Friday, 22 April 2016

The Complexity of Racism: Reflections on the South African Context

A Post-Apartheid Anecdote: Racism; it’s Complex!

As with all good tales related about racism, it is perhaps appropriate to begin with a personal anecdote. From 1999 to 2000, I – like many other young South Africans – took advantage of the “working holiday visa” to travel to the UK, where I lived for a year in Southampton. I loved visiting London, and on one particular trip I met up with a group of South African Indians who were living and working in London on the same ticket. They were friends of a friend, and we went out that night, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city.

I entered into a long conversation with one of them, a male, about the struggle against apartheid, the various sacrifices that had been made, how precious our new found freedom was, and how zealously we would need to guard it and contribute to building it, in order that the new South Africa would be a success. We were in agreement on a broad range of issues, and I naturally began to feel comfortable with my new friend.

At the end of the night, as we were on our way back to the apartment that I was bunking over in that night we overhead several white South African males speaking loudly (and drunkenly) in Afrikaans while urinating against a nearby wall. My newfound friend shot a condescending look in their direction and blurted out the following words in his thick Transvaal Indian accent,

“These boers, they’re worser than the Kaffirs!”

The words struck a deep chord in me, as the confusion I experienced at his matter-of-fact statement forced me to confront how multi-layered and complex racism in South Africa was in reality, especially when compared to the remedy we had adopted as a nation in the 1990s i.e. cosmetic change and “rainbow” nation-building.

I had encountered a brown person who displayed racism to both black and white South Africans, while maintaining a strong ‘anti-Apartheid’ stance at the same time. As is typical of most South Africans he probably harboured prejudices towards a range of other groups who make up the South African population, which includes Coloureds (i.e. mixed-race), Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Portuguese, Lebanese, Chinese, and so forth.

It seemed to me, that undoing all these racisms with the simple narratives that nation-building was constructed around may prove ineffective – even futile – against the phenomenon it was trying to expunge from South African society. Racism appeared to manifest in society as a many-headed beast, which took on too many forms to trap and eliminate with a rudimentary set of tools. Something else was required; a strategy that recognised the complexity of the racism as a societal phenomenon.

It is perhaps the right time to contribute to re-thinking and re-imagining ways of understanding and dealing with racism in South African society.  For, many years later, I am again deeply enthralled with South African politics, as race has moved to the forefront of popular and academic South African discourse again. Not since the advent of black consciousness in the 1970s has there been so much interest in discussion in questions of race, racism and privilege in South African society. It feels as though the illusion of the “rainbow nation” is finally disintegrating. Most recently, the comments made by a little known real estate broker – Penny Sparrow – re-ignited stormy social media debates on race that had abated only over the festive period.

Systemic Racism as Complex Duality: Implications for Privilege Theory

But there is much to be said about the nature of the debates, discussions and positions that have been emerging on questions of race, whiteness and privilege theory on social media that emphasize race as a social phenomenon, and generally draws on Global North – predominantly North American and UK – literature to formulate its premises. Many of the arguments that have emerged are contradictory, even paradoxical.

At times they seem as though no suitable or amicable resolution between different standpoints can be reached. However, there is a starting point around which general agreement can be obtained. Most contributors are in general agreement that racism is systemic. In the debates that are positioned in terms of privilege theory in particular, the systemic nature of racism is attributed to structural privilege within society as a system, which awards advantages to white people in particular, from the moment of birth.

Privilege theory emphasizes the role of structuration[1] as a complex process, which reproduces systemic bias (i.e. such as racism), and acknowledges the duality of structure i.e. that actors are as much producers as they are products of societal structuration[2] (Guess, 2006[3]). This is how privilege theory addresses systemic reproduction of racism (and indeed other institutional prejudices in society) i.e. essentially by invoking “reflexivity” as a duality that governs actors and agency within the processes of structuration.

