The politics of identity

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I don’t care whether I’m African or not, and neither should you. Not only is it difficult to imagine what such an identity might mean, but assuming – or worse yet, being assigned – an identity of whatever nature is a limiting move. It takes emphasis away from what you happen to be, and instead shifts the focus to something that you are not.

As soon as some of us are one thing, and others not, the chances of tensions increase. If being “African” is a good thing to be, then those who are not African attract negative judgments. And of course, if being African is bad, then we find it just a little easier to be prejudiced against them. If it’s neutral, or meaningless, to have an identity such as African, then why should we care?

I am of course addressing the “only black people are Africans” argument made by Sentletse Diakanyo in the Mail & Guardian’s “Thought Leader”, but only indirectly, in that the paleontological and historical premises that he presents are of little relevance to what I take to be the more important question: so what if only black people can call themselves African?

There is nothing unifying in any possible meaning of being African, or in any possible meaning of being black, which can’t be purchased at a lower potential cost. Likewise, being European or being white tends to unify only in ways that are divisive and often exploitative, and this is largely because they are categories of historical coincidence or political definition. They bear no relation to the attributes, character or needs of any particular person (or group of persons) who might happen to fit that definition at any arbitrarily chosen point in time.

As we found during the football World Cup, South Africa’s elimination somehow turned many South Africans into Ghanaians, despite the fact that the one similarity we clearly had – that of being born or resident on a particular continent – would quite likely have been outweighed by numerous dissimilarities. Defining a culture would more plausibly be achieved through investigating matters such as their material and political circumstances, and how they express themselves through art and other cultural expressions, than by their continental location.

Of course, we’re actually all Gondwanalanders anyway. South Africans and Ghanaians certainly, but also those from Antarctica, South America, Madagascar, Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, as well as Arabia and the Indian subcontinent. It’s all really a matter of what point in history you pick, and more importantly, your reasons for picking the point you do.

And this is the problem: why do we need these definitions? To borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase, it is usually a matter of trying to create an “imagined community” which is somehow finite (in that there are boundaries between it and other nations), and which is also sovereign (in that no other such community should be able to claim authority over them).

Sometimes, these imagined communities can be unifying. Being “South African” at the time of World Cups is one such example, as was demonstrated not only in 2010, but more strikingly during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Being “African” is more problematic. As I argued during the Bhagana Bhagana phase of South Africa’s evolution, there are more sensible characteristics to use as unifying features between individuals than the continent they call home.

Likewise, being black is either meaningless, or can be replaced by something more descriptive, and more useful for political and social change. There is far more that Patrice Motsepe and Antonij Rupert have in common than the characteristics shared by me and Steve Hofmeyr, or by Sentletse Diakanyo and Sipho Hlongwane.

The purpose that these spurious identities end up serving is mostly just to carve the world into convenient “us” and “them” categories, from which one can assert some form of privilege, or complain about some form of prejudice against you. And yes, of course these prejudices do exist, premised on these spurious categories. There is no question that political and cultural dominance in the Western world correlates with whiteness, but this is the world we are trying to escape from, or to grow out of. It’s not an understanding of the world that we should be further entrenching, through adding more such identities whenever we have opportunity to do so.

During a short-lived phase in the mid-80’s, I used to irritate friends and family to no end by consistently referring to “that short woman with a sunflower-print dress over there” instead of “that black woman”, in an attempt to highlight this arbitrary nature of this habit of racial classification. It seems our progress here is slow, in that useful classification by means of properties such as income level still often takes a back-seat to the easy standby of race, regardless of how little explanatory value that classification often has.

And we should be wary of this tendency, in that its end-point is not only obvious, but also obviously a problem. It incentivises us to define ourselves as maximally victims of whatever social, political and historical categories we can plausibly adhere ourselves to. It takes us closer towards a world in which the rights of double-amputee lesbian transsexual Albanian albinos should trump the rights of all others, and in which we mean little outside of the labels themselves. You, as a person, disappear under the weight of the identities assumed or thrust upon you.

As Michael Bywater argues in “Big Babies”, our formal “identity” has nothing to do with our actual identities. “I may be so-and-so, born on such-and-such a day in such-and-such a place, with this particular National Insurance number and that particular DNA, but none of these affect how I am, how I think or how I behave: those are the products of events and experiences which no database, biometric or not, can ever record or predict.”

An identity, other than who you actually happen to be – what do you want one of those for?

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.