Governing Whiteness! Now that Cannot be Allowed!

21 May 2007 - 12:30

By Zimitri Erasmus

It is clear that David Benatar imagines himself to hold the meaning of 'truth'. It is clear that he is primarily concerned with 'being right' and with showing others to be 'wrong'. In light of his unyielding attachment to his position, there is no point in singularly focussing on a direct response to him. While this contribution responds to some of his statements, its main objective is to provide an alternative perspective on equity policies, their politics and their implementation. I differ from Benatar in that I think the best arguments about political matters are located in lived reality rather than abstract logic.

Democracy and fairness are not sufficient

Benatar is correct when he says that equity policies cannot and do not address all social injustices. As a criticism, however, this statement is misplaced since these policies are designed to address particular social injustices based on 'race', gender and disability. He is correct when he says that those who benefit from such policies are mainly already privileged in relation to their economically poorer counterparts. He however forgets, first, that beneficiaries of equity are not exclusively black. White women and white people who are disabled benefit, too. Second, he forgets that middle-class-ness might protect black people from poverty and from more brutal forms of racism, but that it does not protect them from everyday, elusive forms of racial exclusion that are an integral part of racism's functioning. Third, he forgets that poorer black people experience both poverty and racism. History has shown that democracy, equal opportunity and fairness are not sufficient to address the specificities of class, 'race' and gender injustices in their various configurations. For this reason, each has to be addressed specifically, with consideration for the various ways in which they intersect. In this vein, Steven Friedman correctly insists on distinguishing between measures explicitly designed to address racial inequality and those so designed to eradicate poverty. This distinction recognises the limits of a politics that is class-determined as well as those of a politics that gives 'race' absolute centrality. Benatar is blind to the nuances of particular injustices, and to the need to address these specifically.

Condescending Affirmative Action

Alongside his first concern about distributing some benefits on the basis of 'race', he is concerned, secondly, that these benefits don't reach those who, in his view, need them most. Here he seems to advocate equal access - for the least prepared and the least powerful - to university education and professional positions in higher education. At first this appears a noble argument, particularly in the context of a growing black middle class, in a SA where the dramatic shift, for a select few, from being an anti-apartheid activist to a US-dollar millionaire does not raise public moral and political outrage, where a Basic Income Grant is not as yet a high priority, and primary and secondary education are for the most part in a mess. The not so noble side of this argument is that equal access for the least prepared and the least powerful is bound to re-inscribe existing power relations premised on unearned 'race' privilege and disadvantage, power relations that intersect with and are constituted by hierarchies of class and constructions of cultural competency. It is guaranteed to re-inscribe a white elite hold over intellectual authority and consequently, to position black people in a perpetual state of 'needing to be more prepared'. In this scheme of things benevolent whites can remain patrons to needy blacks. Continuing in the vein of Benatar's inaugural lecture, this would amount to a condescending form of affirmative action.


Moreover, those least prepared and least powerful, when subjected to Benatar's style of Socratic debate, are likely consciously to leave universities in order to avoid this humiliation. Their departure will, unfortunately, be interpreted by self-appointed white patrons as 'a great pity' that they 'do not want to be here'. Alternatively, the least powerful are likely to bend and break under this warfare, only to be told that they should not have come to university in the first place. Given the likelihood of such outcomes, Benatar would need to consider transformative practice beyond his support for alternative entrance tests. He would need to consider methods of engagement that refrain from reserving for himself the right to determine the parameters of conversation. UCT's Respect Programme is partly about cultivating an awareness of methods of engagement and ways of being in relationship with others (particularly those less powerful) that make for a more inclusive, affirming and humane institutional life. It is both ironic and unfortunate that the public encounter between Benatar and Hall marked the beginning of this programme.

'Tie-breaker Blacks'

Thirdly, Benatar is concerned that middle class black people who, in a world without racism, would be considered equal to their white counterparts, are benefiting unfairly from equity policies. But this world without racism does not exist. Many of these middle class black people have endured and continue to endure the daily pain and humiliation that accompany their negotiation, historically and in the present, of white institutions of higher learning. Apartheid's prescriptions, prohibitions and humiliations are known. These have shaped middle class black people's paths into professional worlds, including academia. Post-apartheid's often unwritten prescriptions, prohibitions and humiliations are less known. These include examples of exclusion from academic jobs on claims of lack of experience despite having qualified with PhDs and having some teaching experience; of being paid less (for the same work) than their white colleagues who are equal 'on paper'; of being stuck in contract posts while their white counterparts have long been considered for both tenure and promotion; of having their intellectual authority undermined by white students who claim they do not understand black lecturers' accents. These humiliations face black people who, because of their class privilege, have learnt how to negotiate spaces historically reserved for whites without inflicting an equivalent humiliation on their white colleagues, and who, for the most part, do their best to protect students from similar humiliations. In short, these are black people who, despite, or maybe because of, long and painful journeys into academia, are already able to 'meet' white colleagues who require 'meeting'.

Just over a decade after apartheid, these black people are told by Benatar: 'You have now become of the wrong class. You have now overcome the conditions for which the category 'race' stands. Congratulations! I declare you 'emerged from disadvantage', 'not (that) disadvantaged', and/or already compensated for past disadvantage. The good news (for those who languished in the comforts of race privilege which often implied class privilege, while you were struggling materially and psychologically) is that, through your own doing, you have become ineligible for preferential treatment.'

Such erasure of racism's history and its continued impact on middle class black people's lives presents a further humiliation. This is the weight of 'race' carried by those Benatar declares 'emerged from disadvantage'. Although it is a lighter weight than the brutal racism poorer black people often have to face (for example, being stripped naked and having your skin painted with red or silver paint), it is a weight nonetheless. It is a weight that scales of pure logic cannot measure, least of all comprehend.

