Towards human behaviour from the other: Reflections on racism and inequality from a position of relative privilege.
by Mark Weinberg 2014
1. Racism is real and racism sucks.
Racism has no basis in biological reality, in this sense it is a social construct. While racism is born as an idea, an ideology, it very soon becomes a real social force present in the concrete of our institutions and geographies. For more than 300 years the natural and human wealth of South Africa has been systematically violated and exploited. From colonialism onwards this violence and exploitation has relied for its justification and its organisation on a racist white supremacists ideology that posits so-called ‘white’ people are superior to so-called ‘black’ people and therefore they are more entitled to political and economic power and to access the fruits of this power.
This violence and exploitation continue today despite the values expressed in our Bill of Rights or the rhetorical ‘non racial’ claims of the 1994 transition from formal apartheid capitalism to the capitalism of the ‘new South Africa’. Our society continues to privilege ‘whiteness’ and being ‘white’ in countless ways on a daily basis – including affirming ‘white’ history, culture, and language as normative. Others’ history, culture, or languages are considered to have inherently less value (often invisible, always inferior).
Those perceived to be ‘white’ (by themselves and/others) claim (and are too often given) agency and authority on the basis this ‘whiteness’. Conversely, those perceived to be ‘black’ (by themselves and/others) come too often to accept an inherit inferiority (that they have less agency and authority), or are treated by others as if they have less agency and authority on the basis of their ‘blackness’.
2. The true cost to our self esteem.
As white supremacy remains a dominant worldview in our society, so we all tend to see ourselves through this lens. We attach our self esteem (how we value ourselves) to the value prescribed by this racist ideology. Rather than honouring ourselves and each other as precious and in fact miraculous in the evolutionary sense (think of the billions of connections since the beginning of time that lead to you), we either internalise the lack of value attributed to ‘blacks’ or accept the superior value attributed to ‘whites’. In both cases these assessments are irrational and false. Both fail to honour the fullness of our human potential and trap us into socially prescribed roles that demand violent and inhumane behaviour. This is the true cost of white supremacy – even to those who perceive a benefit from their prescribed position.
3. A self esteem movement.
The Black Consciousness movement that emerged in the Americas in 1920s and took off in South Africa in the 1970s has played a critical role in challenging the self-belief in ‘black’ inferiority and worked to imbue the ‘black’ identify with a pride and self-love, affirming the histories, cultures, and languages of peoples who choose to identify as ‘black’. Likewise, the Human Potential movement that emerged in the USA in the 1960s sought to challenge peoples’ irrational limiting beliefs and to connect them with their full humanity.
Central to both the Black Consciousness and Human Potential movements was the desire to detach our self esteem from the value prescribed by dominant ideologies and instead celebrate ourselves as beautiful people full of the contradictions and possibilities of human evolution.
4. Seeing through a racial or ideological lens?
The debate about South African racism and racial identity is often framed in terms of a ‘black community’ and ‘white community’ often populated by ‘back people’ and ‘white liberals’ respectively. So-called ‘blacks’ are understood in terms of their racial identity. So-called ‘whites’ are understood in terms of the political ideology. Here we are not comparing apples with apples, but rather apples with Aristotle. What of ‘black’ liberalism or for that matter ‘white’ people? Seeing the world in terms of competing races – rather than competing ideologies – tends to obscure what is really happening and what is really at stake.
5. Liberalism is a dangerous hypocrisy
Liberalism is the belief that we can realise the vision outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (i.e equality and dignity) within a capitalist system. What liberals fail to realise is that at the heart of the capitalist system of production (private/undemocratic ownership of the means of production) are two key capitalist social relations. These relations are critical to the survival of capitalism, they cannot be negotiated or reformed.
The first relation is exploitation: The majority must work (or wait to work as unemployed) so the few can benefit from their labour. The majority must be paid less than the value they add to production in order for the capitalist to generate more capital (a profit). The second relation is alienation: As capitalist exploitation creates us as unequals and denies the vast majority control over their labour and creativity, none of us can enjoy our full humanity, equality and dignity. Deep down liberals know this – hence all the terrible guilt that they carry.
