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Conceptualising RACE

1 October 2007

Justin du Toit, an Honours student at the University of Stellenbosch studying sociology and a Research Intern at DEVELOPMENT WORKS, recently attended a thought-provoking seminar on RACE and shares his experience ….

Race, the word, the pronunciation, the very expression it invites is a sensitive issue in South Africa and especially in Cape Town. In speaking at the recent Seminar on Race, hosted about the Centre for Conflict Resolution on 27 September 2007, the chair, Sheila Camerer, said that it is a brave man indeed who tackles this issue in our country. Furthermore, Sheila stated that Ryland Fisher succeeds in his stimulation on the issue of race within the South African context. The motto of the book, Race by Ryland Fisher is similar to that of the Cape Town Festival, of which he was Executive Director, which is, bringing people together.

Before entering the Seminar, I could have had too high an expectation of the seminar and discussion(s) around the issue of race, and especially race in the South African context. I do agree that race is a sensitive issue in the context of South Africa, however, what the concept begs, is critical thinking, analysis and in-depth sociological analysis. Hence, one should be extremely wary in the manner in which one approaches the concept. What should be taken into consideration, however, is that the book was written, as Ryland stated, from a journalistic perspective.

In introducing his book, Ryland said that writing the book Race was a difficult process because of the sensitive nature of the concept. The book is written from the viewpoint of a journalist, with the aim of making it accessible to as many people as possible and hence, looks at the issue of race in a popular manner. Race is comprised of interviews conducted by Ryland and subsequently divided into chapters. Among the interviewees were, Vincent Barnes, Rhoda Khadalie, Naledi Pandor, Melani Verwoed, etc In his introduction, Ryland touched on his confession and acceptance of I am a racist in the introductory chapter to the book. According to Ryland where there is race, there is racism and hence, we are all racists. Ryland stated that he wants to forget about race but is difficult, because he is constantly reminded of his race and hence, that of others. In what I found to be a profound and deep statement when Ryland said that I am obsessed with race and peoples’ race obsessed with me. In this statement, Ryland also highlights the confusion associated with being obsessed with race and the fact that black and white South Africans don’t think about race in the same way.

His solution to this state of confusion and/or obsession with the concept race is education. Ryland made the point that no-one is born a racist, we are made racists. However, Ryland failed to provide clarity as to the single possible solution to the problem of race and racism when he stated that one could be liberated from race and racism through socialising with different cultural groups. Unfortunately, these solutions are far too simplistic in dealing with and overcoming the issue of race and racism, especially within the South African context.

I do understand that the book was written from a journalistic perspective, and unfortunately, this is where the problem lies with regard to discussing, dealing with and overcoming the issue and concept of race and hence, racism. Hence, one cannot approach the issue of race from such a simplistic manner. The point I am trying to convey, is that the book lacks sufficient critical thinking, discussion, and sociological analysis on the issue of race. In discussing race one is confronted with social context, which is shaped by people’s social relations. The concept of race is far to complex, a labyrinth of meanings and relations, and such simplistic analysis and discussion on the issue, by Ryland, does not do justice to the concept, and in creating meaningful discussion, critical and sociological analysis of the concept.

Discussant, Zimitri provided some insightful limitations and posed meaningful questions, as points of discussion for the seminar. However, Ryland failed to adequately address these limitations and questions, respectively. In Zimitri’s analysis and interpretation of the book she states that Ryland tends to settle for less and settle for second best. What was lacking in the content of the book was a much more analytical voice on the part of Ryland. She highlighted the point that his depiction of Blackman Nguru, with regard to his derogatory and dehumanising statement of the Coloured people, was too lenient a behaviour. Zimitri was of the opinion that Nguru had to be dealt with in a fierce manner with regard to his statement. Furthermore, Zimitri said that what we don’t need is a new race language, but to name race, and hence, she felt that Ryland does not provide an adequate and clear definition of race and racism. She stated that race should open possibilities for change rather than close them, and that we should practice an approach of fierce compassion and fierce vigilance rather than an accusatory approach. Zimitri posed the question, How do we work for race and culture, and its implications? In response, she stated that we need to work with them in order to free them.

Zimitri said that the possible solution to the issue of race and racism is for this generation (present) to resist race and racialism in the framework of knowledge and not that of amnesia. According to Zimitri, we cannot afford to be resigned to live with any form racism. Zimitri stated that we, as South Africans, should not settle for anything less than the eradication of race and racism. The problems and inequalities created through race and racism are human-made and hence, can be un-made. Therefore, this comes back to my earlier critique in the manner in which Ryland approaches the concept of race and racism. Because it is human-made and hence, can be un-made, according to Zimitri, sociological analysis is pertinent in studying, researching and investigating social relations around the concept of race in attempts to understand and explain the way(s) in which this very concept is given breath to live through humans, and hence, provide possible solutions in dealing with and eradicating race in its entirety. In her gracefully poetic, spoken-word manner of speaking, Zimitri stated that it is extremely difficult to follow an anti-racial living when our lives are drenched in such racial meaning. With reference to the frequently asked question, according to Zimitri as to What can a sincere white person do? She says that, in their attempts to overcome race and their own racism, it is imperative for them to meet face-to-face with their colonial selves in the mirror.

I left the seminar with two questions which would take years to research, investigate and resolve. The two questions are as follows: Can race’ and racism ever be eradicated? How do we best conceptualise the concept of race’ in order to understand it in other words, in which framework should it be placed in order for it to be understood?”

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