Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

Profiling in the name of identity

The world we live in remains a disturbingly dangerous and very fragile place, largely because of our own making. Amin Maalouf opens his provocative book, In the Name of Identity, with an analogy that may be worth reproducing for this polemic. Maalouf talks of “a young man born in France of Algerian parents clearly carries with him two different allegiances or belongings, and he ought to be allowed to use both … in fact such a youth’s personality is made up of many more ingredients. Within him, French, European and other Western influences mingle with Arab, Berber, African, Muslim and other sources, whether with regard to language, beliefs, family relationships or to tastes in cooking and the arts”. Maalouf goes on to say that “this represents an enriching and fertile experience if the young man in question feels free to live it fully — if he is encouraged to accept it in all its diversity. But it can be traumatic if whenever he claims to be French other people look at him as a traitor or renegade, and if every time he emphasises his ties with Algeria and its history, culture and religion he meets with incomprehension, mistrust or even outright hostility”. Maalouf’s book, though one could disagree with some of his arguments, implies that some of the unexplainable recent heartbreaking events globally were inevitable.

The racial profiling and other forms of profiling that are ineluctable manifestations of the appalling human relations breed violence, hatred and other devastating consequences. There are many instances where people are profiled in the name of respective identities and some of the instances result to loss of life. There are many people that rot in jail for crimes that they did not commit or for trials that were prejudiced by their respective identities. There are people who kill or have killed or have been killed in the name of identity. There are children who have been denied opportunities that could have improved their life chances, simply in the name of identity. Talking about children, I am reminded of a recent journal article in the Social Psychology Quarterly, by Jamie Doyle and Grace Kao of the University of Pennsylvania, estimating the determinants and direction of change in individual racial identification among multiracial and monoracial adolescents as they transition to young adulthood. Among the main findings, Doyle and Kao find that “expressing a mixed-race identity during adolescence does not signal the completion of an identity process”. One of the important points they make is that “while results clearly show that many adolescents (especially multiracials) change their racial identity in their transition to adulthood, [it] cannot [be assumed] that this magnitude of change will continue to occur over the life course”. They also state that change in racial identification is however not random, it is associated with social demographic characteristics and other factors. An important message from the article is that identity is complex and as such using identity to shape one’s life chances should be questioned.

It could be argued that we are all guilty of some profiling of some kind. However, it would seem that in many cases the people that suffer mostly from racial profiling, as an example, are non-whites generally. Arab-Muslim communities have probably been the most affected by racial and ethnic profiling at the airports in the recent times — take for instance the so-called random security checks in European and American airports. Black Americans are probably the most affected in United States, take for instance the recent case of Professor Louis Gates and statistics which suggest that one out of three black Americans have been arrested! South Africa has more painful cases such as the killing of a homeless black man by a group of white boys because he was suspected of being a criminal and about to commit burglary in that neighbourhood. The other disturbing case in the context of South Africa is the killing of an eight-year-old boy by a white farmer who argued in court that he thought the boy was a baboon. Being racially profiled is an everyday experience in present-day South Africa, in the convenience stores or in clothing shops or in the roads. These unfortunate practices seem to be perpetuating hatred on one hand and fear on the other hand, effectively reproducing mistrust between different population groups.

It is in this context, among others, that the recent decision by the principal of a university in South Africa to pardon young white male students who forced black female and male cleaners to drink urinated soup and to perform humiliating acts raises emotions amongst the many in the black community. In societies, or rather in the world, where racial profiling is ubiquitous, decisions of leaders — in whichever sector — must be cognisant of the challenges that need rigorous corrective mechanisms. In the case of South Africa, where racism and white supremacy remains pronounced, like in other parts of the world, no effort should be spared in addressing racial profiling. It is also why I think we, especially we South Africans, need to give each other the benefit of doubt. We need more humility and respect for others, even if we disagree with them. We also need to accept that we do not know everything — no one knows everything or knows enough about the other person. As argued before, disciplined dialogue has many advantages for our fragile society.

Although humanity has learnt a lot from ugly histories, it would seem that little is being done in addressing problems such as profiling along racial, gender, religious, cultural and ethnic lines. The consequences of profiling in the name of identity remain sadly vivid in our memories as we think of Rwanda in 1994 or September 11 or the Holocaust. Perhaps what we need to try and do more is to tolerate each other. Perhaps we need to listen to each other more. Perhaps we need to interact more. Let us give each other a chance. We are all imperfect. For the sake of our children, their children and their children’s children, we better rid our global human society the cancer of racial profiling which condemns many into poverty and even to loss of life. The humiliation that people suffer in the name of imposed identities culminates to undesirable outcomes such as anger, hatred, fear and so on which can result in retaliation with far-reaching consequences that reverse the remarkable traction that the global human society has achieved so far.

We should — bearing in mind the research findings of Doyle and Kao — make sure that the boy (and girl) that Maalouf talks about is not traumatised by our “incomprehension, mistrust or even outright hostility”. William Wordsworth, in one of his timeless poems, The World is too Much with Us; Late and Soon, potentially captures where we have gone wrong:

“We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”

We need to find a way back into tune: getting rid of racial profiling must be one of the starting points. We are probably all at fault — “we have given our hearts away”. It starts with me and you. No human being is lesser or bigger than the other. We owe it to, at least, future generations to give each other a chance.