Will the harsh spotlight of history forever damn us?

I

(I think so.)

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-10-19-are-we-still-welcome-here/#.WAed6JBXeK0

Are we still welcome here?

By Steven B Sidley, October 2016

“A crowd of belligerent Fallists enter a lecture hall and point at the white students – ‘We have no reason to co-exist peacefully with you, ever’. Another young white, left-wing student in a politics class tries to make a point in an interactive session and is told, ‘Shut up, you white bitch, your view is irrelevant.'”

Sidley’s article is a bleak reflection on the increasingly intolerant and violent tone evident in the current wave of student protests (and the proliferation of toxicity in social media). Some quotes from the “GroundUp” website:

“Protesters announced that they would continue disrupting lectures, both in classrooms and online, until their demands are met.”

“The student groups paralysing our higher education system have shown no qualms about their methods: destroying buses, cars, libraries, administrative offices, and works of art, manufacturing petrol bombs, looting sections of Johannesburg, harassing ordinary staff with clubs and threatening the children’s creche at the University of Cape Town. At CPUT, they locked two guards into a burning building, fortunately failing to take their lives.”
– From “UCT: the silence of things not being attempted” By Imraan Coovadia, Ground Up, October 2016

II

“Whites Are Racist Until Whiteness is Defunct.”

“All whites are racist.”

These two statements by Gillian Schutte of ‘Media for Justice’ (http://www.mediaforjustice.net) and published in The Citizen (Jun 17, 2016) are deeply problematic, if only because the word “racist” is not simply a neutral description of a certain kind of individual (for instance, Saying “She is a pilot”, “The man is a schizophrenic” or “the youth is a party-goer”).

Other statements by Schutte include:

“The only race struggle whites should engage in is to obliterate the whiteness they are born into … with no expectation of ‘exceptionalism’ or accolades for being a good white.“

And

“What use are good whites anyway, when 22 years later nothing much has changed for the majority of black people in SA?”

The usefulness of “good whites” in Schutte’s utilitarian view is judged by “nothing much (having) changed for the majority of black people in SA”. Firstly, are people (white, black or otherwise) to be valued only for their usefulness? And if after 22 years of democratic rule “nothing much has changed” this must surely indicate a much broader range of causes, not the least being scapegoating (see: René Noël Théophile Girard:

“all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry)”; “In Girard’s view, it is humankind, not God, who has need for various forms of atoning violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire).” – Wikipedia

Words are rarely if ever neutral symbols: many words are abused and their meanings easily distorted.

“In the late nineties, conservative John Bunzel, a former member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, wrote that President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race should call for an end of the “corrupted usage” of the word “racist” especially when used as an “accusation” or “smear word” because: “[It] breeds bitterness and polarization, not a spirit of pragmatic reasonableness in confronting our difficult problems.”

“…the constant use of such incendiary and dramatic language often takes us away from the root of the problem, and takes us away from the fight for racial justice. I’m not advocating we take the racist moniker from those that truly deserve it, like Adolf Hitler and white supremacist David Duke. But the word racist has gone from being used to describe the harsh discrimination of the Jews, to a sort of catch all phrase for anything that is racially negative, stereotypical or just deviates from what we have deemed to be the “politically correct ” racial transcript.

“A lot of times when we talk about racism, we’re talking about racial prejudice”, says Lecia Brooks, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She adds, “folks don’t have the language to talk about racism. Language is important”. Jennifer Roth-Gordon, a linguist at Arizona State agrees that the idea that one is a “racist” today is associated with an ignorance. But she says the word means a little more than just a simple prejudice. “Prejudice is a bias. Racism is a bias with prejudice and is institutional. Prejudice is a far more general term since there are people of color who are biased.”

“Roth-Gordon says a particular problem with the word is that it’s often attributed to individual actions rather than a systematic deficiency. “Talking about individual racists or racism, lets us whites off the hook. We can go around and say ‘tsk tsk’, I would never do that.” She says we have to stop focusing on the accusation and instead focus on the action. She points to video by hip-hop commentator, Jay Smooth (watch it here), on how to tell someone they sound racist. In it, he says you have to separate between “what they did” and “what they are”, while keeping the conversation on what they said. It’s an interesting strategy and one that many in the media and blogosphere (including myself) should take note of.

Still, I think we would all benefit from a moratorium on the word. Maybe if we stop the superfluous use of the “R” word we can all pause for a minute and admit to certain biases and prejudices without feeling like we’re the lowest of the low and begin to work towards achieving real racial justice.

Today the word racist, and the shaming that goes along with it, has turned too political. It is also too much about individual prejudice, when in reality, racial justice is something that we all should be fighting for together.”

