Shafinaaz Hassim
Shafinaaz Hassim


“Jean-Louis Belavoix had stood up amid the applause that followed Bates’s exhibition, and had begun all at once to speak in a loud voice. ‘How absurd, Mr Bates!’ He called down. ‘Are we really to believe that men differ from each other simply because of the funny angle under their noses? Is that why the German is stubborn, the Italian greedy, the English cunning, the Finn dull, and the French … charming? Will your facial angle explain why the Greeks were slaves to the Romans? No! You’re carrying it too far!’ Before an astounded audience, he had plunged his knife into Bates’s famous Chain of Races. ‘And what about our Semitic saviour? If the Englishman is going to be at the top and the Negro at the bottom, where will the brown Jesus stand in your chain?’ ” (Excerpt, Racists 2006)

In my ongoing attempts to unpack what race means, and to figure out how and why it continues to be problematic in present day South Africa, along with a few anthropological texts, I’ve taken another look at Kunal Basu’s novel, Racists. Add to this the continued racial profiling of sociopaths and terrorists, apparently based on their (perceived) ethnicity, and a whole new forum of race debate opens up.

It’s the year 1855. Two scientists are at loggerheads. One an Englishman and the other, a Frenchman. The issue is race. In an effort to resolve their dispute they design an elaborate experiment on a deserted island off the coast of Africa. Two samples are set up to settle the argument of race. A pair of infants: one black male and one white female. They are to be raised away from civilisation, with a mute nurse who must conform to the scientists “Ten Commandments”. No games. No stimulation. No happy and sad. No influence of good or bad. No punishment or play. Will their primitive natures dictate their development? This is the objective: “Which child will be master and which the slave?” They are to be observed over twelve years. And so begins the quest on the Dark Continent of Arlinda, to prove, discover and perhaps challenge the assumptions of the two scientists from the realms of colonial England and France. The deemed racists.

While the plot and the storyline moves along at a surreal pace, keeping reader attention in its often absurd but curious indications at defining race, the story tends to take its time getting to grips with the observations. The reader wants to see what happens to the children at the outset, and is made to first grapple with the issues of the nurse, the scientists and their assistant. Nurse Norah is a mute. The prejudice shown in choosing her as the caretaker is highlighted in the awakening of a somewhat maternal instinct that conflicts with her recommended duties as the sterile facilitator. And what of emotion? And compassion. And the tug-of-war between instincts of protectiveness and survival. It seems that the scientists have disregarded these obstacles in designing their project, as each already predict that the outcomes will prove their respective theories to be true.

The articulation of plot struggles to convince at first. The current-day reader needs more to be convinced, but curiosity holds to the end. Basu’s use of satire works well to taunt the imagination. The text is dense and readability tends to waver at some points. However, we must remember that Basu is writing for a time unknown to us. It takes some doing to drag us back two hundred years. As a social scientist, the theories of Frantz Fanon come to mind. At some point, it had me reaching for excerpts of Black Skin, White Masks and the famed Wretched of the Earth in order to decipher the disparities in the book’s research. While Basu touches on issues of race, blackness and whiteness, masculinity and femininity, the stereotypes inevitably prevail in some or other way. The notion of nationality vs racial identification is all too easily simplified as the background thread. The colonialist must be made to question his base ideals and the simplistic “othering” that occurs with his subordinates and the “samples” serve as nagging reminders, but not enough of practical prompts to this end.

“Did we rise from barbaric roots, Mr Darwin? he whispers under his breath, or have we fallen from a civilised Eden?”

And so we trudge on through the journey of words, especially because the conflicts and disaster that finally show out midway through the book, present further opportunity for contemplation about our own conditioning and prior assumptions about race and superiority, ethnicity and power. For as long as we continue to deem our countrymen, ourselves of constructed worth based on skin or eye colour, (really a case of phenotype and genetics) the superficial divides remain and provide resolute commentary for our understandings of human capacity and self-evaluation. Are we just a bunch of racists, after all? Is some recovery imminent? The cynics among us maintain that the laws may have changed, but our insistence on holding onto the superficial or imagined categories and their loaded stereotypes persist. Some might suggest that the comment boxes on blog posts are the perfect breeding grounds for covert racism to rear its ugly head. The jury is out on that for now. Identity matters. Dismissing someone on perceived difference in viewpoint, lending the dismissal to colour, completely unacceptable.

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    • Emojong Ronald

      This is very interesting concept to come to grapples, does race actually transcend deep down into our genes, for I am interested whether race also affects the intellectual aspect of being. Would it be wrong if I was to teach a white child, or perhaps be a doctor and treat a white women. At the end of the day science is to judge, diversity in species is a gift, and we are to appreciate and not explore.Its also obvious we cant ignore the persons skin color, just as we black people admire the tone of some, equally do we also appreciate the whiteness in others and claim some white people to be too pale. Indeed Race still remains an issue in South Africa to be trended upon with caution.Thank you for your work. From Mr. Ronald Emojong

    • Racist in ANCspeak means someone who thinks (differently from them)

      “In my ongoing attempts to unpack what race means, and to figure out how and why it continues to be problematic in present day South Africa,”

      Why did this learned lady not just simply look at who is pushing racism and whom it suits to keep politics on a racist discourse? Perhaps she was aware that the answer to her question is “ANC”

    • shafinaaz

      Dear Mr Emojong, is it racist or narcissistic to be attracted to someone/people who look similar to what you see in the mirror? I guess these are prevailing questions around identity and racial profiling and even entrapped notions of attraction and representation.

