If one does not believe that race exists, then one will not believe that racism exists. Since racism is real, we should not reject the existence of race. This simple argument appears to stand behind the rather vicious repudiation of “colour-blindness”, “not seeing race”, and other variations of the cardinal sins of our racialised social discourse. But I don’t think this argument is correct and that is what I want to talk about now.
Some ordinary facts
We can acknowledge that there is socio-economic inequality and that this mirrors patterns of apartheid-sanctioned discrimination. Inequality, for the most part, falls neatly into the colour lines set up by our previous government. The inequality ranges over all, or nearly all, aspects of life, from basic cultural-linguistic matters, to access to education, jobs and wealth security. The explanation for this sort of inequality is, moreover, not simply individualist – it’s not just that, as it happens, certain sets of individual persons are lazy or fail to be industrious. The explanation is structural (to use that horrid word), formed by the obvious injustices of our past government and the pernicious failings of our current government to change it.
To fail to acknowledge these ordinary facts would require one to be cognitively impaired, or strikingly ignorant. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that there are very many people who don’t recognise this. But let me grant that there are such people. These people may well say that “race doesn’t exist”, but they do not mean what I mean and I do not wish to support or endorse this sort of ignorance.
Is witchcraft real?
I don’t think that one needs to believe that race exists in order to recognise the above ordinary facts. I wish to explain myself by analogy. Suppose, what is anyway true, that witches do not exist. That is no human beings have magical powers and no one’s ill-fortune is the result of some sort of curse. Despite this it is also the case that historically a number of people have been murdered or assaulted because they were thought to be witches by members of their community. Let’s call the attitudes (and, if one must, social structures) which motivate these events “Witchism”.
Witchism, as per our example, is real – some people really are suspected of witchcraft and harmed as a result. Just as clearly, however, one does not have to believe that witches are real to notice that Witchism exists and is wrong. Indeed, were one to believe in witches (as do the members of our imagined community) it might not be so obvious that Witchism is wrong. This is because it is exactly the fear of, or hatred, or disdain for witches which motivates Witchism. Disbelief in witches is sufficient and arguably necessary to regard Witchism as wrong, as an unjustified harm done to innocent people and is sufficient to motivate one to do something about Witchism.
Notice one final feature. One who disbelieves in witches, as I do, must interpret “witchcraft murder”, “witchcraft assault” and Witchism generally, as caused, not by the existence of magic, but by false beliefs about human beings. No reference to witches or witchcraft is needed to make sense of Witchism. One could describe it, say, as the result of members of a community believing too strongly in false claims, or as social structures organised in such a way as to discriminate against ordinary, non-magical people.
Are races real?
This is an analogy, so let us discharge this analogy with regards to race. When I say that race does not exist I mean this in the sense that “witches” don’t exist. That is, I mean to say that there are no genetic, or quasi-genetic essences which can serve as the basis for distinguishing between groups of human beings. More simply, people who have dark (or light) skin are not connected by any essential property other than a superficial property of their appearance. There is no reason to think (and much reason not to think) that skin colour, hair texture, nose shape, etc. have any causal connection to some underlying genetic uniformity or some outwardly manifesting cultural and behavioural characteristics, or physical or mental capacities. “Races”, in this sense, simply aren’t real. They are of a piece with demons, souls, magic and other entities populating failed sciences of the past.
Some will contest this and say that race does exist, but that it is a social construction. But the “social construct” idiom is one which is very unclear. Some probably just think, because the term is now so popular, that in saying “x-is-socially-constructed” they are absolved of any responsibility to make sense of what it would mean for a “social construct” to actually exist. But take an ordinary example. My table, for instance, exists and there are any number of questions one might ask of my table. Where is my table? what is my table made of? what does my table look like? etc. But we can’t ask similar questions regarding “socially constructed” things like race. This is obvious but it implies that the sense of “existence” differs between ordinary things like tables and extraordinary things like races. Put differently, it is not clear what one means when they say that race exists as a social construction. Those who want “the social construction of race” to bear the weight of their racialism need to explain themselves more fully.
There is, however, a simpler (if less elegant) way of making sense of this idiom. To say that race is a social construction is just to say that “members of a community behave as if other members of the community were part of a race-group, even though, as it turns out, there are no racial groups”.