Source: It’s time to put a moratorium on the word ‘racist’ by 

(See also the very interesting book: Dangerous Words, by G. Eberle.)


If the pen is mightier than the sword, then words are indeed it’s ammunition.

Judith February writes:

“Increasing polarisation and factionalism within the ANC, along with our inability to deal with the past adequately has, in recent years, led to language becoming used more and more as an instrument of division. There are many examples of the violence of language. ANCYL leader Collen Maine recently called for people to ‘take up arms for Zuma’ after ‘state capture’ allegations were brought to the fore. How could we forget the famous line, ‘we will kill for Zuma’? Zuma himself perpetuates the violence of language with his ‘mshini wam!’ cry. It all creates a toxic cesspool where dialogue becomes difficult.

We have seen strains of intolerance and misunderstanding in the #FeesMustFall debate almost from the very beginning in the provocative and often arcane language of ‘white tears’ and ‘settler’. It is found in the flinging of human faeces meant to symbolise the structural inequalities in our society and then the destruction of property that some say serves ‘white, colonial interests’…Still others have been trapped into simply denouncing ‘all’ students as marauding law-breakers. Name-calling and baiting of students has exacerbated tense situations. Or there is the silence of privilege that might sometimes be as violent as the spoken word.”
-http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-10-23-where-is-the-middle-ground-in-south-african-debate/#.WA9uZpBXeK2

Especially in the South African context the word racist is laden with meanings which cannot be universally applied without a new injustice being perpetrated.

III

Inculpation

 

“Inculpation: noun, accusation, blame, charging with fault, charging with guilt, condemnation, crimination, denunciation, faultfinding, implication, imputation
Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, 4E. Copyright © 2007 by William C. Burton.

This is another worrying aspect to Schutte’s thought: generalizations create a sort of semiotic tyranny. The essentializing, othering generalization in effect negates any possibility of absolution or even rational discourse. (Think for a moment about such demeaning, essentializing statements from recent history: Jews are the reason for Germany’s poverty, Negros can’t be trusted, Tutsis are vermin, Muslims are terrorists, Syrian refugees are opportunists, Hispanics are illegal aliens, Nigerians are drugdealers and pimps…).  How is “all whites are racist” less stereotyping, less offensive? Schutte might respond as all who are convinced of their own truths: because it’s true. 

“Shut up, you white bitch, your view is irrelevant” says the Fallist in Sidley’s article. In Schutte’s world, the white student to whom this was addressed is a racist irrespective of her political views, her personal morality, her ethics. The person uttering this violent invective is not a racist according to Andile Mngxitama: the name-caller is in fact a victim and his attack justified in view of a history of racial inequality and perceived present systemic racism. How is this perversion of truth even vaguely acceptable?

Dr. Jeff Rudin writes:

“Notwithstanding an often explicit rejection of race as a biological reality – and, hence, the acceptance that group behaviour is not genetically pre-determined – it is now commonplace to speak of “whites” as an entirely homogeneous group and, hence, applicable to each and every person who looks white (because there is no definition of whiteness). There is thus no escape from this monolithic entity called Whites. Moreover, each and every “white” person is, by extension, an automatic beneficiary and protector of White Supremacy. The conclusion of this new understanding is that no“white” person has the right to engage in, or comment on, any of the struggles, or debates, of the day. Those “white” who forget their place must expect a quick, single word retribution: the charge of being racist. There is no longer any space even for cartoonists. The recent vitriol hurled at Zapiro serves as a pregnant warning.

What needs emphasising is that this new and publicly unchallenged black consensus about there being no exceptions to “whiteness” – if you look white you are White – is without precedent in the history of South Africa.

Hitherto, there have always been recognised exceptions to Whiteness. During the anti-apartheid struggle, for instance the Treason Trail of the 1950s, with its 17 or so white accused, made this most visible. As did the Rivonia Trial, together with those of the sabotage and related other political trials of the 1960s, each producing their cohorts of white political prisoners. Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils were among the most prominent of the subsequent “white” exceptions.

But, today it is different: there are no allowed exceptions to Whiteness.

And in “The shadow of liberation: Representivity and the commodification of race”:

“In common with the rest of the world, South Africa celebrates Martin Luther Kings’ dream of people being valued for the content of their characters rather than the colour of their skin. Yet the Left, for fear of being called racist, or of alienating student support, either say nothing or actively endorse the inherently, and profoundly racist call by black students to be taught by black teachers. The apartheid takeover of contemporary South Africa, however, makes the black stereotype even more problematic. The institutionalisation of all the apartheid-invented races, despite repeal of the hated Population Registration Act that so defined apartheid, means that blacks still (mainly) see themselves as either African, coloured or Indian. While the Left sporadically continues with formal incantations about the importance of class, representivity, on the basis of apartheid-classified races, becomes increasingly normalised.

