Press "Enter" to skip to content

#IAmStellenbosch: ‘I am colour-blind and I can see colour’

This is a partial response to a recent post in which the #IAmStellenbosch movement is evaluated quite negatively. Scope doesn’t permit me to deal with the issue exhaustively. I will be content to raise a few sceptical remarks about Michelle Avenant’s evaluation and, more generally, about social discourse.

I don’t think our social discourse is effective at describing and evaluating social affairs. I think we should take more care to avoid rash, weakly justified, assertions. I think that we should be concerned to be clearer about what we mean. #IAmStellenbosch is one aspect of a much larger issue. I believe that we should discuss that issue, but I believe that the way we are currently discussing it is rather unhelpful.

What does the term “colour-blind” mean? The term, in political discourse, has come to refer to a denial of existing racial inequalities and oppression. As far as I can see, this is mostly a pejorative term. I am in no doubt that some people deny, or are ignorant about, such inequalities and oppression. I am also in no doubt that many others want to play their part in ending such inequality and oppression. I believe that I fall into the latter camp.

I see it, however, as centrally important to highlight that such racial inequality and oppression is unfair and unjustified if only because it is based on a false ideology. It is an ideology which tells us that some people are worse than others because of their skin colour. This has caused much suffering in South Africa, and other parts of the world. It is because this is a false ideology that racial inequality and oppression, today and in the past, is unfair and so unjust.

The term “colour-blind”, then, can plausibly take on another, less sinister, meaning. It can be interpreted as the view that since the racial ideology is false, all existing racial inequality is unfair, unjust and without grounds.

Is it true that if we “ignore racial differences” we refuse to acknowledge the “racialised” (and oppressive) experiences of others? This depends, of course, on how one interprets the notion of “colour-blindness”. In its pejorative sense, of course it is true, by definition. In its less sinister sense, I don’t think it is true. The racial ideology tells us that human beings are distinguishable on a biological, or quasi-biological, basis, and that skin colour is the proxy for this distinction. But, as is clear from the biological sciences, this conjecture is false. So, plainly speaking, there are no “racial” differences to ignore.

But people do, nevertheless, cling on to the racial ideology — false as it may be — and, on that basis, act in accord with their false racial beliefs. This can result in the plethora of events we’d ordinarily term “racist”. Of course, as the result of individuals (and groups) falsely motivated behaviour, certain others do endure particular sorts of experiences, or endure certain life conditions, which we could call “racialised”.

If this is clear, so far, then even while disavowing the racial ideology as false, there is no barrier to acknowledging, and attempting to sympathise with, the racialised and oppressive experiences of many people in this country. To reject the racialised ideology does not mean that we cannot recognise that such racialised (oppressive) experiences and living conditions are unjust.

Indeed, recognising the racial ideology as false is the only grounds on which to stand, if we wish to argue against the prevalent injustice. Recognising that there are no racial differences to ignore does not amount to a refusal to acknowledge the racialised and oppressive experiences of others.

Does a failure to humour the racial ideology amount to a denial of people’s identities? Avenant says it does. But let us reflect on that for a moment. Identity and pride can be built on any number of things. Some will take pride in (and form their identity around) adhering to a set of doctrines in an ancient holy text. Others do take pride in (and form their identity around) their skin colour. Taking pride in one’s skin colour is no less bizarre, no less justified, than taking pride in seeking “God’s” approval.

Now, I don’t have to believe in God to acknowledge that some people do, and are proud of it. I also don’t have to gratify what I consider to be a dangerous ideology to acknowledge that some people take pride in their skin colour. Failure to pretend that the racial ideology is correct need not threaten people’s identities and pride, however much one might think their source is misguided. So be it, personal values need not be reflected in the records of science.

In “looking past colour”, must we be implying that only one race is good, and other races are bad? Again, Avenant thinks so, but I see the situation in more nuanced terms. Insofar as “colour” has been understood as the proxy for a biological, or quasi-biological, essence, on which persons are distinguished, and against which persons are evaluated, “colour” certainly is something to “look past”. Depending on how one understands the notion of “colour”, “looking past colour”, then, need not imply that only one “colour” (white) is valuable, and the others are merely to be tolerated. To look past colour is, as I see it anyway, to recognise the racial ideology from which “colour” historically gains its significance as false.

Is Avenant’s evaluation of #IAmStellenbosch correct or fair? Consider this example. There is one black woman who says, “I am black and have an inter-racial circle of friends #colourblind”. Should we interpret her as being incoherent? Perhaps, for if one is “colour-blind” one won’t see “race” and won’t recognise ones friends as inter-or-mono-racial. Should we interpret her as supporting injustice? Possibly, for at least in the pejorative sense #colourblind would translate to #IDenyTheExistenceOfRacialOppression.

