Anti-racism week has recently ended, culminating in Human Rights Day. To mark 21 March as Human Rights Day confirms the democratic intention to overturn the dehumanisation of black people under apartheid. For this was the day of the Sharpeville massacre when the apartheid police shot dead unarmed black people for resisting the state racism of the time.
This incident brought South African racism global ignominy, as the United Nations declared 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As part of on-going efforts to eradicate racism, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation declared the week ending in 21 March “Anti-Racism Week”.
This year the theme for anti-racism week is #RootsofRacism, launched with a lecture by foremost postcolonial thinker Prof Achille Mbembe, followed by a discussion in which I participated. In his latest book, “Critique of Black Reason”, Mbembe traces the roots of racism to 400 years ago, and how this ideology of oppression has been adapted throughout the centuries to continue exercising its pernicious effects into the 21st century.
He alerts his readers to take seriously the seemingly irrational dimension of racism. For centuries, white people have been circulating lies, nonsense, and speculation as though these were facts. Here we are not talking only of far-right obscure tracts, but writings of respected so-called thinkers in Europe and the USA.
Indeed, racism is partly constituted through white insistence on ignorance about others and about racism. In my own research on whiteness, I find routine misrepresentations, willful blindness, and denials of fact to rejuvenate racism in contemporary South Africa.
The real facts are that race has no basis in reality. It is a myth that operates crudely, drawing attention to the most obvious, superficial human features. Racism works through attaching value judgments to physical characteristics to position people as “inferior” or “superior”, with the effect of questioning the humanity of people racialised as “black”.
Human beings have different skin colours and facial features but biologically and cognitively we are the same. Racists’ attempts in the 18th and 19th centuries to find scientific “proof” of racial inferiority or superiority failed dismally. But racism has persisted, producing the abominations of Nazism and the Holocaust in the 20th century, and still continuing today.
The reason for its endurance, as with heteropatriarchal and other oppressions, is that the manipulation of difference allows for the creation of social hierarchies, with which injustice can be justified. In the past, racism developed as an ideology to vindicate the wrongs of colonialism. In the present, racism maintains new and old hierarchies.
For example, white and related privilege is entrenched in institutions through the maintenance of racialised institutional cultures that eject those who refuse to assimilate into these cultures. Presently in the university sector, as a specific instance, this is done under the guise of neoliberal corporatisation. These nefarious operations are exposed when one pays attention to which centres of power benefit most from neoliberal restructuring.
Mbembe creates an exit out of race’s morass of iniquity by emphasising race as a “becoming” throughout his book. We are not born white or black, we are made black or white. Humans are not “naturally” racist, despite what some racists might say.
They have to be made used to racism, they have to develop a racist consciousness, and this is done through socialisation driven by specific political projects. For example, in my work I study how Afrikaners became white and racist through concerted efforts by identifiable individuals and organisations, starting in the early 20th century.
Simply put, we are trained to associate differences in phenotype with superiority or inferiority. Therefore, we can be retrained. The Constitution and the laws are in place for us to create a just society. But, as has been written, a gap exists between our social contract with one another, the Constitution, and the realities of how we treat one another.
Where the change – the retraining – needs to happen, is at the level of the everyday. In our daily interactions, we are either reinforcing racism or breaking it down.
Mbembe reminds us of what he calls the “in-common”, that which we all share. Those that we see as other to ourselves are not only different. They are also similar to us. We are all part of the human community. Our embrace of one another – also those who look superficially different to ourselves – starts with the reaffirmation of the innate dignity of every human being.
This is the challenge to each of us: am I now, through these words, this gesture, this non-verbal expression, affirming the dignity of the human being in front of me? Or not?