(http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-07-18-the-convenience-of-the-racist-guest-house/#.WBTEzJBXeK1)

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-11-13-the-shadow-of-liberation-representivity-and-the-commodification-of-race/#.WBTKHJBXeK1

***

Race: running backwards in search of the universal ‘we’

by Dr. Jeff Rudin

“… the understandable need for Identity needs to come to terms with the fact that there is no Other. There is only all of us, a universal ‘We’.

Putting the Other in its place begins with a recognition that this (misconceived) Other has to exist in order to give meaning to our own identity, no less than to each of the other competing ones. Although needing to be seen as unique, as special, the identities that divide us and for which we readily kill each other, in fact contain features, customs, practices and beliefs drawn from a common and finite pool. The far from unique identities are as one would expect given that we are all biologically the same, with the same needs, fears and hopes, despite the richness of the different forms in which identity expresses itself.

Rather than celebrating and building on our common humanity, identity requires us to exaggerate difference, often to the obliteration of the very humanity of The Other. Identity is more pernicious still. Sometimes explicit but inescapably implicit, identity necessarily promotes, not just the idea of being different from but, crucially, better than. It is this unavoidable sense of superiority – or, for previously subjugated or otherwise discriminated identities, the need to prove equality – that, at the level of each individual person, sustains each of the competing, when not actually warring, identities.” -By Dr. Jeff Rudin

***

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev pointed out that the violence of racist ideology is worse than that of communist revolutionary ideology because for the latter even a member of the aristocracy or bourgeoisie could be “re-educated”, whereas race is immutable and indelible: no redemption is possible.

This might be a sort of academic exercise for Schutte who describes herself on her blog as a “A Feminist-NeoPagan-Post-Structuralist-Deconstructionist-Socialist”; but in the real world of human encounter her statement is deeply problematic. If Schutte makes no distinction between Verwoerd and Helen Suzman, between the martyred anti-apartheid activist Ruth First and the racist Barend Strydom of the Wit Wolwe, then her generalization fits very comfortably with the very bigotry she condemns. Have I misunderstood Schutte? Perhaps I have. I re-read her article at http://www.mediaforjustice.net/a-comprehensive-guide-to-white-privilege-in-south-africa/ and still experience a significant disquiet. Her statement “All whites are racist” seems a sort of bizarre variation of Andile Mngxitama’s statement “Blacks can’t be racist”. (Suntosh Pillay examines this argument at http://m.thoughtleader.co.za/mandelarhodesscholars/2010/03/23/one-simple-reason-why-blacks-cant-be-racist/?wpmp_switcher=mobile).

I suspect that with her statements, Schutte hopes to create an intellectual space for herself in the discourse where she can reduce her own sense of guilt and the dissonance she experiences in her own whiteness, her sense of culpability.

“By inculpating someone else, an accused person may manage to exculpate (herself).”
– Merriam-Webster

By listing the things a white person must do to fulfill her particular notion of what it means not to be racist she in effect attempts to absolve herself, to distance herself from the contemptible racist position: If she can ‘tick off’ each listed vice (“not me, not me!”) – and we must imagine she believes she can – then, by implication, she is ‘not one of the bad guys’. What a welcome relief that must be! Then why am I suspicious of her words?

No matter how often we say we’re sorry

The artist Marlene Dumas wrote in her essay “Do the Right thing” (Grey Areas, Chalkham Hill Press, 1999):

“I distrust myself and all others, involved as we are with all our multi-motivational defenses and references. Every time I try, I shift my perspective and doubt my own sincerity… I can’t stand all the tedious theoretical terminology (that is used in the art world. We use it like clever lawyers, in order to prove ourselves not guilty, while know that words are useless when one happens to be at the wrong (or right place) at the wrong time.”

She continues,

“No matter how often we say we’re sorry, no matter how long we spend studying the past, reading and quoting the right books, no matter what our individual deeds are. This is our fate. This is the black and white of it.”

Isn’t Schutte’s confessorial ‘checklist’ yet another “multi-motivational defense”? Dumas writes “This is our fate” – an acceptance, whereas Schutte’s words contain a vituperative sting. But can she escape the burden and guilt of her own whiteness? Perhaps she hopes to diminish it  – but by her own definition it is to all accounts indelible – she herself is guilty until “whiteness becomes defunct” (an esoteric notion at best).

Schutte limits the debate by suggesting that any rejection of her list of ‘racist vices proves that one is a racist. The logic: you are a racist if you think you aren’t one. Well that’s one way to silence detractors.

To return to Sidley’s question, “Will the harsh spotlight of history forever damn us?” I would say that Schutte makes it clear that the “us” is indeed forever damned, that her idea of a “defunct whiteness” is both an absurdity and a prejudice.

***

Is an apartheid-era racial category being perpetuated for convenient, ideological ends? What is the whiteness of which she speaks? How is it properly defined? Is it a convenient tag, a scapegoat, or perhaps a crime – like being a Negro in 50’s America’s “Deep South” or a Jew in Hitler’s Germany? Who gets to pronounce another a racist – to ‘other’ and execrate millions of people with her word – and what might such a pronouncement on another’s soul imply? If one is white, should one recant? Repent? Is some punishment, some stalinist humiliation in the offing? Who will determine the ‘appropriate corrective action’ for these racist whites?

Historically, there have been bizarre racial categories created to control racially divided societies. In the Americas, “a quadroon or quarteron was a mixed-race person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry (or in the context of Australia, one quarter aboriginal ancestry). Similar classifications were octoroon for one eighth black and quintroon for one sixteenth black.” (Source:  Wikipedia; and Segal: The Black Diaspora).  By insisting that “All whites are racist” It is unclear what degree of whiteness is necessary for one to be guilty in Schutte’s one-woman Court of Racial Iniquity. If I am one sixteenth black, am I entitled to a on sixteenth reduction on the guilty verdict she meets out? Conversely, if I am “black” with one sixteenth “white” ancestry,  will the white genetic component be held against me? It’s an absurdity to evaluate people in this way, or to assign complicity in racism in this way. And yet Schutte proposes a comprehensive checklist in which the aberrant white may discover his wicked countenance, his complicity in an agenda of moral evil. I admire her confidence in her own claims, as confident as Hendrick Verwoerd was in his. If, however, Schutte believes whiteness is not located in one’s biology but in ideology – a sort of invisible matrix of racial power, then her argument is equally heinous, for who and where are these reprehensible whites exactly? How – in our paranoia – are we to identify these monsters? For then they are everywhere and nowhere. And all we have to go on then is our dogmatism and the colour of their skin. This conflation of skin colour and ideology is Verwoerdian.

ID?

“Perhaps most important for philosophers, any idea of identity itself appears to be in a period of rapid evolution. Changing technologies are having a profound impact on our philosophical understandings of who we are. Attempts to decode human genetics (Abu El-Haj 2007) and possibly shape the genetic make-up of future persons (Wald 2000), to clone human beings, or to xeno-transplant animal organs, and so on, all raise deep philosophical questions about the kind of thing a person is. We are capable of changing our bodies in ways that dramatically change our identities, including through sex change or cosmetic surgeries, with immediate consequences for the kinds of identities I have been discussing in this essay. As more and more people form political alliances using disembodied communications technologies, the kinds of identities that matter seem also to shift (Turkle 1995). Behaviors, beliefs, and self-understandings are increasingly pathologized as syndromes and disorders, including through the identification of new “types” of person (in turn generating possibilities for new forms of identity politics) (Elliott 2003a and 2003b; Rose 1997).

Increasingly, this long list of confounding variables for identity political thought is finding philosophical cohesion in anti-identarian models that take somatic life, affect, time, or space as organizing concepts. For example, both new materialisms and neo-vitalist philosophies, in their political contexts, share an emphasis on becoming over being, a “posthumanist” reluctance to award ontological priority to any shared characteristics of human beings (Wolfe 2010), a skepticism about discourses of authenticity and belonging, and a desire to focus on generative, forward-looking political solutions (Bhambra and Margee 2010; Coole and Frost 2010; Connolly 2011). The lines between humans and other animals (Haraway 2007), between the living and the non-living (Sharp 2011), and between objects and subjects (Bennett 2009) are radically challenged. To varying degrees these emphases are echoed in other process ontologies within contemporary “continental” thought—whether the ethics of self-transformation organized around Foucault’s last work (Heyes 2007), the reintroduction of bodies as socially and biologically dynamic and intra-active forces in forming political subjectivities (Protevi 2009), or the ways indirect, technologically mediated experience shapes so much of our contemporary “identities” (Turkle 2011). This mass of shifts and contradictions might be thought to mark the end of the era of identity politics. Whatever limits are inherent to identity political formations, however, the unfashionableness of the phrase itself belies the deep implication of questions of power and legitimate government with demands for self-determination that are unlikely to fade away.”