The qualifier “behaviour-as-if” is significant. One can behave as-if all sorts of things are real; souls, demons, witches, races, etc. And this behaviour does have causal consequences. In our imagined society above, members of that community did behave as if witches were real and consequently harmed the suspected witches. One might suggest that members of our community act as if races were real – say, acting as if dark-skinned people were inferior to light-skinned people – and those people are, consequently, harmed.
But acknowledging this does not mean that we have to acknowledge an occult realm of entities called “social constructions” as real in any strong sense. To say that race is a social construction is an elliptical way of telling a more complex story about the behaviour of members of the social community (and, perhaps, their motivations for such behaviour). The behaviour of communities is, clearly, real. We can use the sentence “race exists as social construction” to refer to that behaviour, but why should we? Why should we clutter our conceptual scheme with the claims to existence of occult and vague entities like “races” and “social constructions’? We shouldn’t, in my view, we should just say what we mean. We can do all of that without supposing that “race” exists, in the ordinary sense or the jazzed up sense of the social constructionists.
Clearly, then, we can recognise that although races are not real some people do continue to act as if they were. Hence, we find any number of instances of interpersonal prejudice and discrimination within our society. One could also recognise that social structures are such as to treat members of the community as if certain members were less deserving of rights, opportunities and so on. The entire gambit of ordinary facts with which I began can quite easily be recognised without also supposing that races are real. And the wrongness of this sort of inequality follows quite quickly from disbelieving in the harmful racial ideology which motivated the inequality.
Is that “racism”?
Must we name this inequality (at a personal or a structural level) “racism”? Some will want to interpret that question as asking if one can acknowledge the existence of “racism” if one does not believe that “race” exists? But notice the subtle change of focus. I asked a linguistic question, a question about how we should speak. That is then interpreted as a substantive question about what we should say exists, about what we should say there is. There is inequality of the sort that I earlier described and it is wrong and whether or not we name it “racism” is an issue about which language we decide to use. Once we acknowledge these ordinary facts about how the world is, the substantive issues have been exhaustively answered.
I could be tempted to advocate for abandoning the word “racism” because it, like the rest of racialised language, is too vague to serve serious purposes. According to some, Ntokozo Qwabe’s fiasco with the waitress was racist. According to others, what is really racist is the landlessness that black people endure. The Olympics are racist. Murry’s Spear painting is racist. Google is racist. Taylor Swift is racist. Calling black people monkeys is racist, depicting black people as monkeys is racist and helping someone for 67 minutes on Nelson Mandela Day is also racist. Being forced to speak Afrikaans in 1976 was racist, entering an Afrikaans university in 2015 is to enter a racist institution and a department of that university which does not employ a significant number of black scholars is racist. Indeed, all universities in South Africa are racist. The pillars (Roman-Greek inspired) which support an arch over the Great Hall at Wits are racist, I (so I’ve been told) am racist and probably this article is racist. And when everything can be racist, as it appears it can be, I think that is when the term loses its meaning.
What people really intend to be concerned about is whether or not we can recognise certain pressing moral and political wrongs if we fail to recognise the existence of race. And the answer to that is that such wrongs can easily be recognised. One could call that racism, or Rassismus, or socio-structural-oppression or whatever else one liked. The words themselves don’t matter, what we interpret them as meaning is the significant thing. So long as we can acknowledge the facts, there is nothing, save some fascination with particular words, that one loses out on.
I am colour-blind in this sense. I don’t believe that races exist. But this does not indict me of an intellectual or moral crime of failing to acknowledge certain ordinary facts about our society.
One shouldn’t have to say all of this. It should be quite clear that failing to think that Verwoerd and co were correct – that, in fact, people cannot and should not be divided along so-called racial lines – should not make one into a moral monster. Why is it, nonetheless, that saying that one does not believe in race is viewed as a kind of social sin? Why must socially significant claims appear to support an unjustifiable racialism? Those are tricky questions, for the answers are complex and beyond the present scope. For now we can safely acknowledge that one does not have to believe in race to recognise certain ordinary facts (and ordinary wrongs) in our society. Once those ordinary facts are acknowledged one doesn’t even have to retain the descriptor “racism”. Given how loosely that word is used and, hence, how poorly understood it is, it might even be prudent to drop that term. This is all a manifestation of my failure to fall in line with the dominant, racialised, discourse. And I should close by stating that this is not the sin it is made out to be.