Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Politics of Everyday Racism

by Camalita Naicker, Pambazuka

A friend of mine was recently ranting after having attended a predominantly ‘white’ social gathering where she was repeatedly introduced to the only other person of colour in attendance. It happens often; the underlying assumption being that ‘they’ must have something in common, owing simply to their shared race.

It is not useful to only speak about racism with reference to Eugene Terreblanche, Steve Hofmeyer or Julius Malema. Politics is also about the everyday lived reality of you and I. It is about the relations between people that make up ‘society’. In our supposedly “post-colonial” society, we need to return once again to thinkers like, the revolutionary Martinican philosopher, Frantz Fanon to interrogate what has now become the catchphrase of politicians, “decolonisation”. What does this process really require of us? Are we working at fulfilling it? Or is this process perceived as already fulfilled and “realised” since we gained the right to vote?

Racism, Fanon tells us, is the objectification of another. In a racist society we find ourselves as “objects amongst other objects”, with the freedom to choose from a range of options available to us limited by the colour of our skins. This remains an everyday lived reality of millions of South Africans. The moment of contact between a person of colour with the white world is one of totality, all at once you represent an Indian, African or coloured person, and you represent ALL African, Indian or coloured people, a synecdoche which seems to be constantly reproduced. 

Take for example my other, less angry than amused, friend who told me how racist assumptions sometimes worked in her favour. Being granted extensions for deadlines seemed easy for her because, being Indian, the assumption that she was ‘studious’, ‘hard working’ and relatively ‘tamed’ in the social world always seemed to give her more flexibility with the rules. She also had the bewildering experience of being asked if she knew “Trish” by a person to whom she had just been introduced. Upon inquiring why the sight of her would evoke such a seemingly arbitrary question, the boy replied “Trish is also one of those ‘alternative’ Indians who don’t think they are Indian”. 

While it is easy to laugh these experiences off, and share a joke with people whose lived experience is also raced, there is an obscene underside to these seemingly unimportant encounters. It is the infernal circle which Frantz Fanon speaks about in his book Black Skins, White Masks: in which the black person is locked into the colour of their skin. In all these encounters my friends were at once responsible for their entire racial history, their ancestors, their culture, religions, traditions, rituals, at once the whole weight and burden of their existence and all those who came before them bore down on them. Indeed they were experiencing what Fanon refers to as “totalising moments”: at once your entire meaning and being is conferred upon you, leaving no room for you to construct your own identity, or worse to be unlike the identity created for you. It reminds me of what the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said referred to as “the stubborn continuity of European views in the 21st century”, the rampant perpetuation of the idea that only Western cultures have the capacity and ability to evolve, grow and change. It confers on the “Restern world” static homogeneity which people of colour bear the brunt of everyday. This may be in the form of a concerned inquiry, by an innocently and blatantly ignorant acquaintance, as to whether you might have to suffer an arranged marriage someday.

Ato Sekyi Otu, a leading Fanon Scholar from Ghana, believes all constituencies of meaning are historically created and bare the marks of domination and alienation, and so they need to be re-examined. Decolonisation requires from us only one thing: reinvention. Everything in our colonial and Apartheid histories has been constructed through domination and alienation. What we need and what Fanon calls for is “to wipe the slate clean”. This may seem like an authoritarian nationalist idea to some, but national culture is not “braai days” and “Mandela Days”, (the horrible nation-building efforts thrown at us by the media, in order to brush over repressed cultures and traditions trying to bestow upon us some form of homogenous and affirming South African identity). It is rather “a radical decision for this nascent (post colonial) community to tell a story about itself” to speak in order to reinvent itself from the clutches of colonial history. It is a dialogue, with the everyday and with the lived reality of all South Africans. It required from us that we consider other people and ourselves as “subjects among subjects”, neither of us assuming qualities of the other, regardless of whether these qualities may in fact be as you might have assumed. For example you might meet many Indian people who ‘love their chilli and Bollywood movies”, you may also meet many who will have no such inclination and might feel immediately objectified (and inclined to mental vexation) when you confer their identity on them and in effect limit their freedom as the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre asserts.

The question then remains, where are these voices? Why have we seen absenteeism in the voices that speak to people’s everyday lived realities. Has the pressure to speak about the ‘big issues’ in order to appear serious led to a denial of people’s rights to speak for and about their intimate selves and their everyday experiences? Isn’t it strange that the only contact we seem to have in the media with people who are from a variety of different cultures, traditions and class levels should be through cheap recreations of static identities in our stereotypical advertising industry (all puns intended). Where are the spaces in our media and by extension in our society for people to speak and not “authorities?” Or have these days passed because what is termed our “democracy” is no longer is need of dissenting ideas and thoughts. It is time for ordinary people to speak about their ordinary experiences and it is time for all to listen. This reciprocity will lead to what Fanon refers to as “the veritable creation of a new humanity”. A reclaiming of an equal right to be present in our social spaces in our own terms and a deepening of our democracy through a dialogue of equals.