(This is the original of an opinion piece published as “Identity does not depend on race” in the Cape Times on 11 October 2011)
Who are we? is the question posed in a timely series presented by the Cape Times and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Really, it’s incredible. If “I am because we are”, and we are not the “we” we thought we were – then who am I? If “a person is a person through other people”, and we’re not getting through to each other – then what am I?
Rather than reach immediately for an answer to this terribly urgent question, perhaps we should slow down enough to reconsider it. Or, as Njabulo Ndebele beautifully suggested recently, to “wake up and re-dream” ourselves. It does stir us up. Whoever and whatever else we may be, we are the ones in question. We are called to account for ourselves, as if everything depends on this, our moment in history. It’s the new Senzenina. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.
Who are we? It’s an open question. You can walk right in. (Just leave the door open behind you, thanks.) It’s already crowded and noisy here, heated with opinions, ideas, critiques and proposals for “the way going forward”. Read more
Samantha Vice, a philosopher at Rhodes University, has been thinking about the moral condition of white South Africans. Is it possible to live a virtuous life here, given the continuing privilege that comes with whiteness? Believing that this will be “very difficult”, she argues that shame is “the morally appropriate emotion to feel”. She concludes, “If the self is as morally damaged as this suggests… a plausible strategy is… the ancient practice of ‘care of the self’, in which one’s moral attention is directed inward towards the self”. She thinks this will require “public silence and humility”.
This is my response. First, if shame is “appropriate”, it’s only according to a particular story (which is after all a story) of moral worth: that having is generally the honourable result of earning. We get what we deserve and deserve what we get. So what happens when we discover our wealth is derived from a long season of racist injustice, which continues to advantage us? We’re not as worthy as we believed. To her credit, Vice admits this as shameful. No denial, no squirming to get off the hook. Neither does she cast shame on those who feel differently. Her work is courageous, careful and – as evident from the response at the conference – provocative.
But it’s worrisome. Read more