Liberal ideas worth spreading: Moving the needle towards non-racialism - Politicsweb, 02 November 2017

Nov 02, 2017
There is a myth held by some, who try to make racial identity compatible with the idea of self-definition, that racial identity is acceptable so long as individuals can define blackness* for themselves. This view is nonsensical. But some liberals cling to it because they wish to bridge the gulf between individuality and racial identity; either because race is an important part of their own identity or because it is an important part of the electorate’s identity.


By Gwen Ngwenya

Liberal ideas worth spreading: The individual and racial identity

  •  “The inadequacy of a singular liberal model is borne out by the predominance of sociodemocratic models in Scandinavian countries that focus on solidarity rather than on individualism.”- Mamphele Ramphele, Business Day, "Why liberalism no solution for diverse SA"
  •  “The other cardinal liberal tenet is that people must not be treated as a group; they are individuals.”- Prince Mashele, The Sowetan, "Idea of a colourless society is a sham"

The idea that liberal individualism is at odds with group solidarity or group identity is pervasive. This view is mistaken, but in attempting to correct it liberals often open the flood gates, accepting all manner of group identities to be compatible with the position of self-definition. Set out here, as briefly as possible, is a countervailing view of the relationship between the individual, the group and racial identity.

Is group belonging/solidarity at odds with individuality?

The desire and act of belonging to a group is absolutely in line with individualism. And the act of joining a group is often itself an exercise of individuality. It is the individual that chooses to belong to some or other religion, to participate in the activities of a club, to cheer on a sports team, and to promote this or other political idea. The sense of belonging that is afforded by being part of a group is important to many people. Being able to engage in social human activity for many gives meaning, is a source of pleasure, and ultimately heightens human wellbeing. Far be it from liberals to wish to limit the free association of people.

Why are racial groups different?

Having not only defended the right to freely associate, but having gone further to say that it is also pleasurable and meaningful to belong to a group, why then should we reject the racial group?

Not all groups operate in this manner of being a free association of individuals. Certainly racial groups do not. Entry and exit to the group is restricted, and individuals can be treated by other people and institutions as though they belong to, or do not belong to, the group despite the individual’s wishes. Some groups, such as those characterised by race, violate the principle of free association.

For the most part people are not in a position to choose which racial group they belong to; instead they are characterized as belonging to a particular race based on their appearance. The various complexities of how people are classified by appearance into different racial groups is a discussion beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that most people know a black person (or insert any race) when they see one.

That the social categorisation of people into races often happens in this informal way is echoed by the Population Registration Act, which determined that, "A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white – and not generally accepted as Coloured – or who is generally accepted as White – and is not obviously Non-White…”. It is a bit like explaining what a bowl is; it is an object which in appearance is obviously a bowl-and not generally accepted as a mug- or is generally accepted as a bowl-and is not obviously not a bowl. This description bears a large measure of truth regarding the manner in which races are defined at the visual level. It is based on these unspecified but commonly understood descriptors that we store profiles of people into their racial silos.

We do not choose many aspects of our appearance, which does not necessarily mean we find it oppressive for others to use these physical traits to describe us. In fact it can be tedious to watch someone avoid describing a person by their skin colour, when doing so might quickly clarify any confusion. If race operated purely as a descriptive marker in society it would not be so egregious. But the social force of racial identity affects more than just how we are physically described, it ventures into the most intimate parts of our being.

Race, furthermore, would be a relatively benign phenomena if it operated in private spaces. Why should we concern ourselves with the person who privately identifies as a black woman, but whose private thoughts, feelings and desires have little consequence for public policy? We should not. But that is not how racial identity tends to operate; it does not confine itself to private spaces but instead it makes public demands. 

Public assertions made by unofficial racial representatives are commonplace in South Africa. A statement issued in 2015 by Rhodes Must Fall addressing the Rhodes statue reads, “Its presence erases black history and is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff – by “black” we refer to all people of colour.” Thus the statement represents the views not only of Rhodes Must Fall but those of all black people.

Can we reconcile racial identity with individualism?

There is a myth held by some, who try to make racial identity compatible with the idea of self-definition, that racial identity is acceptable so long as individuals can define blackness* for themselves. This view is nonsensical. But some liberals cling to it because they wish to bridge the gulf between individuality and racial identity; either because race is an important part of their own identity or because it is an important part of the electorate’s identity.

But if each person defines for themselves what it means to be black, then it means nothing to be black when it means everything and anything. In the same way that if each Christian could define for themselves what it means to be Christian it would mean nothing at all. Even if liberals do not, racial nationalists understand the need for unifying ideas to give the racial group a degree of form and substance. In order to give meaning to blackness interest groups attempt to define a hegemonic view of what it means to be black in the world.

Of course with religious groups, as with other groups, there is disagreement over many issues among members. However, there tends to be an identifiable essential characteristic without which the group would not exist. You could not be Christian if you did not believe in Jesus Christ and his teachings. From that foundational belief would flow other logical conclusions about what a Christian believes or should believe. The racial group lacks any essential belief which joins all who are part of that race.

In the absence of an essential commonly shared characteristic or the ability of free association, racial groups function as coercive units making fraudulent claims about who their members are and what they think, feel and desire. As such the racial group expressed as racial identity is irreconcilable with the freedoms that should accrue to the individual. It is in this context that liberals should advocate for non-racialism, not multi-racialism, and a colour-blind society. Those who oppose the latter are often disingenuous in their critique. Surely there is not a thinking person alive who has ever considered racial colour-blindness to mean a literal visual impairment.

A colour-blind society would not be one in which people did not literally see skin colour, but one in which people did not view skin colour as capable of providing visual cues about a person’s character and worldview. 

Now does the discussion above have any practical consequences? In other words, as a person living in a racialised society today are there things you can do to move the needle towards non-racialism? Indeed there are. This list is not conclusive but rather should highlight that the discussion on racial groups and racial identity is not purely academic:

  • Try not to speak on behalf of people that share the same skin colour. Practise saying ‘I think…’ instead of ‘as a black/white person I think…’
  • Don’t allow people who share the same skin colour as you to speak on your behalf. Well let’s be honest they won’t ask for your permission, but confront those who make this mistake.
  • If you are an employer explore ways in which you and your staff can unlearn visual signals or cope with bias/prejudice, e.g. adopting blind recruitment techniques.
  • Concretely identify the variety of experiences, ideas, behaviours and values that would be valuable to your organisation. Then measure diversity in those terms, not on the basis of race.
  • If you are a policymaker look into how you can make use of disadvantage in policy making as opposed to racial measures. This is an area in which the South African Institute of Race Relations has written extensively. A policy of economic empowerment for the disadvantaged is a viable alternative to race-based corrective policies.

*And/or white person. The arguments in this article apply to all racial groups. It becomes unwieldy to continuously point this out, thus black/blackness is used even when the argument applies to all racial groups.

*Gwen Ngwenya is the COO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

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