Should we interpret her more favourably and suggest that she believes that there are distinct races, but does not believe these should put up barriers between people? I would prefer that interpretation.

Or, given the variety of possible interpretations, should we reserve judgment and just admit that any interpretation we give is underdetermined by the evidence in this case? This is probably the most sensible option.

Consider these other examples. Another person, a black woman, says “I am intelligent and wonderfully made”, a black man says, “I am Rastafari and my religion feels welcomed”, another black man says “I am a short Zimbabwean boy who can speak Afrikaans & studying computer science I AM STELLENBOSCH”. A black woman says, “I am a girl and I play Call of Duty”. A black man says “I am black and I love Rock ‘n Roll!!!”, another black man says, “I am black and Namibian and I love to skateboard and swim”. A white man says “I am colourblind and I can see colour” …

What should we make of all of this? Are all of these people supporters of inequality desirous to prevent the decolonisation of our universities? That is what Avenant seems to suggest, but I don’t think that is correct. Some of these statements are perfectly benign. And many of them, with regards to “transformation” and “decolonisation”, are perfectly beside the point.

Is all of this, to quote Avenant, a “refusal to consider and acknowledge one’s own responsibility in addressing racism”? Are the students really saying “racism is not my problem”? Are those students I mentioned above really trying to “speak over the myriad of marginalised racial identities people of colour are moving to reclaim and reinscribe”? Is this all an attempt to “silence consideration of race and racial inequality?”

I ask such questions rhetorically. In each case the answer seems to be “no, not really”. But Avenant asserts the opposite of that. It seems rather alarmist to me. These accusations seem to be too hasty. We can interpret words like “looking-past-colour” and “colour-blindness” unfavourably, if we wish to. But we can interpret them favourably too, as I have tried to show. And how we evaluate #IAmStellenbosch depends, in part, on how we choose to interpret those words. It also depends, in part, on what evidence is present to us and, frankly, the evidence is not obviously on Avenant’s side.

How should we interpret those words, then? “Which are the ‘correct’ senses of the terms?” Perhaps that is a natural question to ask, but it is misguided. What I’d want to emphasise is that such questions have no answer, and aren’t worth asking.

The meaning of a word like “colour-blindness”, because it is used ambiguously, is obscure. Many other words in social discourse — “race”, “whiteness”, “African”, “structural racism”, “the West”, “culture” — share this diagnosis, for the same reason.

It is uncharitable in the extreme to suppose that privileged, but otherwise ordinary, students wish to glorify what very many of us can recognise as injustice. That is what is done when Avenant imputes to these students vicious intentions on grounds which I hope I’ve shown are not all that stable. But it would be disingenuous of me to declare (because of my peculiar use of the term) that “colour-blindness” was the only way to secure justice, because I’m aware that such a term can be easily misinterpreted.

In such cases I tend to advocate abandonment of the offending term: let’s just talk about what we mean; buzzwords and jargon to the side. If we did then, I think, Avenant and I and many others would agree.

I assume that we could agree that distinguishing and evaluating persons on discredited biological, or quasi-biological, bases is unjustified. Admitting this does not prevent us from recognising that the lingering false beliefs of many people today cause immense harm to otherwise innocent people.

Perhaps I might endorse the statement of one of the campaigners: I am colour-blind, and I see colour. Is this not evidence against Avenant’s account? Whether or not it is depends on how we interpret the words “colour-blind” and “colour”. So let me be clear, and simply do away with the offending and obscure words. I disavow the racial ideology because it is false. I recognise that such false beliefs continue to motivate people, or groups of people, to do awful things. I recognise that others, otherwise innocent, are the victims of such awful acts. I regard that as a form of injustice, to which, obviously, I am opposed.

Working out how to deal with these effects, and how to arrest their causes, is a significant task. But the manner in which we conduct our social discourse is not up to scratch for the task. It is polarising and often inaccurate, and it tends to, if I may borrow a cliché, generate more heat than light.

All in all, I think that our social discourse is in a bad way. Though Avenant has fairly applied that discourse to the issue of #IAmStellenbosch, my suggestion is that her results are inaccurate partly because the discourse she applied is so opaque. We are used to speaking in obscure terms about rather complex issues. We are satisfied to replace empirical research for hasty generalisations, and arguments for slogans. There is a good deal that we can and should continue to discuss. And by “discuss” I mean more than to harangue one another with jargon terms extracted from the speculative social sciences. The first step toward having this discussion is recognising — dare I say it? — that things aren’t as black and white as they appear.