6. Liberals in our movements
This guilt gives rise to the unhelpful acts of paternalism (treating others like children) and substitutionalism (preventing people form doing things for themselves under the guise of ‘helping’) in our organisations & movements. Because liberals often come from the capitalist or middle classes they also tend to internalise the ‘superiority’ of their position. This in turn gives rise to an often subconscious arrogance and inability to see or hear other comrades fully.
Further, the liberals’ ideological belief that capitalist so-called ‘civilisation’ can be reformed and must survive will often see them advancing reforms and strategic compromises that sell far short the potential of our organisations & movements.
Because of the unjust and unequal cultural, educational, and financial power often wielded by the adherents to liberal ideology, their perspectives often have a disproportionate influence in movements where they exist in small numbers.
7. Liberalism for everyone
Steve Biko (the intellectual and political ‘father’ of South African Black Consciousness) wrote in a time when race and class where largely synonymous. Today we live with an emerging ‘black’ capitalist class and influential ‘black’ middle class – both largely committed in to a liberal or conservative ideology. In fact the ANC was born out of an early form of black liberalism.
What is a ‘black liberal’? A ‘black liberal’ is first and foremost a dangerous hypocrite (see #5 above) who believes believe that people can realise a full humanity and find equality within a society shaped by the current relations to economic production.
In the prophetic words of Biko: “If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and economic policies within this particular country”
8. Towards full democracy
We are all objectively biologically humans first and foremost before we assume subjective positions and the dominant beliefs of any particular ‘race’, gender, ‘nationality’, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture etc. All humans (and all life on the planet) has an innate value and ‘merit’. All humans have a fundamental value, hence we are fundamentally equal. On this basis we can imagine a world where we have equal control over the means of production – and over our lives. The ancient Greeks had a word for the equal control of power by equals. They called it “democracy”.
The ancient Greeks extended their democracy to slave owning men. While there is no large-scale formal slavery in South Africa today, our democracy ends at the site of production. We leave our equality (and most of our rights) at the door when we go to work.
Those who gain privilege undemocratically from their relation to production in the work place in turn extend their privilege beyond the site of production to undermine (or hollow out) other democratic or potentially democratic spaces in the state and in communities. We see the result of this today in the levels of government corruption, the disregard that those in government show for citizens, and the corresponding community protests and strong anti-government sentiment.
Some activists look at our compromised liberal democracy today and conclude that democracy has failed. They argue for some kind of socialist or Africanist benign dictatorship. Of course dictatorship is never benign and no matter how wise the dictator/vanguard, it will require subjects – not citizens – to rule.
Our human equality can only be realised if democracy is extended to incorporate and transcend the representative democracy we experience today. A full democracy must enable the active participation of citizens at every level and in every aspect of our lives. This must include the radical democratisation of the work place and economic control.
9. Can we end racism?
Racism – unlike many other prejudices – is a prejudice used by those with power to justify and control unjust access to power and privilege. As such there are only two ways to end racism: We can either advance an alternative justification for the unjust access to privilege (like the ‘meritocracy’ that is popular in some liberal quarters) or we can end the unjust access to privilege itself.
The former may eradicate racism but it will unleash new prejudices to rationalise the violence, exploitation, alienation, and environmental degradation at the heart of capitalist production. In the case of an imagined ‘meritocracy’, for example, we would see a prejudice against the ‘idiots’ with less ‘merit’.
It is only in the latter – ending the unjust access to privilege itself – that human freedom awaits.
10. Limits of individualism
Despite our best wishes we cannot end racism by ‘winning the argument’ with racist individuals or with others in the media alone. It cannot be done by individuals shifting their personal relations to production (sacrificing or gaining privilege) or even by individuals becoming aware of the implications of their actions in reproducing racism. Racism is more than an irrational prejudice, it is a social force and as such it cannot be challenged by individuals making lifestyle choices or having an intellectual, psychological or spiritual epiphany.
