The trouble of race

2011-03-21 00:00

RACISM is commonly associated with South African society. Why have you concluded that it is no longer a useful concept?

Racism is a very useful concept, but we prefer not to use it for theoretical and practical reasons. Theoretically, Race Trouble is an attempt to understand social life and racial inequality in the post-apartheid context from the most immediate point of practices — how people go about their lives — for example, holidaying on the beach or in domestic-labour relations in the home. We want to study these forms of race trouble rather than prejudge them at the outset by using the label racism. Inside these contexts, the concept of racism is used by people all the time to further some agenda or the other. It always has practical intent. But we want to study the arrangement of these intentions, practices, identities and social contestations. We want to study race trouble, not participate in it.


And how do you explain the alternative concept of race trouble that forms the title of your book?

Race trouble is a social psychological concept that refers both to the collective reality by which social, economic and material life is contoured along race lines, and the psychological reality of being a person living in such unequal contexts, participating in life, with the experientially potent fears, interests and aspirations that accompany such participation.


Why is race trouble important to an analysis of modern South Africa?

Race trouble is everywhere you look. It is evident in the newspapers and the rest of the media, in ordinary conversations, in the dreams of fantasies, in public institutions, in protest action, greed and defensiveness, guilt, social conflict, and so on. Should we be surprised? No. We live in a society constructed around race.


In looking at the persistence of race as an issue, you consider psychological and sociological theory. Both are found wanting. Why is this and what replaces them?

Psychologists and sociologists have dealt largely with abstractions in the past, namely, “mind” and “society”. The basic laws of these entities were supposed to explain human behaviour, enabling eventual prediction and control. These hopes have failed, leading to a quest for alternative models of science. Race Trouble proposes such an alternative model that attempts to understand the way in which social and psychological life arises from what people do (how they live) and how they explain what they do. In other words, it places human practices before mind and society.


How does the study of language help in understanding race trouble?

Language is a variety of human practice. But it is a very special kind of practice in which we account for ourselves. We use language to justify and criticise ourselves and others. We use language to construct images of ourselves and others that allow us to live with ourselves as participants in unequal worlds. By so doing, language helps to keep an unequal world in place.


Clearly geography has a bearing on racialised meaning. How is this reflected in post-apartheid South Africa; and what in particular was learnt from your beach research?

Practices are always located in place as they unfold in real time. Race takes on concrete meaning in the context of such located practices, and hence, for example, the kinds of conflicts and concerns that occur in the context of domestic labour will be different from those that occur on holiday on an integrated beach. Our research on Scottburgh Beach showed how South Africans live racially together apart, mixing but also remaining separate and suspicious of each other. White beachgoers complained of being “pushed out” and black beachgoers complained that whites “run away” from them. These stereotypes are not relevant to the more intimate and long- terms relationship of domestic labour and so we have different kinds of race trouble in these two different contexts.

How do theories of repression help to explain race trouble, for example in relation to domestic labour?

Repression is a mechanism that keeps shameful and hurtful thoughts and feelings at bay. Our participation in unequal racial practices holds much potential for shame and hurt for all involved. Repression allows us to walk away with a dignified image of ourselves as decent people while we live in (and benefit from) relations of inequality with other human beings.


In analysing stigma, you write about troubling blackness and troubling whiteness. How do these show themselves?

The problem with repression is that the vanquished content always threatens a return. The unspeakable racial stereotype and the image of the white racist cannot be exorcised. They are there, ready to hand, to be used to explain events and actions. Most troubling is when they are not uttered explicitly, but when you come away from a situation knowing — but not being able to pinpoint it — that you have been treated in a racially stereotyped manner.


The book talks about an inversion of power and white displacement. What does this mean in practice?

Colonialism was a context in which imperial nations needed to, in the words of Homi Bhabha, “justify conquest and establish systems of administration and instruction”. Today, privilege simply needs to be preserved. We’ve moved from a period of white conquest and rule to a period where conservation of status and a way of life is the main concern. This is the context in which whites feel they are being displaced and pushed out.


How do you think your book will help understand the current furore over the opinions of Jimmy Manyi and other demographicengineers?

It is interesting to see how everyone gets so excited when someone like Jimmy Manyi articulates a racial engineering agenda. But these agendas are all over the place. Arguments against affirmative action likewise serve a racial agenda of trying to preserve the ill-gotten gains of the past. It’s not the case that Jimmy Manyi has a racial agenda and Solidarity don’t. Race is always part of what is at stake because today’s “normality” is premised upon a very particular and specific form of racial exploitation. All opinions for and against the status quo participate in race trouble. The task of social psychologists is to see how certain versions of normality win out, become institutionalised, spawn new routines of practice and become seen to be natural, good and just.

• Race Trouble: Race, Identity and Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa by Kevin Durrheim, Xoliswa Mtose and Lyndsay Brown is published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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