In addition, privilege theory emphasizes “intersectionality”; that the institutional prejudices that are embedded within the structure and agency of society cannot be separated from each other in the analysis of a single prejudice (e.g. such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Each actor that resides within the “system” hence negotiates their intersectionality within a complex process of structuration, for example; a black man is both subject to systemic racism, but may also benefit from sexism through patriarchal values, beliefs, norms and behaviours. A black woman may have to deal with both racism, as well as sexism. If she were to be a lesbian, then homophobia may also intersect with the aforementioned prejudices. The anecdote related earlier is also a case in point. Situationality, and context, govern intersectionality, as the processes of structuration are bound by these.

In summary, privilege theory focusses on systemic racism as a phenomenon that perpetuates itself through structuration. It hence de-emphasizes “racism by intent”. As one source states, “To talk about racism by intent is moot and somewhat unproductive” (Guess, 2006).

A complexity based understanding, however, would accept the central tenets of privilege theory, but from my perspective it would necessarily hasten to add a few more layers to this framework, as follows:

Duality: Firstly, in a complexity theory based perspective, duality is understood as that which exists between inseparable metaphysical opposites. That is, it emphasizes the duality (and not dualism) between conceptual binaries such as evil and virtue, life and death, light and dark for example. That is, the duality of metaphysical opposites implies that these cannot be defined except in relation to each other. Dualism, by contrast, would view them as distinct and separate binaries.   

Inter-relations: Secondly, complexity theory is based on systems theory, which places great emphasis on the importance of connections between parts of a system, as well as its connections with other systems. The more open a system is, the more complex its behaviour is likely to be. If one considers agency within such a system, then it is in good agreement with the notion of intersectionality as deployed in privilege theory, but would place more emphasis on interconnections than purely structure (perhaps this is only a semantic difference, but it is still worth pointing out).

Systemic reproduction/autopoiesis: Thirdly, complexity theory draws heavily on systems theory in envisaging how systemic reproduction occurs. In systems and complexity theory, when a system can reproduce itself (i.e. (2) above) it is referred to as capable of autopoiesis i.e. “self-reproduction”. That is, the system is autopoietic. In this perspective, the relevance of the debate around systemic racism is that it is concerned with how racism is reproduced within society as a whole, and its various systems and institutions.

When the term systemic is used, especially in respect of racism, it usually denotes that the systemic phenomenon occurs almost automatically within the system i.e. automatically or procedurally, relatively thoughtlessly. However, self-reproduction within a system can also be purposive, or deliberate. That is, when it comes to self-reproduction within a system, there is a duality in respect of the purposiveness (i.e. what is deliberate, and what is automatic) that lies behind its reproduction i.e. both processes – deliberate and automatic –  contribute to the reproduction of a system at the same time, and are co-evolving.

Autopoiesis, in systems terminology, is not just a product of reflexivity (i.e. that agents are both producers and are produced by bias contained within the processes of structuration). It is also a produce of purposiveness. This is especially the case when considering human systems (i.e. whether organisations of people, or the hierarchies and bureaucracies of organisations and institutions in society). Hence, to a systems or complexity thinker, it would not make sense to think or speak about one, without considering the other. In this casting, ignoring “racism by intent” (as privilege theory appears to regard it as “moot and somewhat unproductive”) would constitute a ‘half-baked’ analysis of the reproduction of systemic racism.

So while privilege theory acknowledges the complexity of racism as a phenomenon in respect of its contextual and situational multiplicity – i.e. as intersectional and dependent on context (i.e. its relationality or (1) above) – it does explicitly not address one of the central features of complexity, that is; the ability for a phenomenon to exist in a duality (i.e. the phenomenon of racism as simultaneously deliberate and automatic), which, as argued above, is key to its ability to self-reproduce (i.e. or (2) above).  

If we then adopt the perspective that racism may exist in society as a duality – that it may accommodate polar opposite causes in respect of how deliberate racist actions are generated in the everyday spectrum of experiences within the social and institutional fabric of society, and manifest as a complex phenomenon in this respect – as argued above, then a more nuanced appreciation of racism as a phenomenon may be obtained.

Moreover, in addition to regarding racism as duality (as outlined above), it can be further noted that historically it is clear that racism as a phenomenon possesses both social and economic dimensions. This is historically self-evident and requires no in-depth discussion or qualification.