Anti-racialism: 'whiteness by other means'

Fourth, Benatar is concerned that equity policies require race classification. While he denies the specificity of racial injustices faced by black people of all classes, and particularly those racial injustices endured by the black middle class, he is however, resistant to the classifications that crafted and cemented these injustices in the first place.

Historically, resistance to race classification is associated with the political practice of anti-racism. David Theo Goldberg notes that the connection between anti-racialism (being against the idea; the categorisation; the classification) and anti-racism (political activity against the material, cultural, institutional and psychological expressions of this classification in every day life), has weakened over time. This slippage between anti-racialism and anti-racism occurs in mainstream ways of thinking about 'race' in SA today, of which Benatar's is but one example. Consequently, argues Goldberg, the end of racism has become conflated with the end of using 'race' as a concept and a marker of both privilege and disadvantage. Being against 'race' and 'race' classification, as an end in itself, empties the political challenge to end racism of its substantive political content. Furthermore, argues Goldberg, it erases the language for naming 'race' thus foreclosing any form of public or institutional intervention against racial injustice, and removing the terms for claiming redress. This foreclosure, he argues, makes "anti-racialism…whiteness by other means". It is within this frame that the (apparent) silence about whiteness in Benatar's position is best understood. This (apparent) silence renders his argument thin on self examination. While Socrates was concerned about the examination of both self and others, Benatar reduces Socratic debate to the examination of Others. In sum, one can read Benatar as saying: 'Turn your minds to the destitute and the black middle class. Avert your minds from the white middle class. This holy privilege (the privilege to be blind, avert the gaze, to name, patronise, humiliate, forget) should not be governed out of existence by enumerators who use 'race' as a lazy proxy for disadvantage'.

Concepts and Politics

Goldberg's criticism of anti-racialism as an end in itself does not, however, imply that the unimaginative continued use of apartheid categories is unproblematic. It would help if census surveys and forms required for monitoring racial transformation reflected an awareness of the humiliation of classification, of a growing generation of South Africans who do not fit these old categories, and of the ways in which a crude ticking of boxes can detract from the political project of monitoring transformation by providing fuel for debate that skirts over substantive issues. This can be done by asking how people were classified during apartheid, and how they defined themselves today, rather than assuming that apartheid population group categories exhaust the possibilities for self-definition. Nor does Goldberg's criticism deny the slippages between equity policy provisions and their practical implementation; slippages during which 'race' is often reified.

Many supporters of equity policies are themselves concerned about ways in which these categories are used to re-inscribe the idea of 'race'. Their concerns however come from a different place, namely, that action against the materiality of racial arrangements often reifies 'race', thus obscuring, if not forgetting, the anti-racialist element of anti-racist praxis - the opposite problem to the one Benatar's position presents. But these slippages in micro-contexts of practical implementation cannot be managed through policy provisions. Instead, they require political imagination on the part of those entrusted with the implementation of these policies in specific micro-contexts.

An alternative to these ways of working with 'race' recognizes continued and renewed material, cultural, institutional and psychological expressions of 'race', names their racialised form and content, and works toward undoing these expressions by focusing on the injustices enacted in the name of 'race' in an effort to unmake both the concept and its attendant expressions. Such effort demands that the concept of 'race' is not embellished with centrality or inevitability. The trouble is, where sedimented, though elusive, racial arrangements persist at the same time as arguments solely against racial classification, the terrain for anti-racist praxis constituted of both elements of anti-racism (anti-racial and anti-racist) becomes very difficult, if not impossible. This difficult conceptual and political landscape is the canvas against which current debates on equity and its distinction from affirmative action ensue. What are the conditions that make possible the re-connection of anti-racialism and anti-racism? This should be our concern. One such condition is to make 'race' a political matter.

Making 'race' a political matter

Benatar claims there is "little rational discussion on affirmative action in SA". I make a different claim: there is little imaginative political discussion in SA on equity with specific reference to 'race'. Making this claim calls for a distinction between moral questions, political questions and questions of pure logic. While constructions of morality inform political practice, the realm of pure logic leaves much to be desired when attempting to understand such constructions and practice. Pure, neat logic resides in the realm of abstraction. Moral constructions and political practices are located in messy lived realities shaped by history, by changing distributions of power and influence, and by the imagined and available alternatives that influence our political choices.

Benatar's analysis joins other tendencies to divorce 'race' matters from their history, lived reality and the politics of social inequality, and so make 'race' post-political, that is, locating it outside of history and inequality. Donna Haraway alerts us to ways in which genomics reduces lived realities of sameness and difference to DNA as an informational structure that lives in clinical laboratories, statistical databases and computer programmes, thus stripping these realities of their histories and politics. Similarly, pure logic abstracts lived realities of racial privilege and injustice from their history and politics. In the same way that the human genome has become the deity among some new geneticists, Benatar deifies pure logic.

The point of equity (in relation to 'race') is to make 'race' a political matter: to focus concern on the inequalities rooted in privileges that stem from the historical classifications, rather than on the classifications only. By promulgating laws on equity, the post-apartheid government recognized that simply doing away with the legal structure of apartheid will not address the unequal conditions crafted and cemented by this system of racial classification and exclusion. The objective behind these policies (with regard to 'race') is to address the long history of racialised differential access to opportunities and its impact on the present. If this differential access is to be confronted, the language of 'race' cannot as yet be entirely discarded. It is required to enable remembering the past, naming the specific inequalities and privileges that 'race' stands for, and comprehending its mutations in the present. This implies naming whiteness as a proxy of advantage for the purposes of governing its unearned privileges. The language of 'race' is required to know what one speaks and lives against, and what one speaks and lives for. This language enables one to know and make its opposite: anti-racial language that implies anti-racist living.

Zimitri Erasmus is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at UCT.