So now non-racialism is racist too

The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) have launched a new advertising campaign. Here’s what many South Africans on Twitter and Facebook have been talking about today:

And in the curious place that is South Africa, this poster is somehow racist. It’s one thing to criticise the very idea of non-racialism – you can argue that a political party that is trying to encourage us leave race out of our analysis is naïve, and you can even argue that non-racialism can’t serve as an antidote to racism because we need to focus on race. But if you believe that race shouldn’t matter, as I do, then highlighting the fact that some people are still inclined to see relationships between different races as wrong – or even simply remarkable – is perfectly consistent with a commitment to non-racialism.

That’s what this poster does. It simply highlights the fact that some people would look twice at an inter-racial couple, and reminds viewers of the poster that in the ideal DASO future, this wouldn’t happen. As I pointed out in a Twitter exchange, my regular interactions with students at the University of Cape Town confirm that it’s simply not true that South Africans don’t need to be reminded that inter-racial relationships are okay. Yes, they (they meaning the DASO target audience, ie. youth) might be well aware that the Immorality Act has been repealed, but this doesn’t mean that social pressure to date people with similar pigmentation has disappeared. It’s still a very real pressure, which I hear about (or overhear people talking about) on a regular basis.

This is perhaps again simply an instance of the Twitterati imagining that they are the only arbiters of good sense and reason, imagining that they speak for everyone. And one is sometimes fearful of that possibility, seeing as the Twitterati can say some profoundly stupid things. I was told, for example, that it’s “racist to presume non-racialism is about who you have sex with”. As I said in reply, this poster is but one example of what non-racialism would entail – namely that nobody would care if people were having an inter-racial relationship.

Was the poster meant to include depictions of every possible instance of non-racialism to avoid being racist? It seems that it should have, which would have made for a pretty large poster. And even if it had tried to, someone would still have come up with something that’s wrong with it. Perhaps the art direction was racist, or perhaps it’s somehow sinister that the DASO logo covers the black woman, and not the man (this is not a joke – someone did say that. It does so happen that the black woman has breasts, which is a more likely contender for why the logo was placed where it was).

Should DASO’s poster have featured two white people? Of course not – that would be racist. Should it have featured two black people? Of course not – that would have been described as desperate. Should it have featured a gay couple, whether inter-racial or not? Perhaps (although that would also have been described as desperate) – but one can understand that they did not, partly because the majority of the market is heterosexual, and partly because they might have been cowed by the amount of (obviously unjustified) offence that would have caused.

What this sort of thing goes to show is that if you want to find a problem, you’ll do so – regardless of the intellectual contortions necessary. As I said at the start of this post, it’s entirely possible that non-racialism is misguided, even impossible. But making the claim that this poster is racist – in the context of inter-racial relationships being an actual issue for some – is an entirely unsympathetic, and unjustifiable, analysis.

UPDATE: The stupid doesn’t stop there. The African Christian Democratic Party say the poster is “shocking” and promotes “sexual immorality”. Furthermore, “in a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed”. (Apologies to the ACDP for initially mis-attributing these quotes to them.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.