Talking about race is crucial despite high risk of being misunderstood - Businesslive

Apr 11, 2021
11 April 2021 - The biggest risk in talking about race is less the danger of being considered offensive than the fate of being misunderstood. But the cost in either case is highest if the consequence is not talking about race at all.

Michael Morris

The biggest risk in talking about race is less the danger of being considered offensive than the fate of being misunderstood. But the cost in either case is highest if the consequence is not talking about race at all.

In this spirit, I welcome the response from Anne Taylor of Edenvale ("Cancel skin colour?", March 24) to my column of March 14 ("Race as the magic potion for superstitious progressives") .

The gist of her objection is contained in the following two paragraphs: "Talk about cancel culture. In just a few words, Morris managed to cancel centuries of oppression, suffering and hardship and be offensive all at the same time.

"In arguing from the specific, in this case Meghan Markle's skin colour, to the general, that all skin colour should be ignored in spite of all the evidence to prove that 'skin colour' has been used as an excuse for so much indignity and oppression, the article displays no understanding of the impact of this merely physical condition."

I'd have felt rightly shamed had I meant either that skin colour or the evidence of abuse, indignity and oppression arising from it should be ignored. However, I make no apology for calling out superstitious thinking about race.

This is the very thinking that race endows superiority or inferiority underpinning the abuses of the past and the bigotry of the present possibly including, according to Markle, a royal personage made fidgety by the thought of a swarthy princeling.

But I feel certain Taylor mistakes my argument, which is not to ignore skin colour or regard it as irrelevant nonracialism means neither but expressly to demolish the all too casual assumption that identity, character, mentality and ability either derive from or are determined by appearance.

Could there be a better match for Taylor's challenge that " true redress requires readjustment, recognition of pain and the determination to try and undo the damage done in the past"?

Surely not ... except for the risk of seeming to discount either the importance of race as identity both among those who self-identify by race, and those identified by their appearance whether they like it or not or the effects of historical racial abuse.

The remedy must begin with disarming the imposed "meaning" of race the enabler of indignity and oppression and replacing it with an acknowledgment of our common humanity, dignity and agency. People are free to call themselves whatever they like, but that's for them to decide, not us.

Hence my March 14 objection to a commentator's assumption that black people could only ever make political choices on racial grounds, rather than choosing intelligently for themselves what policies to support as independent-minded citizens.

After all, it is the combined effect of historical and contemporary deficiencies of policy that is the source of the wide variations in South Africans' living standards so vividly reflected in the Quality of Life Index data I cited .

The roots of those variations undoubtedly lie in the deliberate abuse of people because of what they looked like.

To argue that the victims of such historical abuse can make no sense of data that mirrors their existence and choose differently for themselves other than as subjects of a racialist history is to risk breathing new life into the very rationale of the "centuries of oppression, suffering and hardship" of Taylor's incontestable phrasing.

Spurning racialist thinking must surely be the first, moral and material, step towards any project that seeks to "undo the damage done in the past". Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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