Speaking for others


My friend M suggested we collaborate on a billboard – or perhaps a viral digital campaign –  with the message, A luta Continua – Contra o que? (The struggle continues – against what?). I expressed my misgivings, my disquiet, in part due to the question who gets to speak on behalf of whom.

I ask myself if the voice of a privileged, 54 year old white South African male about to move to Manchester in England, can have any real relevance or authenticity addressing the subject of The Struggle – or addressing black South Africans on the subject of A luta Continua.

Why the disquiet?

It seems there’s much debate in academic, journalistic and activist circles about the notion that Whites should withdraw from the public discourse (or not). Jon Hodgson (a self-professed “white cis-sex, male, straight, UCT alumnus” wrote in April 2015 – in connection with the removal of the statue of Rhodes from the UCT campus:

“… white voices shouldn’t matter on the subject of the removal of the statue… What the three of us [Hodgson, UCT professors Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass] think isn’t material here. As a good white friend says, transformation entails white people “filling up” less space and black people “taking up” more. Black voices need to take and claim space. We, here and now, about this statue, need not be heard… More broadly, the movement is explicit about the role for those trying to be white allies. Quoting Biko:

the place for their fight for justice is within their white society. […] they themselves are oppressed […] they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification.’ […]”

I’m not suggesting any ‘one size fits all’ solutions here – whether that of Hodgson’s rephrasing of Biko, or Max Du Preez’s riposte to Hodgson below:

“There are quite a few white opinionistas who share the view that whites should withdraw from the public discourse and stick to talking to themselves – their only role, is the argument, is to conscientise fellow whites about their privilege and inbred racism – their “whiteness”… I find statements like Hodgson’s to be a form of the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. He seems to think black students and intellectuals don’t have the capacity to stand up to their white counterparts in a debate… Hodgson believes transformation really entails white people “filling up” less space and black people “taking up” more.”

The debate at times becomes quite crass and deteriorates into base racism. In Du Preez’s words,

“We have Edward Zuma [the soon to be ex-president Zuma’s son] and people like him forward another argument: ‘whites should shut up because they’re not indigenous. This is black country, you whiteys are here only because we tolerate you. You oppressed us for many generations, now you will dance to our tune. This argument doesn’t actually deserve a response. I’ll only tell Zuma this: deal with it, my friend, I’m going nowhere. I’m as South African as you are. The responses of many white people to Zuma Jr’s attack on me in the comments section below my column and on social media were crude and racist, reinforcing the worst suspicions many black people have of whites. I found it depressing and embarrassing. But it is still no argument why whites should hide and let blacks do the talking. All people have equal capacity to behave like bigots and fools, as Edward Zuma has proved. I would advise fellow white South Africans to listen more and to try harder to understand what their black compatriots think and feel. I would suggest to them that they should, in their own interest if not that of the whole society, be more careful and sensitive. But I will never ask them to withdraw or to shut up. Drawing new boundaries that determine who should be allowed to say what about whom smacks of a form of neo-apartheid.”

But is Du Preez not missing something more nuanced? Is he not assuming the post-apartheid “playing fields are level”, ignoring the fact that the damage of centuries of structural white racism might require a less strident white voice? To speak freely – yes. To express oneself is a right enshrined in the constitution. But how to speak? In what tone of voice?

Should we be preaching, or listening?

Call me an ambivalent liberal (or vacillating, or a draadsitter) – but I feel disquiet about all of these views – Hodgson’s, Edward Zuma’s and Du Preez’s.

M said he found my ambivalence about our A luta Continua – Contra o que? billboard “problematic”.

Indeed it is.

Linda Martin Alcoff throws more light on the subject (it is worth reading her essay, “The problem of speaking for others” in full):

“… influential postmodernists such as Gilles Deleuze have characterized as “absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others” and important feminist theorists have renounced the practice as irretrievably harmful. What is at stake in rejecting or validating speaking for others as a discursive practice? To answer this, we must become clearer on the epistemological and metaphysical claims which are implicit in the articulation of the problem… in some instances speaking for others constitutes a violence and should be stopped. But … a more general retreat position, presumes an ontological configuration of the discursive context that simply does not obtain. In particular, it assumes that one can retreat into one’s discrete location and make claims entirely and singularly within that location that do not range over others, and therefore that one can disentangle oneself from the implicating networks between one’s discursive practices and others’ locations, situations, and practices. In other words, the claim that I can speak only for myself assumes the autonomous conception of the self in Classical Liberal theory – that I am unconnected to others in my authentic self or that I can achieve an autonomy from others given certain conditions. But there is no neutral place to stand free and clear in which one’s words do not prescriptively affect or mediate the experience of others, nor is there a way to demarcate decisively a boundary between one’s location and all others. Even a complete retreat from speech is of course not neutral since it allows the continued dominance of current discourses and acts by omission to reinforce their dominance… In rejecting a general retreat from speaking for, I am not advocating a return to an unself-conscious appropriation of the other, but rather that anyone who speaks for others should only do so out of a concrete analysis of the particular power relations and discursive effects involved.” 

“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. For this reason, the work of privileged authors who speak on behalf of the oppressed is becoming increasingly criticized by members of those oppressed groups…”

“… what are the criteria for legitimacy? In particular, is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me? We might try to delimit this problem as only arising when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one. In this case, we might say that I should only speak for groups of which I am a member. But this does not tell us how groups themselves should be delimited. For example, can a white woman speak for all women simply by virtue of being a woman? If not, how narrowly should we draw the categories? The complexity and multiplicity of group identifications could result in “communities” composed of single individuals. Moreover, the concept of groups assumes specious notions about clear-cut boundaries and “pure” identities. I am a Panamanian-American and a person of mixed ethnicity and race: half white/Angla and half Panamanian mestiza. The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary.” (3) 

– Linda Martin Alcoff: The problem of speaking for others. Bold emphasis mine.

Perhaps I feel Deleuze’s “indignity of speaking for others” too acutely. Perhaps I am too conflicted about what constitute legitimate criteria for legitimacy. 

I have long valued the insight of the artist Marlene Dumas, who 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 knowing that words are useless when one happens to be at the wrong (or right place) at the wrong time.”

This “…doubt (of) my own sincerity…” is interesting. As are Alcoff’s words in the final paragraph above –  “Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable” .

Doubt and ambiguity.

If Alcoff is right, then I might start work on the billboard. But I am still very much plagued by the self-distrust that Dumas wrestles with.

I need to mull it over a bit more.


  1. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-04-06-letter-to-the-editor-whites-talk-less-listen-more/#.WoE7A5NuZFR
  2. “White South Africans, listen more but don’t be silent” – Max Du Preez, 2015, https://www.news24.com/Columnists/MaxduPreez/White-South-Africans-listen-more-but-dont-be-silent-20150428

  3. http://www.alcoff.com/content/speaothers.html

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