Hence, to summarise the central proposition of this piece; racism can be thought of as a systemic socio-economic phenomenon that manifests as a systemic duality relating to its reproduction as both automatic and deliberate at the same time. To put it another way; racism is conceived of as a product of thoughtlessness (action which is automatic), and racism as a product of deliberate, purposive action (i.e. racism by intent) within the social and economic realms.

These inseparable ‘racisms’ (i.e. both thoughtless racism and purpose-driven racism) act together to invoke racism in both social and economic contexts. This duality can be further cast as follows:

Racism due to thoughtlesssness: Everyday systemic racism, which occurs as banal. It is a product of thoughtlessness and is what largely characterises systemic racism as a social phenomenon. Thoughtlessness, here, is the same as that written about by Hannah Arendt regarding the “banality” of the evil that characterised Adolph Eichmann’s actions in sending hundreds of thousands of Jews (if not millions) to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps. Privilege theory confronts this everyday thoughtlessness, but deals less substantively with the role of exploitation as a structural phenomenon in society (at least in as far as the arguments that have been tendered in the media are concerned)[4].

Racism due to deliberate intent: Systemic racism as deliberate, purposive. This takes on two forms; exploitative racism and hate-based racism, which can be explained in more detail as follows i.e. in terms of:
·         Exploitative racism, which occurs as a superposition of class on race. It is purposive, deliberate (i.e. not banal) – and is what largely characterises systemic racism as an economic phenomenon. Exploitative racism as an economic phenomenon is based on greed and the abuse of power (and/or a perceived necessity?). It also has social dimensions, where social status is attained through attachment to race-based identity. Often, this kind of racism is the last vestige of hope for working class whites to distinguish themselves from the black and brown working classes. As it is identity-based, it overlaps with hate-based racism (see next point). Both forms of exploitative racism no doubt entangle, especially when considering colonial and postcolonial contexts.
·         Hate-based racism, where racism is the extreme condition upon which a persons’ identity is constructed i.e. it characterises systemic racism as an extreme identity phenomenon. They derive their sense of self and belonging to society (at least a group within it) through ‘absolute’ or deep hatred for the races that they persecute. They are, in a real sense, extremists.

The two forms of racism co-exist (i.e. thoughtless and deliberate, respectively), constitute a duality, and cannot be separated neatly for the benefit of either diagnosing racism, or offering prognosis for racism. They are useful, however, for the purposes of understanding how racism manifests in society as a phenomenon. Thoughtless, everyday racism may contain some measure of deliberate racism and vice versa. Indeed, that is how they manifest as social realities. That is why these constitute a duality and not a dualism.

The categories are useful for understanding. That is, they should be considered as a framework constituted of co-evolving variables that prove useful in understanding how racism manifests as an emergent phenomenon[5]. This answers the deeper question here, that is; “what duality generates action in the reproduction of racism in society?”

The duality that privilege theory acknowledges is that of structuration, where actors both produce and are produced by racist structures. Their experience is shaped by structuration, and hence they reproduce what they have inherited; it is automatic and procedural, requiring less thought. This acknowledgement of duality is more concerned with the role of structure in the reproduction of racism; behaviour is constrained to a particular trajectory. Actions, in this framing, are more procedural than deliberate.

In contrast, the duality that complexity theory is concerned with is what mechanisms and actions drive self-reproduction, and considers the duality of action. This in turn highlights the gap between thoughtless and deliberate racism, because both are fundamental to autopoiesis. That is, a complexity perspective is would be concerned with incorporating both automatic and deliberate action in the reproduction of racism i.e. understanding and acting upon it.

The distinction is critical, as it is – broadly speaking – the difference between what shapes racism in society (i.e. structure), and who enacts racism in society and how it is enacted (i.e. action). When the focus is on action, it – in addition – shifts the focus towards considering how racism is experienced. And it is mainly experienced as alienation, where the fragmentation of the social realm results in an individuation of experience; experience is unable to manifest as a result of the broader reflections within society. It is relegated to the private realm.