      Dear Racist-who-thinks-differently, I don’t claim to have the answers; I do consider that we take responsibility to reflect as individual racists, comfortable (and ‘safe’ by this imagination) with our inverted prejudices and prior assumptions. I don’t know. I’m trying to figure this out. I just know that we’re all hiding behind some layer of it. And yes, even the laws are reflective of a false collective consciousness, so by generally assuming acceptance of democracy doesn’t equate to all being free and fair for everyone.

    • Bouga

      Racism is learnt, we have all seen little kids interacting in Malls with no clue what a skin color represents. Through fear, ignorance and intolerance racist traits start to emerge as they grow older.

      The book sounds like a nice read, but much like what I’ve written here its nothing but an opinion.

      Most of the racism in my humble opinion stems from a “survival instinct” the us and them phenomenon. It still doesn’t make it right.

    • shafinaaz

      Thanks Bouga, I agree. The book raises many problems with defining racialised discourse… And makes simplistic assumptions. But it held my curiosity because I wanted to see if the scientists would attain their desired results. And it had me wondering if race consciousness is by design, by cultural or ethnic affiliation, etc

    • Tofolux

      @shafinaaz, in looking at your premise and also at some of the replies, I am wondering what it is that makes us so uncomfortable in not debating but talking about racism. It is also glaringly obvious that the usual suspects are keeping themselves very far from this issue but I would guess that they are checking the responses. I think that this particular issue is one of those very critical issues that needs action, now, and we are sidestepping this at our own peril. Racism is the opposite of equality because its main aim is exclusivity. When we talk about equality and we look at our constitution it gives us an insight into what the ANC and all the struggle activists fought to achieve in a democratic South Africa, thru the constitution. It demanded that our equality requires constitutional rights to access. It demanded that our equality must be rightly condemned by our constitution and it correctly demanded that to achieve equality, our constitution talks about redress and fair discrimination. Not only did our freedom fighters look beyond equality, they envisioned envisioned civil rights for all. So when we talk about equality we talk in terms of individual rights and group rights. We all agree that racism eroded human rights and civil rights and we know that a particular and peculiar system of racism was unique to South Africa. And as we see so many running to the concourt for redress where are they in tackling our racist past through the very same courts?

    • Tofolux

      Correction: “It demanded that inequalities must be rightly condemned”

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      People differ vastly from each other, but the differences relate to culture, religion, history and geography, not to skin colour, which is the American obsession, resulting from American slavery and American history.

      Unfortunately we all live in the days of the American Empire.

    • Zukiswa

      @Shafinaaz, once at OR Tambo, I was waiting for a flight from Oz with my then three year old son. another child was there, about the same age. She started coming over and playing with him – which was cute enough – until her mother (non-black) came and grabbed her angrily. not one to let such stuff happen, i asked this woman, ‘so why don’t you want your daughter to play with my son – is it because she is not allowed to play with boys?’ to which everyone there started laughing and this woman got embarrassed and let the children play. I suspect 10 years from now, this poor girl will have some set ideas about other races because she knows one of her parents do not approve of hanging out with people of other races. I tell this anecdote only to support the assertion that I believe no-one is born a racist.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Well now you done gone and got me all fixated on those kids! I’m going to have to read the book just to find out what happens!

      From what I’ve seen, differences are sometimes cultural and sometimes economic but never superior or inferior. Different shouldn’t be seen as scary.

    • Moonbear


      “the usual suspects” – Dave Harris also uses that phrase when referring to anyone who does not agree with him. You are either with Harris (or Tofolux) or you are one of “the usual suspects”.

      “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” – George W. Bush after 9/11.

      HAPPY DAYS. :-)

    • david

      Racism, nationalism, fascism and patriotism, are considered aberrations of human nature to be erased so we can be restored to our original state of grace fashioned after god. Paleontologists would argue this is a romantic fallacy based on the faulty premise that our original nature is good. Their evidence indicates that our original nature was predatory from the beginning and that our evolutionary survival depended on our skill with the weapon. Raymond Dart put it bluntly when he said man evolved because he was a killer. Territoriality, dominance, hierarchy, and private property, ancient instincts, which result in racism and all the other odious isms, are not repressed by appeals to our conscience and our so-called fundamental goodness. Like the sex instinct they prevail unchecked to generate the ultimate hierarchies that separate the haves from the have-nots, Evolutionary success depends on the more efficient exercise of these instincts. Nature doesn’t select for survival those traits which tend towards altruism and love towards one’s neighbour. The best we can do, given this ruthless original nature. is to mitigate its effects on the disenfranchised through charity, unless a major mutation changes the human genome into a new configuration where altruism serves an evolutionary advantage. The project to eliminate racism, whilst desirable, may ultimately rest on a romantic fallacy, no different to Malema et al’s wish to abolish private property to advance a loving society.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The difference between the racism of the British Empire and the Racism of the American Empire is that American racism relates only to skin colour. British racism regarded ALL other races as inferior, including White races such as the Irish and the Dutch Afrikaner.

      But British Racism also excepted any aristocracy from their classifications. Aristocrats such as the sons of Arab Sheiks, African Kings, and Indian Princes, were welcomed in their public schools – but not Irish, Dutch Afrikaners, or Jews.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      You will never understand History if you don’t understand the Economic reasons for all wars, and all Empires, and how the whole world inter-relates.

      For instance, as I have tried to tell you many times before, that Britain or America developed Empires from “free trade” is a total myth. The facts and figures are actually all given in the book “Empire” which is written by an economic historian.

      The Whites that fought the British Empire were the “inferior” Whites denied protectionism and/or Home Rule – America, Dutch Afrikaner South Africa, and Ireland.

      The Whites who happily all remained in the British Empire had both self rule and the right to protect their industries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

      It is about MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!