So alas, while it will help to be more aware/conscious of the nature of the system, how we have been socialised, and of our individual part in it, we can make little difference alone. Withdrawing is only an option for the suicidal (literally). People who yearn for a more humane world will continue to live with the various privileges, deprivations, and indignities this system provides – until we change it. Only a social force capable of leading society can end the tyranny of capitalism and its rationalising prejudices. This will require collective action.
11. Having Compassion: The Ghost in the Machine
It is worth understanding that even the individual capitalist or middle class person who appears to enjoy much of the power and privilege of life is alienated from their full humanity in the capitalist system. S/he must perpetuate violence and exploitation to maintain her/his position. S/he lives in an almost constant state of anxiety. S/he fears the vast majority of people who s/he exploits (or assists in exploiting) and who constantly fight back (think car highjack, strike, or electing populist crooks to government). S/he also fears the competition of other capitalists or middle class professionals who are always working to put her/him ‘out of business’ and into the majority s/he so fears.
It this ‘logic of competition’ that Marx described as the “ghost in the machine”. It is a logic (or ideology) that enslaves and drives us all. So – in an important sense – capitalists and the middle class are not evil people conspiring the maintain injustice. In a sense they too are victims of system out of control. A system governed by its own logic, the competition that we are all born and socialised into.
On this basis those of us standing for a more just world may find some compassion those who continue to enjoy the material and cultural privileges that the system provides. And those who enjoy these privileges may come to see the great cost of managing and sustaining the capitalist system to their peace and humanity.
In the words of Lesego Rampolokeng they “rush to die without living, just to keep the money belt spinning” – like everyone else. It is not only the privileged that accept and reproduce this logic. The vast majority of those oppressed and exploited accept the logic of competition too – everyone is fighting their neighbour for a foot on the ladder. If the oppressed/exploited rejected this logic in a significant number the system would become unworkable and change would be inevitable.
12. Will change be lead by the privileged?
We should not count on a mass epiphany from those who benefit materially from the system. Most humans at this point in our evolution are biological creatures and creatures of habit. We want our basic biological needs met (food, sex, and safety) and we want as little change as possible. Some even refer to ‘as little change as possible’ as living in a state of ‘peace’. This applies to both those who benefit from the system and to those who are denied most privileges. As long as people are not starving for extended periods and live in relative safety, it can take many years before they are moved into any kind of collective action that has the potential to transform their conditions.
However history teaches that in the final analysis it is always those who are denied privilege that act on mass to form a social force to transform society. While there always are sections of the privileged that gain insight into the cost the system has on their humanity and join forces with this majority, it remains true that ‘power concedes nothing without demand’. Most of those with privilege will not give up their privilege until the conditions of holding onto it go beyond uncomfortable and verge on unbearable. It is the task of those who seek justice to create the unbearable conditions that demand change.
What little change that may (and historically has) come from the privileged acting as a social force is always in response to unbearable conditions and is limited to reforms aimed at rescuing the system and perpetuating their unjust access to privilege and power.
13. Against ‘separate development’:
There are some amongst those of us activists who seek a more humane world that argue for a form of ‘separate development’: Those who are relatively privileged by the system and realise the cost of this system to their humanity should form separate organisations and movements to raise awareness of the injustice and demand justice amongst their fellow beneficiaries of the system. They should organise amongst the privileged and leave the mobilisation of the oppressed and exploited to those activists who have realised the cost of this system to their humanity and are themselves oppressed and exploited.
This argument emerges in response to the paternalism, substitutionalism, and arrogance of liberalism and the tendency of the liberals to advance reforms and strategic compromises that are fundamentally aimed not at transforming the system, but at rescuing and reforming it to ensure its survival.