Another key consequence of adopting this perspective is that through exploring the duality of action in respect of racism as a phenomenon, it clearly highlights the role of class as a factor in the reproduction of racism as a social norm. When one is forced to consider deliberate racism (or racism with intent), it is clear that the intention to exploit is a major factor; and that exploitation takes on both economic and social (especially in terms of identity) dimensions. Economic exploitation occurs in terms of who owns the natural resources, the means of production, the financial capital, the assets, etc. …, while social exploitation has more to do with identity and societal status. Together, however, these ascribe the main dimensions of class, especially in terms of hierarchy and differentiation.

By considering the duality through which actions are reproduced that reinforce systemic racism, the consideration of what was lacking in privilege theory i.e. racism by intent, unlocks the ‘missing’ dimension of privilege theory i.e. its engagement with class as a key factor – especially in the post-colonial context. Moreover, it highlights the importance of focussing on the actors, their actions, and what choices they have in respect of actualising adaptation or evolutionary change in society. Systemic constraints are a given, but to actualise a purpose requires something more; an understanding of how actions are generated, and how they are taken[6]. In this framing, we should seek to formulate actions that navigate the central duality of racism as a phenomenon in society, and to respond to the roots of actions that reinforce and reproduce racism in society.

Implications for Racism in South Africa

Confronting Racism and Decolonising Society
Racism is still a key undercurrent in South African society precisely because the “rainbow nation” driven attempt at nation-building embarked upon a programme of cosmetic change that quickly ran its course, but it was maintained as a key prop in the state and governments programme to maintain control over the electorate, as well as key institutions and organisations.  

Racism prevails because our past has not been resolved. That is, it is in many ways still present, and manifests in the interactions between people, as well as between people and institutions. In this way colonial and apartheid era hierarchies have maintained themselves far into the new democracy. People can be both racist and non-racist at the same time, that is; racism emerges in some interactions, spaces, and situations, while it can be absent in others. As it is with identity, prejudice is fluid and intersectional.

Racism manifests as situational, even though it is structural and systemic, so there is perhaps some merit in considering how we can address racism by confronting it in situations; whether these situations involve interactions with black or white people. Some considerations are necessary in this regard. Many people are oblivious to their racism precisely because they aren’t thinking about their views deeply enough, and some may even entirely lack the capacity to understand or acknowledge their own racism. Racism as an identity, is largely fluid, except under extreme conditions, as argued earlier. It can be challenged and overcome but it needs to be confronted when it emerges with a fair degree of understanding when it is thoughtless, and firmness when it is deliberate and exploitative. Moreover, deploying an aggregate macro-level framework on systemic racism in order to take action in individual micro-interactions is a tricky affair. These confrontations therefore require both a sensitivity as well as punitive measures where necessary, as is appropriate to the particular context. 

This brings us to the question of “decolonisation”, which has been used, in its simplest sense, as a remedy for racism, and in its more complex sense, a means of aiding the transformation of the institutional and social fabric of society. It is quite patently impossible to actualise decolonisation as a project of absolute removal (i.e. “deleting”) of racism from society and its institutions. This is because when one considers the complexity of racism (whether latent or manifest, thoughtless or deliberate), it is clear that it cannot be undone; it needs to be overcome instead. It is resident in both centralised and distributed forms within the fabric of society, and strongly informs memory and reproduction from both its centralised and consolidated structures, as well as its decentralised and distributed agents and micro-structures.

It cannot be ‘caught’, so to speak, and eliminated. It is an evolving, adapting phenomenon itself, and as such it requires a different, less reductionist approach. A sensitivity is required; an awareness. Indeed, a growth of consciousness of racism and its various latencies and manifestations that is required to outgrow racism by freeing up myriad small-scale adaptations to occur within society. In this understanding, simply hurling a slogan such as “check your privilege”, is hardly likely to engender the awareness that is required for racism to be self-diagnosed and grappled with at an individual or collective level. It cannot be eradicated through these means, it can only be controlled!

Neither can nation-building narratives serve as anything more than a means of orienting transformation efforts; they cannot serve as effective means for actualising transformation At worst, they places constraints on the modes of transformation e.g. through forgiveness, restitution, retribution, truth for amnesty, peace above conflict, and so forth. The emphasis should be on sowing the ‘seeds’ that enable transformative actions in society, and not on exerting undue control upon it.

