Engaging with race is an unforgiving affair, however one approaches it, writes Michael Morris.
If embracing it can be, and perhaps always is, tainting – as it flirts with the fiction of difference – seeming to disown it, in the sense of pretending it is unaffecting, is surely delusional, as it overlooks the power and the legacy of the idea of race.
The risk in both categories is more or less equivalent; it is a risk of relying on a simplicity, a familiar enough surface that obscures an underlying complexity.
While science has demolished race as the biological concept supremacists once clung to – there is no gene for it – the power of the “construct” is not only argumentatively frisky, but is on the face of it everywhere corroborated in the lived reality of “racial” difference, the peaks and chasms of material inequality, the easily perceived categories of oppression and privilege and the various inheritances of the most recent phase of human history of the past 500 years, accidental or unchosen as many of them may have been.
This, at any rate, is the pervasive – and, we are persuaded, progressive – interpretation of racism; large-scale and systemic, and, for all intents and purposes, immune to anything but an epochal turning of the tables, a mammoth effort to get even.
I wonder, though, if there’s an essential abdication of personal agency in this formulation and one which ultimately, for instance, permits people to say “f**k white people” – or as a counter, “f**k black people” – and genuinely believe they are engaging in a legitimate exchange that expresses a system of values or thought that might otherwise be dealt with in literature, art or philosophy, in legal argument, the boardroom, law-making or even town planning, and be convinced it merits serious attention.
I know people, if not intimately, who think these things about white or black people, even if they wouldn’t dream of expressing them as crudely in my company and I think of them just the same, as depleted souls, insecure perhaps, and certainly unimaginative, lacking that Montaignian humility that is a slow-dripping accumulation of wondering doubt that comes from reading, thinking and staring hard in the mirror.
Challenging the normative category – however integral it may be to the grand narrative of historical oppression on one hand and thoughtless, or triumphalist, enjoyment of the spoils on the other – must surely be the premise of its undoing, as the means and the end are always indistinguishable.
The alternative seems to be a perpetual, almost fatalistic, regeneration of the discriminatory idea itself.
Consciously discounting race – or perceived racial difference – offers no easy exoneration or relief; it makes sense-making harder, it compels doubt and reveals ignorance.
Critically, it invites acquaintance and the giving of attention.
What, after all, can we really say about people we do not know – other than they are as wishful, flawed, unevenly talented, wondrous or mistaken as we are?
But to be content to discuss people as if we know them by their race is a lapse of attention the Cape poet and essayist Stephen Watson hinted at in his A Writer’s Diary, republished posthumously last year, when he observed “incuriousness is, in reality, one of the forms of evil”.
More often than not, history suggests, racial belonging is an unreliable and incestuous refuge of cliche and insecurity that only guarantees the alienation and mistrust on which racism breeds.
And we can choose.
In a late 1990s interview, scholar Edward Said (who could variously be described as a Palestinian, an American, a Christian and an Arab) elaborated on his view of Mozart’s vision of the “protean, unstable, undifferentiated nature of human identity” by confessing that he had become “very, very impatient with the idea and the whole project of identity”.
What was “much more interesting” was to “try to reach out beyond identity to something else”, possibly “an altered state of consciousness that puts you in touch with others more than one normally is”.
Said was by no means addressing racial bigotry. But, as an everyday habit of mind, declining the conventions of race, making it unthinkable, in a sense – though it is difficult, uneven in its results and possibilities and easily misperceived – can be a decisive strike against racist thinking.
It is a question, for instance, of recognising there is nil meaning in the skin tone of Einstein, Brahmagupta, Beethoven, Shaka or Weil; Shakespeare, Maimonides, Curie or Rembrandt; Hitler, Aristotle, Biko or Wollstonecraft, al-Khwarizmi, Douglass, Marx, Terence or Galileo.
Any list, however long it may be, is an inestimable sum of human enterprise, or error, and all the dreams and foibles and follies in between.
Regarding these few, we can be sure there is not a calculation made today, or a line drawn, a note sounded, or an idea crafted that is not impinged on in some measure by this small sampling of shared heritage.
Michel de Montaigne, voraciously fascinated as he was, would doubtless have been intrigued by Steve Biko had he lived in our time.
At any rate, we know he was struck by that earlier African, Terence, snatched to Rome as a slave, and one of whose lasting – 2 000-year-old – aphorisms the French essayist inscribed (among many others) on the oak joists of his circular library in the Dordogne.
It reads: “Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto.” (I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me.)
It remains a remarkable, humbling – and some might even say distinctly African – sentiment.
To genuinely believe it, whoever you are, is not only to reject racism, but to be a distinctive agent of civilising social and economic history.
- Michael Morris is a senior journalist for Independent Media.