Defend Truth


Race transcends class in this country: A response to Seekings and Nattrass

Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass, in an earlier column on 31 March, decry that “the racialisation of pain serves to reduce injustices and indiginities to race, foreclosing serious consideration of other forms of injustice and indignity”. I don’t know about Seekings and Nattrass, but to me as a black person, racism is a primary form of injustice and indignity.

It is what links me to other black people no matter how much I may try to distance myself from them. While Seekings, Nattrass and I all share to different degrees the privileges of being professors at UCT, to many white people on the streets I am a breed apart. I would have to announce that I am a professor before I am treated with respect. At such moments racism is not “relatively autonomous” or secondary to class. It is the existential pain of black people that Seekings and Nattrass will never have to experience.

The fact that black middle-class and working-class students have joined hands around racism should be enough empirical proof that race transcends class in this country, and that it must be studied on its own terms. But then again, as Malcom X said during his famous address at Harvard in 1968: “Where white people are concerned it has been my experience that they are extremely intelligent on most subjects until it comes to race. When you come to the racial issue in this country the whites lose all their intelligence. They become very subjective, and they want to tell us how it should be solved. But if you’re thinking we’re sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform then you won’t understand what I am talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say. And I’d be out of my mind.”

And what about the argument that the students hijacked a process of rational deliberation? This depoliticised notion of rational deliberation is of course blind to the fact that the university had set up the so-called deliberation in a way that would most likely prejudice the students. They did this by putting out Barney Pityana out front as the respected black who would put the students in their place. They could not have made a worse mistake. But what intrigues me is why such a seasoned political figure should have fallen for it.

What the students did was to see the set-up for what it was, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, Seekings and Nattrass are complaining. That is certainly one privilege and prerogative that the students turned on its head – that a racial majority would have the prerogative to tell them about their experiences.

Seekings and Nattrass call on UCT to reject imperialism but at the same time defend the right of those who wish to propagate such ideas. They write about the racist emails that the students received as one part of a broader debate that incorporate other views as well. So black students are supposed to stomach the racist abuse while other members of the university community go on deliberating on other issues.

My colleagues make references to how the German museum has Nazi memorabilia but they carefully skirt the question of how acceptable a Hitler statue would be in any German or Israeli university.

In any self-respecting democratic society racists must be given “a sectarian existence”, argues the distinguished social theorist Michael Walzer. Under no circumstances should they be tolerated in the name of rational deliberation. When racist emails on such a wide-scale are expressed by such a large component of the university community then everything must stop. I would expect Jewish people or women or any identity group to make similar demands when evil lurks in their midst.

I cannot say anything about the goings-on in the Senate because I am not a member of that body. I agree with Seekings and Nattrass that the statue could have been put in a university museum – although I am not sure they would support my idea that such a gallery should be dedicated to the study of race, colonialist and Apartheid. They also disregard the role that the racist responses played in making even such a reasonable proposition possible. The racism displayed by a large component of the university community – on this matter and questions of admission and staff transformation in general – should be taken as a micro-level display of what is happening at the macro-level. This country is moving closer and closer to the brink of racial war, simply because white people refuse to take seriously the pain of black people. DM

This feature was first published in at Mangcu is an Associate Professor in UCT’s Department of Sociology. No inference should be made on whether the views expressed in this article reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.


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