-http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/

Citation: Heyes, Cressida, “Identity Politics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/identity-politics/&gt;.

***

Ressentiment

(the moralizing revenge of the powerless).

“The dangers of identity politics, then, are that it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other. Reclaiming such an identity as one’s own merely reinforces its dependence on this dominant Other, and further internalizes and reinforces an oppressive hierarchy. While the charge that identity politics promotes a victim mentality is often a facile pot-shot, Wendy Brown offers a more sophisticated caution against the dangers of ressentiment (the moralizing revenge of the powerless). She argues that identity politics has its own genealogy in liberal capitalism that relentlessly reinforces the “wounded attachments” it claims to sever. Politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can hold out no future—for itself or others—that triumphs over this pain. (Brown 1995: 74)
(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/#RaceEthnMult)

IV

On the other hand …

Perhaps I really am misconstruing Schutte’s argument.

“Frankenberg (1997) defines whiteness as multidimensional: “Whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed” (p.1). Race is conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as an isolated entity. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but that are actually only afforded in any consistent way to white people. Thus, to name whiteness is to refer to a set of relations that are historically, socially, politically, and culturally produced, and that are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of white racial domination (Dyer, 1997; Lipsitz, 1999; Frankenberg, 2001; Roediger, 2007). Whiteness is both “empty,” in that it is normalized and thus typically unmarked, and content laden or “full,” in that it generates norms and reference points, ways of conceptualizing the world, and ways of thinking about oneself and others, regardless of where one is positioned relationally within it (Dyer, 1997; Frankenberg, 2001). This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete incidents that some individuals may or may not “do,” and goes beyond naming specific privileges. Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization, and their individual and collective consciousness formed within it”. – Nothing to add: A Challenge to White Silence in Racial Discussions by Robin DiAngelo Volume II, Issue I February 2012 (Understanding & Dismantling Privilege).

***

Dismantling whiteness:
Silent yielding and the potentiality of political suicide
– By Vincent Jungkunz

source: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/cpt.2009.44

“Ultimately, a series of difficult choices await whites as they attempt to alleviate the oppressions that accompany a racial political and social context. Lopez points out, ‘Whites’ assistance in this endeavor is particularly crucial, because they exercise the great bulk of the tremendous power necessary to construct and maintain Whiteness’ (1996, p. 188). In a sense, what is called for is a political, economic and social suicide regarding whiteness. Yielding in silence could be one appropriate avenue for challenging whiteness as voice and privilege and political speech. Lopez discusses the verbal denigration needed for the perpetuation of whiteness, stating, ‘Whiteness demands that all Whites denigrate, at least passively, those constructed as non-White. It is only through this iterated denigration, this constant reinforcement by Whites of the lines between “us” and “them”, that the boundaries of Whiteness can be maintained’ (1996, pp. 189–190). The iterated denigration is certainly ripe for insubordinate silence. The Racial Contract depends not only upon ignorance, but also upon repeated speech that upholds discursive constructs that, furthermore, divide personhood from subpersonhood. These choices to dismantle whiteness, and the silences that can help lead the way to a society without whiteness, involve interrupting these iterations, stopping discursive flows, big and small. For instance, as one learns about racism and privilege, understanding that racism exists in multiple layers and forms, one can begin deploying silence to substitute for things such as soft and hard core racist speech, a monopolizing conversational style on race issues, and an out-of-focus consciousness that doesn’t make room for self-conscious racial reflection. For whites, a lack of racial self-consciousness is an enormous barrier to overcoming racism and white privilege, and, one way to avoid self-consciousness is to talk incessantly, and to never listen to criticism.”


Further reading:

Gerhard Maré’s Declassified: Moving Beyond the Dead End of Race in South Africa (Jacana)

“A recent book, Gerhard Maré’s Declassified: Moving Beyond the Dead End of Race in South Africa (Jacana), is a must-read in terms of how and why race classifications have been kept alive 25 years after the hated Population Registration Act was repealed. Declassified helps us understand how we have sustained a binary race-coded country ready for plucking by those “whites” aghast at the black “monkeys” swimming in their seas and the “black” students who adorn themselves with T-shirts declaring “Kill the whites”. – http://mg.co.za/article/2016-04-06-race-reinvented-for-post-apartheid-sa

“It is the banality of race that closes us off from even noticing its insidious sedimentation in everyday life.” – Gerhard Maré


http://mg.co.za/article/2011-10-11-vice-of-white-silence
http://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/should-whites-be-silent
http://robindiangelo.com/2014site/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Nothing-to-Add-Published.pdf
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/cpt.2009.44.

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