Who has the authority to speak for others?

Two interesting perspectives:

Who has authority to talk about identity? | By Rafael Winkler | 07 Feb 2017 | https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-07-00-who-has-authority-to-talk-about-identity


Racism and Academic Philosophy in South Africa | by Mabogo More | March 3, 2017 |http://www.theconmag.co.za/2017/03/03/racism-and-academic-philosophy-in-south-africa/

Raphael winkler:

“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

Mabogo More:

“Winkler’s question: “Who has the authority to speak about South African identity?” may be rephrased into Linda Alcoff’s question: “Who has the authority to speak for others?”. She argues that to speak “for” or “about” others amounts to the same thing. Although White paternalism assumed many different forms, the one form which Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness adherents, and the black philosophers in the PSSA particularly abhorred was what Linda Alcoff calls “the problem of speaking for others”, especially by those whose location is socially, politically economically and epistemically salient. Speaking on behalf of blacks by whites of goodwill, for example, has always been a major problem among blacks struggling for freedom in antiblack societies. As far back as 1827, for example, the opening editorial of the first black newspaper in New York read:

“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly. From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Men whom we equally love and admire have not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously, without becoming personally acquainted with the state of things, nor discerning between virtue and vice among us.”

Around the same period, Martin Delany also rejected white paternalism and urged blacks not to allow whites to think and speak for them. Persons from dominant groups who speak for others are often treated as authenticating presences that confer legitimacy and credibility on the demands of subjugated speakers. Such speaking for others does nothing to disrupt the discursive hierarchies that operate in public spaces. As a matter of fact, Alcoff correctly points out, “certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous i.e., the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or re-enforcing the oppression of the group spoken for”. What the black philosophers’ demand amounts to is: “Speak with and to us” and not “Speak for or about us”. The black philosophers at the conference were questioning the right given to white philosophers to speak for black philosophers in the PSSA.

Let me round up with Winkler’s liberal person who is gripped by “white guilt”. In Winkler’s view, part of the fundamental problem of post-apartheid South Africa is “white guilt”. He writes: “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”. . I am not sure whether I’m reading Winkler to be saying that whites should not feel remorse about what they have done to blacks for centuries on end, and are still doing. In other words, white guilt should be done away with, we should forget what happened and move on as everything is now ok. If this is what is implied, then the whole argument smacks of post-racism discourse which asserts that talk of racism is a veritable agent provocateur of discomfort, anxiety or hatred and therefore should be avoided because racism died with the demise of de jure @apartheid. Unfortunately, as Alexis de Tocqueville commenting on how black people bear the stigma of racism, once remarked: “There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal.” Unlike other enslaved peoples, black subjects, by contrast “transmit the eternal mark of [their] ignominy to all their descendants; and although the law may abolish [racism/apartheid], God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence”.


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