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Who has authority to talk about identity?

The philosophical community of South Africa was rocked by allegations of racism at the annual meeting of the Philosophical Society of South Africa in January. There were calls to disband the society. Two members resigned. The president stepped down. This uproar was in part a result of this. At the annual meeting last year the panel discussion was “South African identity”. The convener and the panel participants were white.

About 10 months later, a member wrote an email expressing dismay that no response had been issued by the executive members on what had occurred. Two weeks later, the president sent an email to members in which she apologised “unreservedly for our silence on the matter”.

The 2016 conference organisers said in their email that, because of “an unacceptable oversight, we did not realise that all the participants of the panel were white and thus unrepresentative until the panel was taking place”.

There is doubtless something odd when a panel discussion titled “South African identity” has only white people as its participants.

But what was the reason for the consternation? Was it the fact that the ethnic composition of the panel was not representative of the ethnic diversity of the philosophical community or of South African society more generally? Or was it the fact that the panellists did not have the authority to speak about South African identity?

Who has the authority to speak about South African identity? I have rarely heard this question being explicitly debated in a forum of discussion. Most often, it is assumed that someone’s race and nationality are sufficient to qualify, or indeed disqualify, them to speak on this matter with authority.

This is somewhat understandable. What we are witnessing today is a contestation between the multiple histories and narratives that constitute the collective memory of South African society.

There is a growing need, felt especially by young adults attending universities today, to address the problem of the histories and narratives that are to have an authoritative status in our collective memory and that are to be passed down as a legacy. It is a struggle whose aim is to claim ownership of the past and lay the foundations of a new beginning and destiny for South Africa.

But the assumption on which this struggle is based is deeply troubling. Instead of challenging the racialism and nationalism of the apartheid regime, it tends to normalise it.

Some of the recent discussions at universities on Africanising the curriculum of subjects in the humanities clearly bear witness to this. The call to Africanise and decolonise subjects often amounts, in practice, to no more than a requirement to redesign our courses in such a way that they speak to a black South African audience.

As a result, we as lecturers and administrators are required to relate to students strictly in terms of their race and nationality. We also have to make the assumption that our students are too parochial to have an interest in matters that do not have a bearing on their race and nationality.

The effect of this objectifying attitude is that it produces the kind of student that desires to objectify herself in terms of her race and nationality. This is a dangerous and sinister situation for an educational institution to be in. It inadvertently legitimises xenophobia towards black and white foreigners and the exclusion of non-black South Africans from partaking in the struggle to establish a new future for South Africa.

If one’s race and nationality operate as conditions of inclusion, they will also operate as conditions of exclusion. White guilt is, I believe, what partly sustains this sinister situation.

When the topic of race and racism appears in discussions and meetings in some departments, two things generally happen. On the one hand, my white colleagues tend to become silent. On the other, they look to my black colleagues to say something. This situation always makes me uneasy. First, because their look solicits my non-white colleagues to objectify themselves in terms of their race. Second, because the silence of my white colleagues expresses their white guilt. This feeling is narcissistic and contributes to the problem.

Someone who repeatedly says to himself mea culpa, “it is my fault”, “I am guilty”, thinks only of “me, me, me”. He tends to think that all that happens in the world somehow concerns him, believing as he does that he is responsible and guilty for it all. Such a person cannot see his neighbour and fellow human being as an equal.

His fellow human being has for him a semi-divine status, since he thinks that his every word and gesture – indeed, his very existence – constitutes an offence.

There is perhaps not much difference between white guilt and anti-black racism, between treating a black person as someone who is in need of saving and as someone who is to be colonised or killed. A liberal woman ridden with white guilt will give a black man a higher value and moral status than herself. A conservative man with racist beliefs will give a black man a lower value and moral status than himself.

The liberal woman and the conservative man will evaluate the black man in opposite ways, positively and negatively, but they will evaluate that person in relation to his blackness. Far from putting an end to the objectification of people in terms of their race, white guilt is a central component of its machinery.

Who in the end has the authority to speak on race, racism or South African identity? There is no doubt in my mind that a white man cannot experience the anti-black oppression of racialised institutions, just as a man cannot experience the gender oppression of patriarchal institutions. But this does not mean that someone who experiences these kinds of oppression has the authority and knowledge to speak about them.

Oppression is truly effective when it blinds us to it, when we fail to recognise that we are being oppressed and we accept as normal our dire conditions of existence. It is doubtful that the oppressed worker in a capitalist system, the oppressed woman in patriarchal institutions, will always produce a reliable discourse on the coercion and domination to which they are constantly subject.

Besides, does my first-hand experience of being oppressed as a woman carry with it any authority? It is a fact about me as a woman that I experience oppression when I enter patriarchal institutions. But it is an altogether different thing to talk about my experience, to evaluate it or make a judgment on its basis.

Authority is a property of our judgments insofar as we purport to say something true by means of them, and not of our experiences.

When I talk about racism, South African identity or African philosophy, my aim is to say something true about such things. In so doing, I make myself accountable for my words. My speech is open to being challenged by others. But to be black or a woman, to experience oppression, are facts about me. They are not judgments about my person. They carry in themselves no authority. In consequence, they cannot qualify someone to speak on such matters with authority.

To be sure, white, gender and class privilege can blind a person from seeing the true mechanisms of oppression against blacks, women and workers. But this blindness is not particular to members of the white male middle classes. What privilege does is turn a social relation between people into a natural or normal relation. We take it for granted that the impoverished conditions of many black people in South Africa are a social arrangement inherited from the apartheid regime. We forget that a woman’s place being in the home and kitchen is a social condition resulting from thousands of years of patriarchal rule. Most members of society equally share this forgetfulness about the true state of things. But that means that any member of society can also contest it.

As long as our discourse on race, racism and South African identity remains invested with the values of racialism, nationalism and white guilt, they will continue to generate the old forms of xenophobia and exclusion in new and untold ways. We will have failed in our task to address and redress the injustices of the past. They will continue to haunt us for generations to come.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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