The programme of cosmetic change, which has not and cannot address how the past manifests in the micro-interactions that characterise everyday life in South Africa, has hence eventually come to ring hollow, precisely because it is a top-down narrative that stifles acknowledgement and meaningful discussion, debate and dialogue . This narrative, effectively takes the power to resolve racist perspectives and actions out of the hands of ordinary people; and creates a false dichotomy between racism and non-racialism, that in reality is far more complex and inter-linked.

Rather, society will need to adapt and evolve its way beyond its racist condition. This is a far more complex challenge than can be addressed through simple prescriptions, or through shaming and recriminations. It requires freeing up the space for transformation in the public realm, and not exerting higher levels of control upon it.

The Control Paradigm versus the Evolutionary Paradigm
More freedom, rather than less, is the prescription that is being proposed here, so that new potentials and possibilities are created in the social fabric – for the purpose of transformation – and not less. Here, leadership can play a critical role, as the aim of leadership in such a context is to keep the space open long enough, and with adequate sensitivity, that the new can emerge in constructive, healing modes that can nurture change, rather than to bluntly enforce it. The leader as facilitator, can play a key role in the process of transformation and change, by providing principled guidance, but also allowing for innovative responses, interventions and disruptions to emerge, and to play a key role in allowing them to take on constructive transformative forms.

Whenever the impulse to exert control – or a set of controls – upon society are advanced, whether for worthy or unworthy causes (and whether “institutional” or “people-power”), it should be viewed with suspicion and considered with great care, for many societal prescriptions, while having virtuous intentions, inevitably turn to hypocrisy when they encounter the complexities of enforcing change in real societies.

When the claim to exert control over individuals and groups is made in society, with the reasoning that it serves the best interests of society, the imperative to demonstrate the virtue of control distracts from where power is being located in society i.e. in whose ‘hands’ power resides. Irrespective of its stated ends, such power often falters, and responds by entering into a state of denial and hypocrisy, and exerts ever greater controls upon society in order to actualise its intended virtues. It becomes a charade, where despite the failures of control, its imagined successes are vaunted and propagandised. Instead of less racism, it reproduces more, as it is driven underground, and festers unchallenged precisely because it is hidden.

The difference between facilitative and control-based leadership cannot be underestimated, especially in respect of dealing with societal transformations. It is tempting to lapse into a mode of reflection where exerting control appears to be a simpler, more linear path towards achieving social change. It is anything but. As history has shown, society needs to be coaxed at times, confronted at others, and nudged towards change through sensitive and insightful leadership. Control has its place, but it should be carefully measured and dealt out. All major transformations in society require time, good leadership and a fair amount of luck. Nothing is guaranteed; you either acknowledge that you are experimenting and learning along the way, or you create a false sense of security around your actions, and claim hollow victories, for the sake of continued possession of power. There are no quick fixes or prescriptions for social ills such as racism, aside from symptomatic treatments.

Race and Class in South Africa
Most importantly, however, the implications of a complexity-based perspective on racism as a phenomenon – one which acknowledges and embraces its duality – brings class back squarely into the debate on race (i.e. by considering exploitative racism as a product of deliberate intent). This is of critical importance in the post-colonial, post-Apartheid South African context, which has the highest inequality in the world, and where class is largely delineated along racial lines. It should come as no surprise that demands for racial equality are coupled with demands for “economic freedom”, restitution and land redistribution.

South Africa’s working classes and underclasses are predominantly black Africans, who have traditionally been excluded from both the social and economic spheres of power in South African society. They are excluded, not just in terms of class mobility; they are also spatially excluded, as neo-Apartheid spatiality has come to dominate the developmental landscape of South Africa. They live in spaces and places where services are often lacking; the law and police enforcement is considerably weaker (indeed, they often work against poor black people); informal systems of trade, service provision and employment characterise daily life; informal justice can take on scary dimensions as mob community killings of errant individuals is committed; and where xenophobic riots result in horrific deaths of foreign African migrants and refugees; and where service delivery protests and unrest characterise the realm of political protest.

