Identity by race does matter
“Race matters. It matters because of the meanings we give to it. How and why race had come to matter, and how and why we continue to make race matter, has to do with ways in which history, power and politics shape the frames within which meaning is made, contested and renegotiated.” — Zimitri Erasmus, Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa
On April 12 2018, Mpho Tshivhase was conferred her doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
She was recognised in various publications and on social media as the “first African woman from South Africa” or the “first black woman from South Africa” to receive her doctorate in philosophy.
This recognition has been received with much contention, because there are two other black South African women who have received their PhDs in philosophy — Professor Mala Singh, who is of Indian descent, and Dr Jillian Gardner, of coloured descent.
Singh would count as the first black woman in South Africa to receive this degree, if we accept “black” as a blanket term that includes all people of colour in South Africa.
This brings to the fore questions about black identity in South Africa: What do the racial categories within “blackness” mean? When are the categories “black” and “black African” useful, and when are they not?
To echo Erasmus’s words, we argue that race does matter. One only sees a problem with distinguishing Tshivhase as the first black African woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy when one is resistant to the idea that difference is constitutive of the shared identity of “black”.
We think that racial distinctions within blackness matter because “identity is bound up with difference”. It matters to recognise Tshivhase’s race in this case: a) to celebrate that she has done something that no other black African woman in South Africa has done; and b) to highlight the positionality of black African women in philosophy today. Why is it that so few black women are in philosophy in South Africa?
Northwestern University academic José Medina’s use of the metaphor of a family to analyse shared identity is an excellent way to conceive of the category “black”. Families consist of people who are similar in some ways but are different in others. We look past these differences in certain contexts to group people together and to treat them as members of the same family. But for Medina families are made of heterogeneous elements — they are based on diversity.
Blackness in South Africa is based on diversity. According to current legislation and practice, any black African, coloured or Indian person who was in South Africa before 1994 is considered black and is entitled to benefit from Black Economic Empowerment.
We came to be “black” in the context of the law because anyone who was not white during apartheid was considered and treated as black — which translated to less than white people. The point of recognising African, coloured or Indian people as black today is to redress the injustices dealt out as a result of our “black” group identity.
But coloured and Indian people were treated less harshly than black African people during apartheid, with more access to public services and amenities. A geographical map of Johannesburg still bears this fact out, with typically Indian and coloured neighbourhoods being closer to typically white, better serviced, areas. Black African, white, coloured and Indian people are still considered separate races — from the way in which Statistics South Africa collects its census data on race to the racial health inequalities across various diseases and to the differential socioeconomic conditions and outcomes that come with being a member of this or that race.
When we are blind to these similarities and differences between black African, coloured and Indian people, we run the risk of homogenising blackness. Tshivhase deserves to be recognised because she has reached a milestone that no other black African woman in South Africa has. This difference matters.
It may sound odd to suggest that someone is a black African but this should not be misunderstood as a tautology. Black in this instance refers to what Steve Biko articulates when defining Black Consciousness: “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation — being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”
Erasmus’s concept of “double politics” forces us to “acknowledge the ways in which race continues to matter, while working towards its undoing … race is both constructed and ‘real’, in the sense that it means something to social subjects, and that this meaning is valid not because it is the only or final meaning, but because it is a way of making sense of the world”.
As people who identify as academic philosophers, we know and understand the hurdles that Tshivhase has had to overcome. Tensions arose last year in the philosophy community when the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA) almost collapsed following claims of racism — but what this incident failed to highlight was how masculine the field of philosophy is.
We think that there is a fruitful conversation that needs to be held, about why there are so few black women in philosophy, both in South Africa and abroad. The numbers are telling.
The report, The Demographic Diversity of Philosophy and the Possibilities of Transforming Philosophy in South Africa by Sharli Anne Paphitis and Martin Villet outlines, of the 110 academic philosophers employed in philosophy departments in South Africa, 72.6% are men and 27.7% are women. Moreover, of these, 110 are white, 21 are black Africans, three are Indian and two are coloured.
The report details that those respondents who did not feel at home in their philosophy departments were black and women.
What then are we, two young black African women, still doing in philosophy in South Africa? Here are our stories:
I came to be in philosophy accidentally; my initial career path was in journalism. But there was something about philosophy, especially the kind of critical philosophy I was exposed to at Penn State University’s College of the Liberal Arts’s Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute that piqued my interest. It was something about the kind of critical thinking it engendered and its ability to help make sense of big questions that caught my interest.
In my entire philosophy career, I had never been taught by a black person. But Tshivhase was one of my undergraduate tutors and was proof that I, too, could be in philosophy. Today I am a lecturer in the department of philosophy of UJ. I am in the even more treacherous field of philosophy of science, as one of only two black people (both women) doing a PhD history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.
Nompumelelo Zinhle Manzini
Like Mncube, I came into philosophy by accident. At UJ, political science was my major and my intention was to do an LLB afterwards. I then fell in love with philosophy because it allowed me to think critically and explore normative questions about society and how we come to ascribe certain meanings to concepts suchas personhood. In my second year I was taught by Tshivhase, and had Mncube as a tutor. Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola taught slavery and memory during my master’s degree. They were great affirmations that I, too, can do philosophy. The low numbers of black women in philosophy has motivated me to continue with a philosophy doctorate. I have a moral duty to ensure that more of us can see ourselves in these spaces.
Often the response to black people who do great things is to question their achievements: Could it really be true? Are they really the first to achieve this? There must be something wrong here?
There is nothing wrong here.
Tshivhase is the first black African woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy. The recognition of her achievement matters to encourage the next generation of philosophers in South Africa. We need to move beyond a mere aesthetic transformation of philosophy. It would be a huge injustice not to celebrate Tshivhase’s achievements, both of her PhD and that of being the first black woman to be the president of the PSSA. Phambili!
Nompumelelo Zinhle Manzini is a lecturer at the University of Zululand. She will start her PhD in philosophy and women and gender studies in September at Penn State University. Zinhle Mncube is a lecturer at UJ. She is a PhD candidate in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge