Race and Racism: the role of biological-physical differences in our understanding of race in South Africa

2015-07-21 17:55

Since 1994, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has been inundated with complaints of racism in the workplace, institutions of learning, social networks, and in the social-space/s in general. In 2000, the former South African president Mr Thabo Mbeki announced in parliament that he had invited SAHRC to convene a National Conference on Racism chaired by Professor Barney Pityana. Mbeki referred to racism as the “most contentious” issue on the national agenda. In the 2013-14 financial year, approximately 500 cases were reported to the SAHRC, averaging to 45 percent of race related cases before the commission (Daily Dispatch report, 2014, 21, July). Clearly, the ‘most contentious’ issue has not left us, instead it keeps recurring in different forms, partly because we have not dealt with the core determinants of our discourses about race and racism.

Defining Racism

Attending to every detail of the word ‘racism’ one will have to break down even the myth about the word ‘race’. As Muir opined that, race is a faulty reasoning which holds a belief that there are differences between people (1993) and the first and most important premise of that is skin colour. Racism is predicated on the ‘ethnocentric’ view of the world by one group of people which justifies their ideas and beliefs of superiority and inferiority. Some commentators and academics have broadened the meaning of racism to include the use of power to preserve and perpetuate the advantages of the dominant social group. Dominant not in numbers per se, but in the culture that has been made ethnocentric.

Thus, racism is the prejudicial and stereotypical belief that all members of a certain ‘race’ group (who have a certain skin colour and presumed and perceived common cultural values) possess features or abilities specific to that race—hence, association and generalisation.

In my view, at the center of the race categorisation and racism is the conceptualisation of race discourses based on skin colour. And, the commission that was convened by Mbeki/SAHRC failed to acknowledge the extent to which our discourses on race and racism have been marred by the colours we attach to ‘race/s’ which, in turn, forbids any constructive discussion about eradicating or dealing with ‘racism’. It’s the colours that inform our ideas about certain ‘race’ groups which then leads to elements of phobia for the next person because of how they look (skin colour), which invokes certain ideas about who they are and how we ought to respond to them.

Now, race categorisation based on skin colour (specifically black or white) was the order of the colonial-apartheid South Africa (SA). One of the speakers during the SAHRC conference on racism, Professor Jakes Gerwel discussed racism “…as an offshoot of the European renaissance, which evolved with a total disregard for the other, namely the non-European” (National Conference on Racism report, 2001). In my view, the ‘non-European’ tag has a formula which is; skin colour, race classification, region of birth and the subsequent pessimism.

The first characteristic “skin colour” (biological factor) is of interest to me since it has been used since ‘time immemorial’, so much that we’ve all unconsciously and perhaps consciously accepted it. Race classification predicated on skin colour has impeded on our ability to move forward as a people, country and nation. Our discourses on race are centred largely on the biological factors with skin colour as the number one biological/genetical factor as mentioned above.

People are perceived and judged based on a biological factor which they never bargained for from since birth. As a result, SA refers to itself as a rainbow nation “Rainbow Nation”. The notion of the rainbow is informed not by different cultures (as we’ve been made to believe) but by different skin colours (coloured, Indian and African (‘black’) and ‘white’). Anyway, the dominant culture in SA remains the European culture, years after Steve Biko warned us to refrain from viewing SA as a country in Europe.

If the rainbow notion was informed by different cultures, the same notion could be applied to Europe. Instead of calling it the Euro-Zone, we’ll call it the ‘Rainbow-zone’. However, in this part of the world (Africa), people are classified based on skin colour (biological factor) as is the case in other parts of the world e.g America, Brazil etc.

Willmott James captures the notion of biological factors perfectly when he argues that, “undue and unearned…inherited and unalterable human biological characteristic” have remained the sole panacea of race categorisation for beneficiation in South Africa even post 1994. Arguably, the democratic South Africa’s lessons on race classification came from its apartheid past but a great deal of it (which has even informed beneficiation, e.g. Affirmative Action, BEE etc) comes from the Americans who got their independence (liberty) from British rule long before South Africa but, biological factors (especially skin colour) remained the acceptable yardstick for race classification.

Why writing about Race and racism now

This piece is inspired by the recent story of an American ‘white’ woman who identifies herself as ‘black’ who has for years (approximately 10 years) masqueraded as a black woman until her cover was blown just recently during a television interview. During the interview she refused to answer a question about her Caucasian father whom she has always claimed was black.

Rachel Dolezal’s story as she is affectionately and despicably called, finds resonance in South Africa’s contestation with racial identity and racism discourse. Several commentators in America, especially African Americans have lashed out at Dolezal, with some arguing that she takes for granted the life of ‘black’ people, some calling her a fake, some calling her ‘confused’ by the privileges of being ‘white’, some even referred to her act as an illustration of the flexibility of whiteness which is not enjoyed by other race groups.

Dolezal appeared after the ‘tragic’ interview identifying herself as a ‘transracial’ being, a statement and attitude which subjected her to more criticisms. I will not get into the whole debate about trans-racialism but, it is clear to me that, the attacks and criticism directed at her are predicated on the mythical ‘black, white’ discourses based on skin pigmentation.

In my view, the critics and the whole debate on Dolezal have missed that very critical point, the point that our race discourses are based on skin colour. This is the same point that my country (South Africa) should be concerned with. It is a factor that the conference on Racism called by former president Mbeki should have discussed.

In the 'Black' studies in America, like in African, WEB Dubois is one of the many important intellectuals upon which scholarship on race and racism is derived. This is because Dubois wrestled with ‘race’ issues till his death. Dubois called his own life “autobiography of race concept”. What makes Dubois even more relevant is the fact that Dolezal was working for an organisation which Dubois was instrumental in its establishment, the NAACP.

Apart from studying at a black university Howard, Dolezal was appointed by NAACP as a leader of a chapter in Spokane, Washington. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is an African-American civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909. What is surprising me and what actually drew my interest to the story is the NAACP's inability to pick this up, it is just absurd!!. Apart from being ‘busted’ and found to be a Caucasian America woman, Dolezal maintains that she is a black woman.

Which begs the question what is the truth about race? Is it the skin colour (black or white), is it the superiority and inferiority complexes that make others look at other with their lenses and label others who are not like them as ‘barbaric’. What is the truth about race? What is the role of ‘experiences’ and culture in our discourses about race? Dubois was concerned with not only the meaning of race but also the truth about race.

The convenience of race discourse

Stuart Hall, one of the most relevant-contemporary scholars on culture, refers to race as a floating signifier. Hall refers to “race as one of the major concepts which organises the great classificatory systems of difference which function in human societies”.

Biologists, especially the contemporary biologist, have not reached a consensus on the question of whether there is more than one human race, there is however a consensus, an unscientific consensus on the underlying genetics that could be used to legitimise the argument that there could be human race(s). These genetical differences include; bone, hair, skin, nose (shape), lips (size) etc. And these are the genetical differences that we’ve used to racially categorise people as black or white.

Racial categorisation on basis of skin colour and all the other factors (biological) indicated above is a myth to shift focus away from the core of racism, which is classism. Because, class is concerned with experiences and like Stuart Hall, race discourse should be about socio-historical and cultural experiences of people.

These genetical differences have come to be accepted by society as race classification features, and this was exacerbated (in South Africa at least) by the racially biased psychological testing which also justified ‘scientifically’ the differences in race(s). According to the tests, ‘blacks’ in SA were found to be less intelligent to their ‘white’ counterparts, and the conclusions drawn had ‘scientific’ evidence to back those findings (one of my problems with the discipline of Psychology).

Needless to say that, this has been refuted, and has been found to be scientifically faulty and based on prejudice and cultural bias norming and test items. Biology and Psychology were not the only ‘scientific’ disciplines that instilled such ideas in the minds of people. The studies of Phrenology, history and philosophy also gave academic credence to what started as a discourse amongst a certain group of people who call themselves ‘white’.

In my view, the story of Dolezal has offered a practical antithesis to the dominant race discourses centred on skin colour. She continues to identify herself as a human being not white or African but identifies with the black experience, whatever that experience is!!

However, the attack and insults she’s been subjected to are reactional, illogical and emotive, because again, the race issue is an emotive one and most importantly illogical one! Commentators and critiques continue to ask whether Dolezal is ‘black or white’ and she maintains that she is black, not African but she is black.

The colours attached to race and the subsequent meaning we give to those colours (or people) must be broken down. So far as to say, no-one is white and no-one is black. Dark-skinned and Pink if we were to attach colours to categorise people racially (especially so called ‘black’ and ‘white’), would be more appropriate.

However, for the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, these ‘tags’ are important as they according to Stuart Hall; signify certain group/s of people, and the prejudicial ideas and assumptions about these group/s come to mind e.g. nose (sharp or flat and big), lips (big or small), big penis, street bagger, criminal, holy, superior, harmless-harmful, beautiful, dirty, evil, barbaric, uncivilised, etc., and they make our discourse convenient and socially acceptable—especially amongst those who look like ‘us’.

Hence some people get shocked and terrified when they see images of Caucasian people as street baggers especially in SA’s big cities. Hence, when a ‘white’ male randomly opens fire and kills unarmed innocent church folks in their worship, the president would view it as a gun control problem—and when Arabic man commits the same act, it is viewed as terrorism. So, HIV-AIDS, Crime, poverty, drugs etc. get stigmatised, restricted and associated with a certain ‘race group’, and the skin colour conveniently serves as ‘signifier’ of this discourse.

If you talking about American citizens who are on government welfare system (e.g. food stamps), the picture that gets shown (especially by Fox News) is that of black Americans because ‘poverty/deprivation’ is associated with that skin colour whereas there are ‘white’ Americans who also benefit from the system.

