My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
“Black racism is no less real than white racism,” writes Eisebius McKaiser in this morning’s Business Day, challenging the view that black people cannot be racist. He states:
Not only can particular remarks and actions by black people easily meet the low standards of racism, it is actually disrespectful to suggest that we cannot be racist. The temptation and capacity to injure others is a human trait. I want my capacity for evil to be recognised. If you deny me the ability to be racist, you are essentially claiming that I am intrinsically good. I cannot help but be a good guy. I am like a rock or a plant or chair — lacking the animation of a being that is fragile but recognisably human. It is hardly complimentary to exclude black people from the full range of human potentiality.
You are only morally praiseworthy for desisting from racist behaviour if, through reflection, you recognise that racism is immoral and decide to act in accordance with such moral reasoning. If we as blacks cannot help but be non-racists, then we can never get moral praise for our innate non-racism. We would simply be like toasters that work well, designed to produce warm and fuzzy feelings in others. After all, moral praise can be given only to creatures that have the capacity to act in differing ways.
By condemning Hlophe’s remark [that he will not shake the hands of a white man] as a racist assertion, we are thereby fully respecting his humanity and holding him morally accountable. By denying him the right to be judged in our game of tough ethical relations, we would implicitly be placing him outside the moral community. Even the Justice for Hlophe Alliance would not want that, surely?
At first glance this argument seems compelling. Who among us would be able to dispute that the capacity to injure others is a human trait that belongs to us all regardless of what race we might claim to belong to? Who would deny that it is deeply demeaning to argue that because of a person’s purported race, he or she either has moral agency and can do only bad, or has no agency and can only do good?
But it seems to me McKaiser misses the point of the academic debate around racism. In academic circles at least (if not around dinner tables where Julius Malema holds court) the argument is not that black people cannot be racist because they are always inherently moral and good. Rather it is that racism is about more than prejudice, bigotry and purposeful action based on race .
Racism, for this group, is also about institutional and, more broadly, structural power and outcomes that systematically benefit one group to the disadvantage of another or other groups. One can therefore only be racist if you belong to the powerful group, the group whose cultural and economic superiority is widely assumed and whose world view and belief system is thus entrenched and perpetuated and often subliminally reinforced by racism.
While black people can therefore be prejudiced, while they can be despicably bigoted (just like white people), they cannot be racist because their bigotry cannot perpetuate the structurally entrenched ideology of race-superiority. I tend to subscribe to this second view, because I believe we far too often ignore the power relations in society and the effect such relations has on discourse and on the way our worlds and our reality is constructed.
Perhaps more interesting is the question what can be done to undermine both the racism perpetrated by so called whites and racial prejudice and bigotry perpetrated by so called blacks.
My answer would be that we should begin to question the very notion of race itself. Race is a construct, not an essential reality. (In other words, while skin tone is a reality, race is not.) Although people experience race as real because of their shared experience of discrimination or privilege, this experience of reality (the suffering of which is very much real) is really just based on a human invention, a fiction if you will; the fiction of race. We have chosen to ascribe essentialist identity qualities to people based on the colour of their skin and have subjected different people to different forms of discrimination based on this invention of race.
We could have chosen to label individuals based on the town they were born in, whether they were left or right handed, what star sign they are or the size of their feet, yet we chose skin colour to supposedly tell us some essential truth about who that person is and then started treating people differently based on this invention aimed at perpetuating notions of the cultural superiority and the moral justness of the inherent economic advantage of one group over another.
For me using any of these criteria to say ANYTHING or predict ANYTHING about who a person really is, is monumentally stupid. I happen to be a Cancerian as I was born at the end of June (many, many, years ago). But what on earth do I have in common with other Cancerians like Cyndi Lauper, Pamela Anderson, Tom Cruise, Dalai Lama, George W. Bush, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Cosby or (help!) David Hasselhoff? My skin is also thought of as being white (although it is more light brownish after a week in the sun in the South of France) but that says absolutely nothing about what kind of person I am – good or bad.
The conundrum is that while race is a myth, racism is not. Because we have made ourselves believe that race matters, it does matter to us. We classify people based on race and treat them differently because of race. But we can also stop believing in race – as I have long since stopped believing in astrology (or Father Christmas for that matter). I am not arguing that we should be blind to discrimination or that we should now pretend that racial discrimination and its effects are not with us. Pretending to be colour blind merely entrenches existing privilege and keeps the system of race-superiority in place under the guise of a colour blind regime.
Instead I am arguing that we should begin to question and undermine the very essence of the system – that race is destiny, that race exists at all – while at the same time addressing the inviduous effects of that system of racial discrimination that is very much still with us today. Any suggestions of how to pull of this very difficult trick – of recognising injustice resulting from racism, while at the same time questioning the very notion of race – would be much appreciated.BACK TO TOP