Yes, identity by race does matter, but at what other costs?


From the outset, I would like to state my agreement with one of the central aims of the article “Identity by race does matter” by Nompumelelo Zinhle Manzini and Zinhle Mncube, which is to praise Mpho Tshivhase for being the first South African “black African” woman to obtain a doctoral degree in philosophy.

The achievement is remarkable in light of the infrequency with which it occurs. And I concur that race does indeed matter. In a country in which race was the primary determinant of personhood, for it not to matter would be dangerous and unethical.

In addition, I understand the need to note that, although there may have been women of “Indian” and “coloured” descent with PhDs previously, Tshivase’s achievement is singular, and for reasons of representation, necessary. These distinctions are not racial as much as they are “tribal” or “ethnic” if one is to follow the black radical tradition in general, and the Black Consciousness Movement in particular, as the authors purport to. In contrast to Steve Biko, their article appears to be arguing for the ways in which “ethnicity” — and not race — matters. For Biko, the term “black” was to be used as a way to rejecting the hierarchical distinctions between blacks, not to reaffirm it.

These tensions play out in very real ways outside of the academy. Ethnic tensions on the streets of Cape Town have grown increasingly frightening over the past few months. It would be obtuse of me to agree with the authors that we should emphasise how our identities are bound up in difference, to borrow from Zimitri Erasmus, as the authors do.

The violence being wrought is often rooted in these perceived differences. The authors should not be entirely to blame for having raised the point of difference, when it is this very difference at the source of black-on-black violence. The discipline of analytic philosophy has notoriously not taken seriously the problems of the material world in which it finds itself. So to raise the fact of identity through difference, sans the violence it instigates, is unsurprising.

I do not wish to dwell on the point of ethnic difference and identity, because it should not detract from the larger problem which the authors highlight, and I must forcefully restate: black women are grossly underrepresented in the discipline of philosophy.

A graver concern underlies the article. In the penultimate line, the writers say: “We need to move beyond a mere aesthetic transformation of philosophy.” My concern relates to this injunction.

READ MORE: Biko’s vision of freedom must be kept alive – especially now

To show that Tshivhase’s categorisation as “black African” is not a tautology, the authors invoke Biko’s definition of black. As quoted in the article, Biko had formulated a concept of black outside of the racial categorisation of the apartheid state. Speaking to all members of the oppressed in South Africa, Biko presented a conception of being black that displayed an ethical commitment to the liberation of black people.

Under Biko’s conception, to self-identify as black is to accept an ethicopolitical position against white supremacy. To be black would require one to: a) be a member of the colonially oppressed and b) adopt a particular political commitment to end white supremacy.

Although Tshivhase and her defenders meet the first qualification, it seems unclear whether they have managed to meet the second. The authors exhort us to celebrate not only the conferral of Tshivhase’s PhD in philosophy but also the fact that she is the first black woman to be the president of the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA).

The call for the disbandment of the PSSA last year had its basis in the claim that philosophy in South Africa has been, and still is, complicit in the oppression of black people, black modes of being and the marginalisation of African philosophy. The Eurocentrism typified by white settler philosophers in South Africa constitutes the PSSA, so much so that it is impossible to get rid of the racism and “save” the PSSA. Here, the identity between Eurocentrism and the philosophy espoused and supported by those in the PSSA is not an identity based on difference — it is an indiscernible identity.

The arrogance of whiteness is such that the leading “African philosopher” in the area of ubuntu, Professor Thaddeus Metz, is a white settler who does not have command over any indigenous language. Metz made his grand entrance into “African philosophy” with a paper titled Towards an African Moral Theory, implying with poor justification that Africans were without such a theory, and were waiting for him to introduce one to them.

By way of context, it is important to note that Metz had been instrumental in the effective expulsion of a black student who questioned the veracity of his account of ubuntu, and the insufficient attention he has given to his African critics in the teaching of his work. It is telling that in an attempt to transform, the nearly dead PSSA has appointed its first black woman philosopher, a student of Metz’s. It would be naive to assume that Tshivhase’s appointment is a testimony to the PSSA’s commitment to gender parity in the discipline.

In the broadest conception of black, Tshivhase is one of three women with doctoral degrees in the field, itself testimony to the fact that the PSSA has not endeavoured to address this problem, and has made this appointment now, 24 years after the formal end of apartheid, conveniently at the point at which it is at risk of losing credibility. Although this may be a personal achievement for Tshivhase, her appointment serves to shield members of the PSSA from culpability and provides them with the possible conditions of their survival, which in effect, allows them to reproduce themselves and the epistemological violence they inflict on black theorists.

The debate that called for the PSSA’s disbandment has resulted in the formation of a majority black Azanian Philosophical Society (APS), launched in August last year.

Herein lies the simple contradiction: one cannot be both anti-racist and stand in defence of a racist PSSA. The black philosophers who had left the PSSA to form the APS took their example from Biko when, albeit under very different circumstances, he left the National Union of South African Students and formed the exclusively black South African Students’ Organisation. The injunction to “move beyond a mere aesthetic transformation of philosophy” is a serious one. But by ensuring the conditions of the survival of the PSSA, we do not carry the injunction through.

As black women we have a moral duty to be examples to those who come after us, both in the positions we occupy, but even more so in our fight against racism and injustice. We cannot allow ourselves to become examples of success if it means that we have to work in the structures of our own oppression. At what cost does our representation come? What do we come to represent when we protect the epistemological dominance and violence of an oppressive settler minority?

Ziyana Lategan is a member of the Azanian Philosophical Society. She has recently completed her MA and will begin her PhD at Binghamton University in New York State


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Ziyana Lategan
Ziyana Lategan is a member of the Azanian Philosophical Society. She has recently completed her MA and will begin her PhD at Binghamton University in New York State.

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