Simplistic racial constructions and mistaken assumptions

22 March 2017 | Story by Newsroom

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Halim Gencoĝlu, a PhD scholar in hebrew studies, writes about the limitations of simplistic racial constructions in important debates on decolonisation and oppression.

On Friday, 10 March, I attended a seminar in the Baxter Theatre on decolonisation given by Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. He raised important points about challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the continent, calling for Africa to “strengthen its base”, then partner with the world on an equal footing. Some students interrupted the seminar, asking, “How can we talk about decolonisation when the oppressor and oppressed are in the same venue?” They were referring to the “whites” as the oppressors based on skin colour.

Then, at the end of the talk, students from the Fallist movement did not allow a white member of the audience to ask his question. This attitude can be quite undermining, as it excludes other individuals from contributing to the dialogue purely because of their skin colour.

Historically, the notions of 'whiteness' and 'blackness' were constructed for political reasons. In 2014 I wrote an article about the first non-white South African politician, Ahmet Ataullah Effendi. Read the article...

In 2016 I wrote another article about the first non-white medical doctor of UCT. Read the article...

According to archival sources, both were of Turkish origin, and actually white of complexion. They were, however, classified as non-white because of their Muslim religious identity. From this perspective, what is whiteness and blackness?

Interestingly, the first freedom fighter against Cecil Rhodes was also of white complexion. The first pioneers of the non-white freedom fighters in South African history were two people of white complexion. So while historically the first non-white freedom fighters were of white complexion in South Africa, how can one today deny voice to someone simply based on his white skin colour?

According to an archival source in South Africa, another non-white diplomat of white complexion, Mahmud Pasha, was imprisoned because he was aiding native people in South Africa during the First World War. It is possible that the white person wishing to ask a question after Ngũgĩ's talk might have been a revolutionary in support of the Fallist movement's cause.

This raises the question: what is the measure by which one would describe oppressed and oppressor? It cannot be denied that in the apartheid era several whites benefited from the system or were seen as oppressors, however, skin colour cannot be a measure of oppression on all counts. Simply because not all whites are oppressors.

The simplistic construction of the oppressor as white is not accurate even historically, because the first non-white South African politician who stood for black voters in the Cape parliament was of white complexion. There are even inconsistencies in the way individuals are labelled as 'white' or 'black'. At present, Chinese are regarded as black according to the law even though they have a whiter complexion than many Europeans. So, the theory of skin colour and the associations made on that basis are very problematic as they racialise the way we relate with others in this diverse society.

As such, we have to question the assumptions we make and the conclusions we draw about individuals based simply on their skin pigment.

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