Most of the activists that have made this argument believe fundamentally that change will not come from a mass epiphany from the privileged but will be lead by the oppressed and exploited acting en mass. And they do not argue that those with privilege who have reached the conclusion that the system needs to be fundamentally transformed should work amongst the privileged to recruit more people form the ranks of the privileged to stand with the majority. They do not want those with privilege in these ranks at all.
In fact theirs’ is a disingenuous argument that amounts to no more than “Fuck off! We are resentful about the injustice that you continue to benefit from. We do not trust you and don’t believe that you can change”.
Given that it is the oppressed and exploited acting en mass that will bring change, it is only reasonable for those seeking justice to work together to build movements of the oppressed. Those with privilege who have reached this conclusion have a responsibility to engage others with privilege to bring them to the same conclusion and recruit them to the project of movement building. The work of building movements requires all the capacity it can get.
14. Building movements with liberals, racists, patriarchs, etc:
We can build organisations and movements that lead a social force capable of ending the tyranny of racist capitalism and introducing a democracy that honours us all as equals and enables us to meet our basic needs while expressing our human creativity. But we face a particular contradiction: All of us building these organisations and movements are equally human and at the same time we are all products of the unequal and unjust society we wish to transform. We bring with us all the baggage of our society; the privilege, deprivation, violence, and dehumanisation.
The temptation to expel those who harbour liberal, racist or patriarchal (etc) perspectives from our movements is a genocidal instinct that will rob us of our humanity and our opportunity to develop the capacity to engage and lead society … It is a genocidal instinct because as our movements become stronger and we begin to lead society, we will have developed no way to engage with those holding liberal, racist and patriarchal beliefs other than to expel them from society (and that conclusion is the definition of genocide).
It follows from this logic that we would soon find ourselves in a very small (but very self righteous) organisation that harbours fantasies about shaping the world while it is in fact preoccupied with conducting yet another campaign to expel yet another ‘reactionary’.
We must build principled and democratic organisational cultures that can guard against the influence of reactionary beliefs while also holding spaces and creating opportunities in struggle for everyone who holds liberal/racist/patriarchal/etc beliefs to reflect, grow, and transform. We must take in good faith that people have joined because they want to see a more just world irrespective of the ideological baggage they/we still carry. Our organisations must celebrate and build our confidence in our human agency and our trust in the humanity of others.
15. Celebrating what we have:
We cannot ignore the real inequality in our organisations. Often as a result of our unequal access to privilege we all bring a range of capacities qualities and resources. Some of us bring educational and material or financial resources. Some of us bring histories and lessons of organising and resisting. Some bring great courage, love, or commitment. We all bring language – some of more languages than others. Some can type better and some can sing better. Some can evoke a crowd and some can layout a pamphlet. Some know how to hustle, unlock resources and stretch a budget. Some can listen to a comrade who has been hurt. Some have travelled between cultures and places and serve to cross-pollinate ideas and values. Others are steeped in their homes and carry and defend their various cultures. Some bring humour, others righteous rage.
All this diversity constitutes our assets and can be harnessed and put at the service of our organisations. Noting that the capitalist system attaches greater value to some contributions than others, we must forge organisations that acknowledge and value the diversity of our various contributions. Our organisations must discipline us by ensuring democratic accountability so that those that bring particular assets do not use these assets to undermine the collective control of our organisations.
16. Spare a thought for the planet:
A discussion about race in South Africa is likely to be limited to a focus on people. But racism also acts to justify the destruction of the planet. For capitalism to survive it requires endless and exponential growth, the every increasing production of more and more things. This is taking us dangerously close to the limits of the planet to sustain such economic activity. Further, capitalism has also externalised the costs of disposing of waste and reproducing raw material. The cost of getting raw material and disposing of waste is based on the price of labour, equipment, and capital to extract it – not costs like replenishing soil, replanting trees, or rehabilitating the land and water after mining. Capitalist production simply ignores the cost of managing its’ waste products (like carbon and poisonous chemicals). These costs are born by ordinary people, future generations, and other species on the planet.