Moreover, and consequently, class and racial identity cannot be easily separated in the South African context. In the post-colonial and post-Apartheid context, this relationship is inherited as almost fixed; and despite their actual economic condition most white South Africans are automatically awarded middle class or elite status in daily social interactions. The converse is true for black South Africans, who still negotiate middle class interactions with difficulty. The recent explosion of debates, protests and heated exchanges on social media has opened a Pandora’s Box of unresolved, simmering discontent with the status quo in South Africa. The rainbow nation narrative outlived its usefulness long ago. It was an important mechanism for negotiating the difficult transition to democracy peacefully, and maintain stability, but it has since become a serious and dangerous binding constraint on society’s ability to transform and transition to a wholly new, more desirable state where equality (in terms of race) is actualised in real terms, and can be experienced in the public realm as indisputably normative.

To conclude, a complexity based perspective on the phenomenon of racism, which draws on the duality that is core to the reproduction of racism (as argued in this piece), implies that racism is not a reversible condition i.e. the historical, direct causes of racism cannot be undone. Hence, aspirations to “decolonisation” (as used in popular discourse) cannot proceed simply on the basis of ‘righting’ the wrongs of the past, or through restitution and retribution (e.g. such as erasure of the symbols of history in the public realm). Tackling in racism in society requires that racism is recognised as an adaptive, evolutionary phenomenon in its own right, one that reproduces itself through a complex array of mechanisms and capacities in society. Programs of cosmetic change, in this regard are not full solutions to racism, and may well act against efforts to overcome racism in society.  

Considering racism as duality also ensures that both social and economic dimensions of racism are fully considered in generating leadership and institutional transformation strategies for overcoming racism. This ensures that class, as a critical factor in race relations, is not lost as a co-generative factor in the reproduction and intersectionality of racism. Moreover, it ensures that the folly and futility of exerting control-based paradigms as remedies for racism in society are recognised. Instead, opening up new avenues and possibilities for the evolution of society through creative, visionary, facilitative leadership is required i.e. leadership that is sensitive to the context within which racism arises and the specific dimensions (and/or attributes) racism takes on in that context.  

Lastly, in the South African, there is a need to acknowledge the specific conditions through which racism is produced and reproduced, and the history that has led to the prevalence of racism as a socio-economic condition. Moreover, there is a need to draw on intellectual contributions that are specific to its context, in the formulation of actions to tackle racism. In this respect, drawing on past thinkers such as Steve Biko and Rick Turner, as well as a plethora of contemporary thinkers such as Melissa Steyn, is essential for formulating context-based strategies for leadership and institutional transformation in South African society.  

***Note: This thought piece is not a formal academic paper, and is rather intended to provoke discussion and debate on how racism is diagnosed and addressed in society. It is, in many ways, a thought experiment, which draws on complexity theory based thinking to reconceptualise race as a phenomenon. It could probably benefit from further (and more in-depth) academic thought and analyses, but it is not the intention or motive of the author to generate a fully coherent theory of racism at this stage. Rather, it is an attempt to explore what may be achieved by applying complexity theory to a complex social phenomenon (i.e. racism), and to assess what additional and useful insights and contributions to the discourse may be obtained from that attempt.

[1] Where structuration refers to how structure is reproduced by the actions of individual agents (whose expectations in turn shape and are also shaped by structural constraints, norms etc.; see next footnote).
[2] Guess, 2006: “In Giddens, the duality of structure refers to the observation that actors are as much producers as they are also products of society’s structurations.” 
[3] Guess, T.J. (2006). The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence, Critical Sociology, Volum 32, Issue 4; online
·         [4] For with privilege theory thoughtlessness is treated as a cause, to be addressed in order to relieve the symptoms. This in itself is problematic as thoughtlessness is not as much a direct cause – as much as it hosts the potential to lead to a range of (often unpredictable) consequences.
[5] However, they do not govern its emergence in a strictly causal sense (i.e. as direct, linear causes of racism).
[6] These actions are generated from processes that navigate a central duality in its analysis of racism as a phenomenon, but they are not taken lightly.

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