‘race’ and racism in critical race theory across a variety of political spaces internationally, should bear on our own analysis of the phantom of ‘race’ and the blight of racism in post-millennial South Africa.  If we do not learn from history, our own especially, we are bound to repeat its mistakes, and worse, what was tragic before, will now become farce.  Even in clichés there are truths.

If we are to have conversations about ‘race’ across South Africa in 2016, as Maimane proposes, even with the lofty aim of resisting racism or rooting it out, the substance of such conversations may require much more work than mere talking.  We need informed conversations which are much more productive than mere talk aimed at airing old ideas and dated misconceptions.  Experiences of racism, whether as practitioners or subjects, whether as beneficiaries or as victims, would not be enough to inform discussions meaningfully; symptom recitals are not enough to cure neuroses.  And some of that talk about ‘race’ and racism would require careful listening, from the majority of South Africans, because many people may need to rethink what they have always assumed to be self-evident truths.

Some of the misconceptions circulating as putative truths include the ‘reality’ of ‘race’ (you can see people are different when you look at them), that racism is an inevitable consequences of raciological thinking, that we have always had ‘race’ or racialised difference in human societies, and that racism exists everywhere.  All of these ideas masquerading as ‘facts’ are false, and have been shown to be so through rigorous research.  It may be difficult for many people to accept that the ways in which they tell Black people from white people using phenotype are not only unreliable, but a product of very specific, historically time-bound social and political processes which have been and need to be continuously debunked.

If we are to engage in meaningful, productive conversations about race, ‘race’, and racism in contemporary South Africa, we cannot rely on old notions of these concepts or the relationships between them.  We may also have to work in a whole array of not-so-new concepts and analytical tools, some of which are deeply discomfiting because they require deep and profound introspection and self-analysis.  The work of writers like Peggy McIntosh, David Roediger, George Lipsitz, Melissa Steyn, J.M. Coetzee, Vron Ware, Ruth Frankenberg, and Bolette Blaagaard on whiteness may begin to inform those made uncomfortable by the analysis of ‘race’ in ways they find so distasteful. They may also need to engage discussions about the possessive investment in whiteness, white privilege, class privilege, the reproduction of racism through social practices, the abolition of whiteness, the operation of the colonial gaze, and the role of material history in the making of the present.

The ways in which concepts of ‘race’ and practices of racism are articulated now relate to how they were used and defined in the past, but they are also shaped by what has happened in the world since, and what is happening now in the economy, the political domain, but also in private interactions.  We need to rework our approach to the problem if we are to deal with its contemporary consequences and attempt to solve it.  Old ideas do not always adequately address the new formations in which problems present themselves.

It is unproductive to attempt to undo the work of contemporary racism in South Africa without addressing the ways in which racism works globally.  It is equally futile to imagine one can address racism today without addressing how the many ways through which difference is articulated intersect with one another (‘race’, class, sex, gender, sexuality, geography, education, language, religion, nationality, citizenship, among others) to effect unequal resource distribution today.

Robert Miles reminded us in the last century that it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between analyses that use ‘race’ (or its biologistic rendition, race) to make sense of the world, and analyses that look at how ‘race’ is used to make sense of the world.  In the first category of work, ‘race’ is given a phenomenal reality which it does not truly possess.  It is in such arguments and views that people insist that there are real, categorical differences of value between people, and these are located in people’s bodies either because of biology or as effects of socialisation, and that such inevitable, immanent differences explain the world and its workings.  In the second category of much more difficult work, we find explanations which seek to show how work in the first category is blind to other differences, and also blind to the way in which the use of ‘race’ to explain the world provides us with at best inadequate, and at worst, false and baleful explanations.

Mmusi Maimane, and all of us with him, may wish to think more carefully how we proceed to speak about ‘race’ as the social construction of difference that uses superficial elements on the human body to deduce value and meaning erroneously.  We need to admit that ‘race’ has no biological reality (probably the hardest thing for many to do, given how they insist in the face of evidence that perception is science).  We need to learn that human beings have not always had ‘race’ or racialised difference in the way we have come to know it: that ‘race’ in its modern form dates from the last 600 years, for a species, homo sapiens sapiens, which has been civilised for 10,000-12,000 years, and has been on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

Additionally, we may need to think about how the effects of administrative constructions of ‘race’ in colonial and apartheid South Africa are partially responsible for the environment we now inhabit. Furthermore, we have also actively articulated and rearticulated ‘race’ as difference and reconfigured racism in the last twenty years of post-apartheid ‘freedom’ differently; ‘race’ and racism did not disappear on 28 April 1994.

Some of this work has happened and will have to continue at institutional level (the equivalent of de-Nazifying our social and political institutions of the vestiges of colonialism and apartheid); much of it will have to happen at the individual level, unlearning beliefs which contradict reason and proof.  We live on this planet as if it were flat, even though we know it is a sphere.  Analogically, we live in this world as if ‘race’ is real, and its spectral non-existence haunts our material lives in ways that ensure the continued injustice.

It may well be time to exorcise the ghost of ‘race’ and the madness of racism which it inspires.  But how we go about doing this needs careful consideration.  If we want to tell ourselves a new story, we have to let go of the old story.  In the speech made by the leader of the official opposition, the old story and its terms live on (the reification of ‘race’, a conflation of non-racism with anti-racism, and despite a sentimental yearning for a world beyond racism, a failure to realise that it is not only a vestige of the past, but a living consequence of contemporary political processes and current thought and action).  This dead-undead element, like a ghost in a Gothic novel, prevents new, productive, contemporary understandings from informing our attempts to bring a new society into existence.

Of course, Mmusi Maimane is not the only one struggling with this.  Nor is his the only party caught in the interregnum.  But if the DA leader and his party wish to do something different, we may need to heed the words of writers like NoViolet Bulawayo and Bessie Head.  It may not be enough to express desire for a new way of being.  It may be time to clean out the refrigerator of the rotten food, the old ways of thinking.  It has, after all, been twenty-six years since Wicomb challenged us to do so.

We need another story.

- eNCA

- This article was first published by on Tuesday 19 January 2016

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