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All of us are far more than our racial identities

Racial identity is crucial to who we are, but it is not all that we are. Apartheid made it all that we were, says the writer.

Racial identity is crucial to who we are, but it is not all that we are. Apartheid made it all that we were, says the writer.

Published Jan 8, 2017


But just as identity is not all that we are, without identity we could not possibly do the most human of all things, which is to tell our stories, writes Xolela Mangcu.

I am mulling over writing a novel, if I had the guts for it. There are a few people I really admire in the world - if only because I just don’t know how they do it; mathematicians, musicians, fine artists and novelists.

Author of the novel Private Citizen, Tony Tulathimutte, has been dubbed the novelist of the millennial generation, a label he rejects because the term “millennial” is no more than a marketing term, designed to target young people: “The more people rely on these discount identity bundles to substitute for self-definition, the easier it is to influence how they click, shop and vote.”

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But it is his insight about identity that I found fascinating.

Tulathimutte writes that “the experience of identity - whether it be race, religion, nationality, gender or generational membership - is certainly necessary for the full portrait of a person, but never sufficient.

“There’s also memory, thought, feeling, perception, neurochemistry, mood and everything else.”

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Quite frankly, this is a point I tried to make, albeit with not as much eloquence, in my latest book, The Colour of Our Future: Does Race Matter in Post-Apartheid South Africa?

I used the concept of race transcendence to argue that while our identities are important to us, yes, “I’m black and I’m proud”, they do not capture the entirety of who we are.

The choice is not between blackness and humanity, which is what slavery, colonialism and apartheid tried to maintain.

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Race transcendence means there are certain things that are peculiar to me because I am black, such as a long history of racist oppression, sharing commonality with people who are not black, such as falling in and out of love, being moved to tears by a song or a movie ending, remembering a face and forgetting the name, laughing, crying, asking the awkward question, making a bad joke.

These are things we all do in pretty much the same way because we are all human.

The term “transcendence” is thus based on a recognition of the specific without giving up on the universal, or the universal without giving up on the specific. In fact, as Clifford Geertz pointed out, it is by understanding the specific in human beings that we can understand what is universal about them.

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People marry differently, but they still do. People all over the world have specific religions, but they all believe in the idea of a transcendental power.

In the past weeks, there were as many celebrations of Christmas as there are of Christian denominations, and then, of course, those whose celebrations have already passed.

The weather is different in countries all around world, but I bet you everyone, everywhere will wake up tomorrow wanting to know how cold or hot it’s going to be. To state the obvious, climate change will depend on what we do in specific places. The specific is universal.

In her brilliant book, At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell makes the same point about the nuance between the specific and the universal dimensions of human identity: “Human existence is thus ambiguous: at once boxed in by boundaries and yet transcendent and exhilarating.”

To focus on only one side or the other of the specificity/universalism divide is to simultaneously miss the forests for the trees and the trees for the forests.

When it comes to addressing race, the former can lead to an excessive racial identitarianism, and the latter to an excessive racial denialism.

And so, yes, racial identity is crucial to who we are, but it is not all that we are. Apartheid made it all that we were. I know. I have lived half my life under apartheid and half under a democratic society.

Whatever anybody tells you, it is not the same thing.

Under apartheid, you could be slapped upside the face by a white person for no apparent reason, just for looking in their direction.

This was an everyday experience in King William’s Town, where I grew up. You could be arrested for leaning against a wall. They called it “staan en kyk”, which, for the uninitiated, meant standing and looking. You’d be in jail in a jiffy if you had the cheek to ask what the offence was in standing and looking.

These things happened, and they happened to human beings, including middle-class children like me. So much about class replacing race.

I shrieked the first time I heard that canard.

I was 16 years old and a first-year student at Wits University. Only white people spoke that way, I thought.

In that confusion, the little radical in me stuck with what my homeboy down the street, Steve Biko, had said: “We know what the problem is and we will stick by our findings.”

The philosophy of Black Consciousness was like a protective guard against the brutalisation.

That is what philosophy meant for the ancients, helping people deal with the challenges instead of wishing that the world were different.

As Bakewell argues, “Stoic and Epicurean thinkers in the classical world had practised philosophy as a means of living well by reflecting on life’s vagaries in philosophical ways, they believed they could be more resilient, more able to rise above circumstances, and better equipped to manage fear, grief, fear, anger, disappointment or anxiety.” Indeed, some of the greatest philosophers were not academic philosophers.

Think Kiekergaard, think philologist Nietzche, think Sartre, think Fanon, think Biko.

However, Bakewell observes, “As the centuries passed on, philosophy became a profession conducted in academies or universities, by scholars who prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness.”

Indeed, what could be more useless than professors writing about what life might have been had we not all been born?

In South Africa, that gets you a full professorship and department headship, especially if you’re white and the least bit concerned about real world encounters, that is interacting with black human beings in ways that might pull you outside of your own hermitic existence.

But just as identity is not all that we are, without identity we could not possibly do the most human of all things, which is to tell our stories.

We generally enjoy stories precisely because they are different.

Identity is almost always seen as a black thing.

There is a good reason for this.

As Princeton University’s Eddie Glaude puts it: “Black identity is, in part, a consequence of the kinds of stories we tell about our beliefs, choices and actions in the context of problem-solving activity.”

But we also tell more than just these stories, and we are also not the only people with stories to tell.

White people have stories too. Many of them are inseparable from how they benefited from the colonial and apartheid past, giving them a centuries-long head start over black people.

They may be embarrassing stories, but that is no reason to deny them.Truth hurts, but it also heals.

The bottom line is that we all have stories to tell about how we have suffered and benefited from the past - but also about the weather and the grandchildren.

Maybe that little conversation about the grandchildren will get us going about what kind of country we will leave them.

A refusal to consider that means being selfish and short-sighted in the extreme.

It means “kicking the can” from generation to generation, never solving anything.

Hence, the urgency of now.

* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and Harry Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard University.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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