The bottom line: We are not alone in our struggle to create unbearable conditions for the privileged and demanding fundamental change. The planet is conspiring with us to make this change a necessity.
17. So what is to be done?
Simply, we must transform the social relations to economic production and democratise our economy from one aimed at ever increasing production to one aimed at meeting the needs of the planet and its’ people sustainably and in moderation. We must abandon the competitive race to extinction. We must democratise the dehumanising and unjust control of production.
And we must abandon the consumer culture that values ever new, more, and better stuff while devaluing people and producing more things – some better, but most of lower quality than their pre-1950s equivalents (think of the life span of today’s toasters or cars that are built for planned obsolesce to force constant upgrading).
18. Crystal ball gazing
Marx once described communism as a society in which each gave according to their ability and each took according to their need. This is a society not based on the survival of the most unethical or even on the reward of merit (the ability to contribute more of what is valued). It is a society founded on the values of mutual support, solidarity, sacrifice, care, compassion, and love.
Is such a society even imaginable? Well, it is already the basis on which we organise much of life today – including many of our NGOs, movements, and importantly, many friendships and families. (Imagine evicting a sister or father because they cannot pay rent or denying your children healthcare because they do not work!) In fact it is largely only in the world of commodified/capitalist work that the barbarism of competition holds sway. Unfortunately the power relations generated in capitalist production shape so much of the world. But capitalism is in crisis and change is in the air. The nature of this change will depend largely on our ability to organise and form a social force for a full democracy.
19. On a personal note
These days I never think of myself as ‘white’ and I’m always surprised when others refer to me in racial terms. But I am hyper conscious of my relative privileged position in our unjust society. I fear in my eagerness and with my relative resources I may substitute for – or subvert – democratic process of organisation building that I am involved in (and many times I do). I fear that I may disregard the humanity of someone who serves me at a petrol station, a comrade, or someone I meet in the street (and I often do). So I remain as vigilant as I can – and I forgiven myself my unconscious arrogance when I spot it. I remind myself of the countless times I’ve sought and found a human connection with others of less and more privilege.
I gained my relative privilege not by choice but by birth and the ironies of history. I see no value at all in surrendering my privilege in some sort of symbolic individual/messianic gesture. I see no value in subjecting myself to the experience of deprivation that the oppressed/exploited are fighting to escape. In fact, to choose these conditions would itself be an act that only privilege would enable. Instead I take what privilege is of use – money, skills, aspects of culture – and put it to use in the service of building democratic movements that will free us all.
I hope that I will be willing to give up my privilege with joy when our movement is strong enough to lead society beyond the barbarism of capitalism. But if I cling to it – if I argue for moderation or reform – I hope I am in a movement that is strong democratic and principled enough to push forward and strip me of my privilege anyway.
A comrade once asked me “why do you struggle?”. I told him I do it for my own benefit. The struggle gives me the opportunity to express my love and solidarity. I also do it for my children who I love, I want them or their children to grow up in a world without the pain, hardship, and alienation of ours. I want them to be free to express their creativity and humanity fully without the fear and without the dehumanisation that comes from being in the position of oppressor. And I struggle for the privilege of standing along side passionate loving and courageous comrades willing to sacrifice for others. I struggle because inside our organisations and movements I can begin to see and feel the kind of human solidarity that I long for in the world.
20. In conclusion
I’ve gone on too long, but let me close with a rather long quote from my man, Frantz Fanon:
I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the slave revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past… My black skin is not a repository for specific values… Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century? … I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race. I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master. I have neither the right nor the duty to demand reparations for my subjugated ancestors. There is no black mission; there is no white burden…. I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world…. Am I going to ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century? Am I going to try by every means available to cause guilt to burgeon in their souls? … I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors…. it would be of enormous interest to discover a black literature or architecture from the third century before Christ. We would be overjoyed to learn of the existence of a correspondence between some black philosopher and Plato. But we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year-old kids working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe…. I find myself in a world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.
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