Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Re-Inscribing Race Through Mixed-Race Myths

Danielle Bowler, Eyewitness News

We often turn on questions of ‘colouredness’ and consider their weight, form and effect at different moments in our contemporary democracy. In all of their phrasings, the questions that arise when attempting to make sense of mixed-raced identity include multiple key features that are variegated throughout South African history.

These features include a definitional anxiety that expresses an obsession with defining who is within and without perfidious racial boundaries through race policing. This often arrives attached to historically burdened and problematic discourses of miscegenation and hybridity – the enduring idea that ‘colouredness’ is a halfway point between blackness and whiteness, or as the ‘perceived product of the transgression of a sacrosanct boundary, has connoted lack, deficiency, moral and cultural degeneration’, as academic Desiree Lewis argues.

Many of these questions emerge as a concern with what this identity means for belonging and citizenship in our present context, or as a misplaced desire to transcend or eliminate race through homogenising society. The return to this question, in all its permutations, reveals the importance of recognising the lived experience of race and its construction, as race continues to take up enduring residence in national conversation.

In the past few weeks, there have been references to proximity politics that considers ‘colouredness’ in relation to blackness and whiteness, and the troubling idea that mixed-raced children are the panacea that will solve the race issue. The logic behind this idea is that in a world in which we are all one race, there will be no racism because it will not be able to sustain itself in the absence of different race groups. This logic is both idealistic and deeply flawed. The problem is the assumption that a homogenous society, in which everyone becomes one race, renders race null and void, and consequently removes the impact of the entire project of systematically enshrined racism, and the many other social issues that are entangled with race. It is a reduction of the race issue to aesthetics, without an understanding that those aesthetics are fundamentally linked to the lived experience.

A focus on the aesthetics of race, when it is unlinked to experience, does not reveal how discrimination has many complex and deeply institutionalised layers. It does not seek to dismantle structural oppression, but rather deals with how people look, in an attempt to deal with the way people experience their humanity. The idea that race is mere aesthetics treats race and racism as a simple issue, without the complex, history-laden baggage that accompanies it and how it is embedded in different ways in the structures of our society. In Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, he notes: ‘We must always bear in mind the question: How do people learn the meaning of colour names?’ Consequently, it is not enough to focus on aesthetics. Rather, we need to consider the meaning of race in our societies, its overt and covert expressions, and its effect on how we both see and experience the world, and reflect this, both consciously and unconsciously, through learned behaviour.

The longings for a utopian, homogenous society, untouched by any aspect of our racial pathologies, ignores the fact that in many of the homogenous societies of the world, including China and India, the effects of centuries of racial logic remain, which include colourism – where people get treated differently because of skin tone – and the effect of Western beauty ideals. But beyond this, this longing does not recognise that people do not have the same lived experience simply of aesthetic similarities.

Both the experience and the aesthetics of ‘colouredness’, or mixed-racedness, are rooted in difference. As academics Grunebaum and Robins argue: ‘There is no single coloured experience, nor any single voice that speaks in its name.’ The assumption that all mixed-race people, no matter how they self-identify, have the same experience or aesthetics is deeply flawed. As novelist and literary critic Kole Omotoso poetically phrases it: coloured people range in skin tone “from charcoal black to breadcrust brown, sallow yellow and finally off-white cream…”.

The trouble with attempts to police race, which reveals its fallacies, are rooted in this difference as policing race on the basis of aesthetics is nearly impossible. The experience of life within this skin is complicated by different kinds of privilege that extend beyond the politics of beauty – how people with light skin are seen as more attractive – to have a profound impact on people’s lived experience because it marks the most intimate aspects of their humanity.

The inherited pathologies of the past continue to haunt our present. This point was highlighted in a recent column by Dr Richard Pithouse, where he argued that racism is a ‘dynamic’ phenomenon that is able to mutate in different contexts, across time and space. Pithouse highlights the way contemporary forms of racism riff on the past, but take their own, new form in present contexts, which are often not as easy to identify. This will not simply disappear in a world where everyone is mixed-raced. He argues: ‘If we are not attentive to the ways in which racism mutates over time and we focus the bulk of our opposition to racism on its outmoded forms, then its forms that are most dangerous, because they are authorised by contemporary forms of power, will not be recognised and opposed with sufficient clarity and force.’

But beyond race, other forms of discrimination remain, and are themselves able to mutate. We do not get rid of class and gender issues, or any other form of discrimination that has been able to mutate and assume the language of our time, by homogenising society on the basis of race. The issue goes further than racism, colourism and the aesthetics of difference. It is about the way we re-inscribe race and re-invest in its language, postures, discourses, structures and institutions, which requires us to directly address structural oppression, in its many forms, and not simply aesthetics.

Beyond aesthetics, the return to race in our national conversation is a reminder that, as Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin phrases it: ‘We are not simply at a political crossroad/we are buried knee deep in the quagmire/of a battle for our humanity.’