Friday, 16 May 2008

See a Person, not a colour

I am sick, to the point of committing a random act of violence, of race-based discourse. If I read or hear one more statement involving the colour of persons I may scream.

I understand why South Africa is possibly the most racially polarised place on earth. Our history set out the colour lines and we are perpetuating them today. But it seems that we are becoming more polarised as the years go by. Every politician, journalist, and "irate reader from Benoni" is hell bent on inserting words of colour into every item that is written or spoken about South Africa. It has become a national obsession. How does it help anyone? The idea of racism has become so strange to me that I am finding it harder and harder to grasp exactly why South Africans waste so much of their time focussing on something that is vague and destructive and just sickening. Am I alone in feeling fury at this waste of breath and time?

My take is that groups and cultural identities do not exist except by the meanings that we, the makers of discourse, give them (or at least, Foucault claims they do not). Foucault claims that the sum total of utterances about a subject, which he terms "discourse" are what defines and determines meaning in a society. So we are the makers of meaning. Now, more than ever, people are able to voice their opinions whenever they wish. Internet blogs, forums, and newspaper columns have ensured that people are heard (I admit these media forms represent only literate voices, but discourse is made by spoken utterances as well).

The discourse of a subject is usually led by people who are experts in a field; they have the power to influence and change what the public image of a subject is. But the voices of everyday people are stronger than ever, and I do not think we need any expert to explain that thinking in racial terms is utterly pointless and destructive in modern globalised society. We should be thinking about why those with power find it expedient to perpetuate colour-based discourse.

I would go so far as to say that to differentiate people based on skin colour is meaningless. Human beings create meaning remember? And it was the colonials of yore that created the concept of race, which was added to as time went by, so that race became a code signifying far more than a skin colour could possibly signify. I am sure there are many people who will disagree volubly with me on this point, and argue that people of a certain skin colour are a certain way. "All the people who have ever mugged me have been black," or "all racist attacks at universities have been carried out by whites" etc. This may be true, but it does not mean, by some weird reverse logic, that ALL black people are muggers, or that ALL white people want to turf black people out of university. Ok, all of this black /white stuff is causing me pain because it is what I am advocating we decimate, so I will move on.

Supposedly I belong to the white race. What the hell does this mean? Am I supposed to feel a common bond, or share a common culture or outlook, with all other white people? Including a 65 year old Cretan fisherman, a Yugoslavian construction worker, or a Sami reindeer herder from Lapland? I could barely relate to most of the people I went to school with.

Group thinking is ingrained in human nature. Why, I shall leave to social scientists to explain. I would hazard that it makes us feel safe to have a group that we identify with. But these groupings can become out of control. The grouping "women" is just as bizarre to me as the race grouping. I do not identify with all women. Nor all people my age, all people with brown hair, all people living in my road, or all people who like peanut butter (what about crunchy vs. smooth factions?). I advocate that all of us who are sick to death of race-speak get out there and expose race-speakers immediately! (Just kidding ok, I am not advocating the formation of yet another ridiculous grouping, although I am sure it will form anyway).

All that I think is that we should try to see an individual human being each time that we see somebody, before we see their colour. I know this is ideological. But it would not hurt to try. It feels healthier to me to treat people as people before falling prey to any of their million and one attached labels and groupings. I am not asking you to be colour- blind, but to be colour-forgetful. Remember that clichés are what perpetuate meaning in society most. If we allow clichés the autonomy they demand, women would still be barefoot in the kitchen making bread and babies, and while this suited those in power at the time, society was changed. If we are the makers of meaning, then we can shift that meaning by changing the way we speak and think. And then the useless and debilitating concept of race that is giving me an ulcer can fade into insignificance. It will never disappear, I accept that, but it really does not deserve the importance we give it today.

I have to resign myself to quoting from a British institution, and Monty Python at that. From The Life of Brian (say it with me if you know the words):

"We're all individuals!"
(words and picture copyright of Po)