By Matthew Beetar

Racism is more of a problem than sexism. But sexism is more of a problem than xenophobia, which is less of a problem — occasionally — than homophobia. Transphobia we deal with sometimes, and ageism — what is that even? And dealing with ableism — let’s not take this “reconciliation” thing too far.

Ordering which form of prejudice is worse is repulsive and ridiculous — from an ethical perspective and from a practical perspective. But unfortunately it’s something that I often see, read, and experience. It’s a disturbing trend that shapes strategies of debate, engagement and action, which has a direct impact on what we experience in everyday life.

I have a problem with how we speak about and act on issues about privilege, power, “transformation” and “reconciliation” in South Africa.

Yes, racism and white privilege are real problems. We need to deal with these urgently.

Yes, sexism and male privilege are real problems. We need to deal with these urgently.

But coming up with interventions that focus on making (individual) people “less racist” or “less sexist”, or implementing national solutions that promote specific identity categories over others in the name of progress, acts to effectively privilege some experiences over others and risks pushing already marginalised realities further into the peripheries of society.

The issue, for me, is that we’re unwilling to have the difficult discussion that people with privilege can simultaneously be disprivileged; that people who are the targets of social discrimination can also be discriminators themselves.

That someone can be the victim of daily racist assaults and can also be a perpetrator of homophobia is often ignored. That someone who has internalised sexism as a shocking norm can be in a position of social power and exert that power in the form of transphobia or xenophobia makes us uncomfortable to think about. That an individual who is the recipient of regular homophobic abuse can be misogynistic and racist makes “rights movements” uneasy.

But surely if our shared goal is a truly democratic society, where equality and mutual respect are enshrined values, all instances of prejudice are pressing?

So while we’re rightly concerned with addressing racism or sexism in the country, because these are widespread and frequent, and while we need to have priorities and focuses, this cannot come at the expense of the lives of other citizens.

Central to this, then, is that when we address racism, sexism, homophobia etc we need actions and strategies that focus on both personal interactions as well as the underlying reasons discriminatory interactions occur.

That is, we need a shift in approach to recognise that the social structures that give our shared and individual lives coherency underlie multiple relationships of power and privilege.

Our schools, churches, traditions, institutions, forces, systems can shape us to have both privilege and power — and be disprivileged and disempowered. This isn’t a blame game: it’s a recognition of the reality that these all groom us to behave, act, think and react in certain ways.

This isn’t something abstract or vague. I went to an all-boys’ high school where middle-class values were often fundamentally linked to a macho, sexist culture of entitlement riddled with explicit lessons in homophobia and implicit schooling in language privileging. My school, the syllabus, and the entire system: a socialisation in the “correct” views and actions on class, race, gender, sexuality, language and nationality.

The danger, of course, is that linking power and privilege to social systems is frequently misunderstood and misapplied as an excuse to absolve oneself of all responsibility — to blame an abstract thing called a “social structure” and to claim an uncritical state of victimhood (those sort of statements like “Why don’t we have straight pride? I feel marginalised by these gays” or “This is just reverse sexism – men can’t do anything right these days”, which don’t consider deeper social relationships at all).

This, however, is lazy, misguided, and disingenuous. Yes, we can all begin to consider how our schools, places of worship, businesses or families have instilled certain values and actions in us — but at the same time as recognising this privilege and power we need to recognise that we act in our own capacities. We need to take responsibility for making choices based on views that we are superior to others by virtue of some random identity category.

Transformation, reconciliation, change — call it what you like — will only come about when we stop trying to bring about such change using identity politics based on inherently discriminatory systems of organisation.

Change is more likely to occur when we shift away from a victim/perpetrator binary and work towards politics based on collective coalitions of shared goals, rather than identities.

To paraphrase Professor Catherine MacKinnon, identities and categories are entrenched tools of inequality — but they’re the results of systems and hierarchies. They’re “not the dynamic that creates” such systems.

Focusing on identities and selective experiences belies the reality that oppressions intersect one another, that power and dispower intersect, that privilege and disprivilege intersect, and that we should be simultaneously focusing on changing the underlying social structures that enable, facilitate and encourage prejudicial actions and beliefs.

Strategies that are based on identity politics perpetuate structures inherently geared towards forms of discrimination. (As an aside, this has implications, too, for the project of “nation building”).

This isn’t radical thinking. It’s not new. Intersectionality theory has its roots in 1970s black feminism, critical race theory and law, and was given a name by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. It’s a model for thinking and action that underpins many local organisations and projects. But it’s a perspective that is often lacking both in wider discussions and in day-to-day reflections on our own lives.

It would make me ashamed to live in a society where we said that our only goal was to make it safe and equal for all [insert identity category] at the expense of other experiences: that in dealing with racism, for example, it’s not “as important” that we deal with the fact that it’s not safe to walk hand-in-hand with a same-sex partner in every city in the country.

It’s not “as important” that we eradicate the fear that thousands of “foreigners” face when they are forced to reveal their nationality.

It’s not “as important” that we deal with children being cast aside in the education system because they’re not privileged enough to know the “right” language.

It’s not “as important” as — the list goes on.

It’s a re-hash of a liberation debate from the 1980s. “Minority experiences”, I’ve heard it argued.

And? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summarises, “the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority — otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic”. Trying to focus on who is “most oppressed” is counterproductive and leads only to Oppression Olympics.

This complaining is easy. Moving forward is the uncomfortable bit, because it involves us taking a moment to question and think about the positions of power we occupy — and the acts of discrimination we perpetuate. It involves taking responsibility for those, and looking at the (often comfortable, familiar) structures that enable and encourage this discrimination — and then breaking them down to change them.

Because as long as we refuse to deal with the underlying, real, everyday systems that create and enable and encourage multiple forms of oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia etc will continue to be problems. Our laments about how terrible this attack or this outburst was will continue in a spiral of repetition.

It’s easier to point fingers and categorise society as “us” vs “them”: discriminators, racists, misogynists vs US, the enlightened ones. It’s much easier than looking at ourselves and considering how social structures afford us power and how we may unconsciously act to exercise that power and be discriminators ourselves.

Racism is real, and it is a problem. It’s not that we don’t need to speak about race and racism — we do. But other forms of oppression are real, too. They all have roots in the same institutions which shape all of our lives.

Until we start changing those institutions in ways that consider how oppression has multiple faces and intersects with power in multiple ways, and until we start facing up to the reality that we often enable day-to-day oppression, discrimination and privilege will continue to be the order of the day.

Matthew Beetar is a 2008 Mandela Rhodes alumnus. He is pursuing a PhD in cultural studies at the University of Sussex in the UK on a Chancellor’s International Research Scholarship, which he occasionally writes about.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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