Sharon Dell
5 minute read
10 Jun 2008

Thinking about race

Sharon Dell

Will SA ever move beyond its obsession with skin colour

GHANAIAN philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah once wrote that some people cling to the idea of race because they’re too scared to live without it. His exact words were: “The erasure of the term ‘race’ … simply threatens to leave too vast a discursive void.”

In simple terms: we’ve become so used to seeing our world in terms of race we’re scared to think beyond it.

Pushing for alternatives to “race-thinking” (as opposed to racism — see box) is Durban sociologist Gerry Maré, who is director of the Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity (ccrri) established in mid-2006 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal with the aim of promoting critical engagement with the notions of race and identity.

The centre’s research ranges from the use of skin lightening creams to the role of race in post-apartheid legislation.

Well-known for his work on ethnic mobilisation in South Africa during the seventies and eighties, Maré says the multi-disciplinary work of the centre is as much about understanding the “banalities” of race — the way in which race is reinforced through day-to-day bureaucratic activities, like ticking the race boxes on job applications — as it is about understanding its violent manifestations, like the recent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals or the actions of Skielik murder accused Johan Nel.

“We’re not going to succeed in my generation or that of my grandchildren,” says Maré of his and others’ bids to challenge the centrality of race-thinking in South African society.

“But that’s not to say we should not try. My efforts are a drop in the ocean, but it’s still essential to encourage debate.”

Maré is motivated by the prospect of helping people reach a point where they realise — what he calls an “oops moment” — the limitations of race as an organising principle for society. “We need to find other ways to make sense of the world,” he says. “Diversity is not a bad thing; don’t get me wrong. But we need an argument for fluidity, rather than sameness, and some recognition that people can move through categories.”

It’s a challenge. Despite non-racism being a founding value of democratic South Africa, Maré says we continue to live in a highly racialised society and 100% of probably all South Africans will “race-think” to varying extents.

This is despite the fact that “race” is difficult, if not impossible, to define. According to Maré, under apartheid, race occupied centre stage politically, but was never biologically defined. “You couldn’t use blood tests to measure race, because then most of the National Party might have been classified black. We are a ‘bastard’ nation, as Breyten Breytenbach and others have put it.”

But instead of embracing this fluidity, South Africans have come to accept the identifiable (skin-deep), “common-sense” categories and use them to make sense of the world, says Maré.

But race classification is not as reliable as it seems. For one thing, it’s open to political manipulation. A groundbreaking study by American academic Melissa Nobles published in 2000 revealed how race categories applied during state censuses in Brazil and the United States actually changed over time and were heavily influenced by political power. “Her major conclusion was that counting by race didn’t just try to reflect social reality; it helped to shape a social reality,” says Maré.

Despite the research, Maré says the majority of his new students arrive at classes believing race is biological — that human beings, at least in South Africa, can be scientifically divided into four or five categories based on visible traits such as skin colour, facial features and hair texture.

But he’s also been able to track an encouraging shift in the way today’s students define themselves. Over the course of many years, Maré asked his sociology students to complete the sentence: “I am …”.

“Up until 1991 or 1992, students generally entered a category such as race, gender or their age. Overnight, that seemed to change. Suddenly, the descriptions became more personal. Students started to complete the sentence with: ‘I am scared’, ‘cheerful’ or ‘enthusiastic’.”

Maré is concerned that this kind of transformation isn’t being rewarded. “Instead, South Africans are called upon to identify themselves in terms of race every day.”

Part of this is a result of the government’s emphasis on redress through black economic empowerment and employment equity programmes. “But government is using a concept [race] created under colonialism, segregation and apartheid, with its own consequences, to tackle the essential and priority task of redress,” says Maré. “Now those concepts are embedded and so are the consequences.”

Government officials, like the statistician general, says Maré, will tell you that the government needs racial classification to measure progress towards redress. “But what progress are we really measuring?” he asks.

“The statistical correlation of race and redress is very important under certain circumstances, but under other circumstances it blinkers our vision, closes us off to possibilities and shapes our research outputs.”

As Maré notes, notions of race are changing all the time and there are other categories — poverty and education levels — that might, under some circumstances, be more accurate indicators of progress.

Pinning redress to race has also exposed inevitable loopholes in the “logic” of racial classification: in 2006, the Chinese Association of South Africa launched a court bid to have its members deemed black and therefore entitled to take advantage of the Employment Equity Act (which offers no definition of race) and BEE policies. Under apartheid, the Chinese in South Africa were barred from voting and were variously classified as coloured and non-white, while their Asian counterparts, Taiwanese and Japanese South Africans, were given the

honorary status of whites.

Maré believes there are likely to be more court cases around race in the future. The ccrri will be following them with interest.