In a piece published in the Mail & Guardian (“So who has the right to speak about identity? February 10), I raised what had until then been a fairly neglected question in the South African context. I argued that this authority cannot be ascribed to someone on the basis of their race, gender or nationality.
This has given rise to a variety of criticisms by academics, such as Professor Mabogo More (“Isn’t identity informed by experience?”, February 24), Professor Nyasha Mboti (“The unbearable whiteness of white philosophers”, M&G Online, March 8) and by other commentators in the media. Some of them have managed to construe my argument in such a way as to suggest that I am an apologist for anti-black racism.
But I was struck more by the tone of the criticisms than by their substance. It was violent and emotional. Something had struck a chord.
Those who rejected my argument seemed to be doing so on the grounds that if one is of a certain race, ethnicity or gender then one must have a privileged insight into the mechanisms of oppression that target people of one’s race, ethnicity or gender. This is what Mboti suggests when he rhetorically asks: “Who then should know my scars better than me?”
We might then wonder whether a physician or a psychoanalyst would be in a better position to know that, depending on whether he means physical or mental scars.
The confusion under which Mboti labours is common among those who, like him, are committed to standpoint theory in feminism, Marxist studies and critical race studies. Standpoint theory in feminism, for instance, claims that only if you view the world from the perspective of a woman’s experience will you gain knowledge of the patriarchal structures of oppression in society.
It is a normative standpoint because it claims to deliver knowledge and truth about the world. As such, in principle, anyone can occupy it. There is nothing to prevent a man from occupying this standpoint in order to know how patriarchy works, save his unwillingness to know or his desire to profit from this form of oppression.
Confusion arises when a normative standpoint is seen as factual. It generates the absurd claim that every woman, by virtue of her womanhood, knows how patriarchy works. This not only essentialises women, it also makes a mystery of the success of patriarchal oppression. How could women have been oppressed for thousands of years if they had known from the start that they were being oppressed, and this by virtue of their very nature as women?
Is it not more plausible to believe, as does the orthodox Marxist, that oppression works when it blinds us to it, when both men and women accept this social relation of inequality between men and women as a natural one?
This type of confusion is also an unwillingness to see or know the difference between being black and occupying the normative standpoint from which inferences are made about the structures of racial oppression from the everyday experiences of black people. Who has the authority to occupy this normative standpoint?
My critics want to say “only black people, because they know best about anti-black oppression”. More says “for black people in an anti-black world, there is never a moment in their lives when their blackness is not an issue such that it can be treated as irrelevant to their existence”. That is without a doubt true.
But I do not see how it follows that I know that I am being oppressed from the fact that I am being oppressed. To know this, and to know how oppression works on people of my racial identity, it helps to occupy a different standpoint. Instead of experiencing oppression as a black man, I might look at the world from the perspective of a black man who experiences oppression.
More criticises me for implying that young black South African philosophers “do not know who and what they are”. That is indeed what is partly in question. I doubt that anyone truly knows who he is or what happens to him. I do not mean this in some general philosophical sense. It is often the case that victims of crime or of oppression do not know the traumatic experience they have undergone or that they have inherited from their parents. Freud insisted that a trauma is never experienced directly but only belatedly.
Perhaps an analogy will bring out the strangeness of my critics’ position. According to them, being Jewish, I ought to have a privileged insight into the mechanisms of anti-Semitic oppression and, correlatively, of the reasons for the Holocaust, too. But that is not the case. I have often inspected my first-hand experiences of anti-Semitism and I have found no such knowledge or insight. I have found only pain.
It is also more reasonable to believe that a scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust has a much better grasp of these matters than I have. The scholar, not being Jewish, has no first-hand experience of anti-Semitism. But it doesn’t follow that he doesn’t have the authority and knowledge to talk about such experiences and that he is not in a much better position than I am to do so.
What my critics fail to understand when I was talking of white guilt is that, far from suggesting that white people should not feel remorse for what they have done to black people for centuries, it contributes to the essentialisation of black identity. The task for white people is to assume responsibility for what they have done without objectifying the oppressed through white guilt.
The problem with essentialising black identity, as with essentialising Jewish or any other identity, is that it leads to a morbid fixation on one’s racial identity. It will act as a fetish for the members of the racial group. It will terrify or gratify them depending on whether their behaviour falls in line with the expectations associated with that identity — that is, with their fetish.
For example, given that I am Jewish, in the eyes of my community I must be pro-Israel. If I am pro-Israel then I have fulfilled the expectations associated with being Jewish, which is gratifying. But if I criticise the Israeli occupation in Palestine then strategies are deployed to bring my behaviour in line with the expectations of my community. One is to label me a “self-hating Jew” to provoke discomfort, fear or terror.
The situation does not seem to be so different in this context. The fetishisation of black identity, and of racial identity more generally, seems to be part of the current South African experience.
My partner, for instance, whose racial identity is not immediately evident from her skin tone and facial features, is frequently asked: “What’s your origin?” This is not asked out of curiosity. It is to know how she is to be treated. The assumption is that the racial group to which you belong determines your behaviour so that if you’re black, coloured, Indian or white, I will have to treat you differently in each case.
It is a fairly common experience for a black woman in a mixed relationship with a white man to be treated as something less than human. The white man is always invisible when he is with her. The black woman is always visible because she is with him. She receives suggestive looks, meaning that she’s with him for the money, that she’s a whore, that she’s not educated, or that she must not be happy with who she is as a black woman. These looks are designed to humiliate her and bring her in line with the expectations associated with her black identity.
The discourse on racial identity is invested with a host of fantasies and unwholesome fixations, chief among which is its fetishisation.
Do my critics fetishise black identity? That is doubtless not for me to say, not being an expert on the matter. But they are perhaps also not in the best position to know, unless of course they are also trained psychoanalysts.
Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the University of Johannesburg’s philosophy department. These are his own views