The almost pathological need to place white people at the center of the national narrative about the future is a blind spot for many well-meaning white people. For too many of our white compatriots, the South African story is built around the fate of white people. This inability to see the future without insisting that the photo frame includes white images represents a strange sort of race-consciousness for a group that often professes not to care about race. The stories that count are their stories even though it is widely accepted at an intellectual level that for South Africa to thrive socially and economically, it is black people who will need to make significant progress.
A reader argues that my position on affirmative action is fundamentally flawed, because my assumption is that there can be no fair and objective criteria of merit that can apply to both “white” and “black”. So one just has to choose which group one should discriminate in favour of.
I do indeed believe that there can be no absolute objective criteria according to which we can decide who are best qualified for a position. For some jobs one can get closer to that (flying a Boeing, say) than in others, but an objective standard does not exist. Pretending that there are such objective criteria merely helps to hide the prejudices of the powerful behind a façade of neutrality.
If we are striving for fairness, it requires, first, that we take into account the larger political, economic and historical context in which we make judgments about what is fair or not. This will inevitably require us to take note of past discrimination and racial injustice and to accept that such injustices must be addressed in some way or another. Second, it requires us to question anew the prevailing “norms and standards” and to ask anew what characteristics will best suit a specific job and who will contribute most to the well-being of an institution. This can only be done well, if we accept that different voices do not necessarily lead to a lowering of standards.
A little less certainty about things and a bit more critical reflection might help us to think about all the invisible criteria which have always helped to advantage the interests of the in-groups and exclude those who did not fit in.BACK TO TOP