This race classification was a thorny issue even during apartheid South Africa, especially in relation to precision in identifying who is ‘white’.

During the Apartheid era, as Willmott James opines, the then Director of Census Jan Raats was commissioned by the Apartheid government (minister of Home Affairs) to give a detailed racial classification of South Africans based on skin pigmentation and descent. Raats experienced problems with classifying ‘coloured’ people who looked more like ‘whites’. The consensus was to classify that minute group with a ‘white’ skin colour and Caucasian hair (biological factors) and Caucasian blood line (descent) as white. As a result, approximately, 10 percent of ‘white’ classified population included coloured people. This is an illustration of the absurdity and perhaps immaturity of race classification based mainly on skin colour.

Hence Cornel west refers to race in America as a “litmus test for maturity”. In my view, we never graduate from the old ‘schemas’ that have been used as signifiers of race. I refer to race as a litmus test for convenience as the race categorisation makes our discourses about race easier and more satisfying, and maybe terrifying and uncomforting to some.

West in his book “Race Matters” raises a need for all of us in society to consider our discourses about race. And the key to that as Appiah opines is to “sunk the biological concept of race without trace”. Meaning, race based on biological-physical factors must be substituted with a socio-historical or cultural definition as Stuart Hall suggests. We must depart from using the genetic code as a ‘signifier’ of race, but we must understand the experience of ‘blackness’.

Truth be told, the race classification based on skin colour has remained one area where we’ve remained stagnant as a nation. Precisely because, this classification privileges some, and has long been a social construct that we vehemently and fiercely defend so much that, we don’t know of any other way around it, other than the skin colours classification. Hence, race is, again, a litmus test for maturity.

Way forward

Any way foward must enable us to develop some informed awareness of the plight of the downtrodden in our society. We must as Xolela Mangcu argues, embark on an informed pursuit of attempting to understand the ‘black experience’, this must be a pursuit by everyone, and not only the people whose skin is labelled ‘black’. We must move towards “Consciousness of Blackness” (Mangcu)—the 21st century requires consciousness of experiences, and the misunderstood of these experiences remain that of the downtrodden—hence classism.

All the stereotypes associated with the skin colour will hopefully seize and the historic experiences and culture of the people will be a signifier of the ‘colours’ we attach to ‘race’. There is no white person, and there will never be a black person, the colours serve as ‘signifiers’ that ‘help’ categorise people, in order to reproduce and perpetuate racial stereotypes.

See, the more we use “black” to signify the skin colour, the further away we are moving from uncovering the hidden secrets around the concept of race. However, if we associate black with the experiences then we are going back to Steve Biko’s definition of black. Black then becomes a matter of convenience or to symbolise experience, which is what she (Dolezal) has demonstrated, and whiteness as a social construct will seize to be about ‘colour’ but will be about experiences (privileges and racial bias) and not necessarily about racial identity. This is because, racial identity is predicated on the notion of the colour of the skin, whereas there are ‘blacks’ who live the life of privileges and are very biased towards the class they affiliate to (race bias). Race will then become a symbol of experiences and culture.

So, arguably, the current government did not know any better when they decided on racial categorisation based on genetical factors which Willmot refers to as ‘undue and unearned values and unalterable characteristics’ of human.

The SAHRC has a responsibility in my view to do what Steve Biko suggested, to change people’s outlook, and educate them with the aim of helping people unlearn the seemingly engrained stereotypes about race based on biological factors. The commission must commission scholars (contemporary scholars) who will help provide a concrete glossary of the ideas, conflict and generally the discourse about race. The commission should go beyond just being a reactional body but should be proactive in tackling social issues that continue to impinge on the social development of our country.

As for Dolezal, her case raises serious questions about ‘race’ and seeks to make us look at race, and the whole debate about race differently with the aim of finding answers. She has in my view rightly critiqued the dominant discourse, and has offered new ways of dealing with race. Over and above that, Dolezal’s story has in my view again rendered in valid the race conception on biological factors (e.g. nose, lips, skin colour, hair etc.). She has however made even more relevant the whole idea of experiences and has also made relevant Hall’s argument of history and culture in differentiating between human beings, and for that, I’ll forever remain grateful to her.

Useful references;

1. South African Human Rights Commission Conference on Racism Report, 2001

2. Wilmott James;


3. Anthony Appiah, (1985). The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race, Vol. 12, No. 1, "Race," Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985), pp.21-37

4. Cornel West (1994) Race Matters. Beacon Press, USA.

5. Stuart Hall (1997). Race as a floating signifier;


6. Muir, D. E. (1993). Race: The mythic root of racism. Sociological Inquiry, 63, 339–350

7. Steve Biko; (2012) I write what I like. (video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWLeNMgdGcc).

7. Professor Xolela Mangcu ;


News24 Voices Terms & Conditions.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.