The inconvenient truth of race
Rioting college students at Keene, New Hampshire, threw bottles and other objects at police, damaged property, broke into stores, overturned at least one car and set fires and injured dozens at the Keene Pumpkin Festival. They were simply framed as "unruly", "extreme partiers", "drunk and disrespectful" and their actions were downplayed by the mainstream media. Race was never brought into the question as the reason for their behaviour. It would have been unthinkable. They are simply drunk frat boys who went a little too far.
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on the other hand, where teenager Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, are held to vastly different standards. They do not have the luxury of their actions being untethered to their race. While looting and property damage has been rare in a protest that has lasted for more than two months, they have been trumped up and sensationalised, and all protesters are referred to as "thugs", "criminals" and saturated in the discourse of violence.
There will be many who will seek to claim that this racist double standard does not exist, or make the fallacious claim that race is irrelevant in both cases. For some, it is inconvenient and unnecessary to realise that our experiences of the world are acutely linked to the colour of our skin. It disrupts the fundamental myths of democracy, that it will ensure fully realised equality and freedom, and allow us to live unchained to the past's injustices. It allows a simpler, more comfortable interpretation of "reality" that does not force us to confront inconvenient truths.
An article was recently posted on Politicsweb, without a byline, that is basically an extended lament taking the form of a riff on the immensely popular and dismissive "why is everything about race?" argument. In it, the author bemoaned how "race-aware" intellectuals, the new ungovernable cadres, have taken the mantle from the ANC and are spreading racial propaganda with their writing. The author argues:
"This propaganda is generally characterised by an intense focus on any incident of violence or indignity inflicted by whites on blacks; allegations of continuing and undeserved 'white privilege'; claims that property, and particularly land, owned by whites was 'stolen'; the effort to downplay or diminish incidents of black on white violence no matter how brutal; and outraged reactions to any call for equal treatment for individuals from the white minority."
The author points to the work of TO Molefe, Marianne Thamm, Pierre de Vos, Eusebius McKaiser and Lloyd Geyde, among others, to make their weak argument about the "febrile atmosphere of South Africa's media, when it comes to racial issues". It discredits the writers in an attempt to discredit their argument and disqualify them from speaking about race and racial injustice by refusing to engage with their arguments. There is no nuance to be found in the critique. Similarly, when the question "why is everything about race?" is asked, in its many variations, it is not to open a conversation but an attempt to obliterate both race and the discussion in question, to invalidate it, render it bereft, and end it. The truth is that racial propaganda is foisted upon us every day without many of us realising it, but it is normalised, invisible and masquerades as being "just the way things are".
We do not live in a world without a particular structure. There are deeply embedded systems that govern every move we can make and how it will be interpreted. Certain aspects of who we are, including our race, class, gender and gender identity, sexuality, physical and mental ability, govern our every interaction with the world as we cannot be untethered from the systems that attempt to classify us, neither can these factors be pried apart. As Marianne Thamm writes:
"No one is born into the physical world untethered by history and what has gone before. Where we are born, how we are born, the life and family we are born into and whether we even manage to survive the first few years, never mind hours, of our lives, all depends on what has gone before.
"We are not a collection of gasses, fluids and bones held together by a skin, disconnected from fellow human beings. Each one of us is where we are because of collective forces of history and time, and none of us, no matter how hard we try, can live outside of this history and time. If you are white or have a light skin and belong to a class whose ancestors wielded colonial power from the 16th to the 19th century, then the chances are that, generally, time, history and economics have worked extremely well in your favour."
The problem with the commentary on the rioters in Keene, protesters in Ferguson and the article in question is the dominant idea of what "reality" is, and how it hides that we all have particular experiences of the world that are structured by historical, social and personal circumstances. As Lewis Gordon argues: "One of the sad things at the moment is that there are so many people at the moment who are afraid of reality."
The implications of realising that your reality is not the same as someone else's, and that this is determined by race and other factors of identity, is a scary prospect for those who would prefer to dwell in the ignorance of the democratic myths. Many would prefer not to acknowledge that there is a particular set of circumstances that we have to negotiate to come to terms with how the world works and how it is structured to allow, enforce and ensure that a particular reality, a white reality, masquerades as a universal. This allows other realities, and the black reality, to be framed as pathological - it allows for a denial of the terms and conditions of our existence that is implicit in the "not everything is about race" argument. This argument often undermines and dismisses other people's experience of the world as mere anecdote without evidence that it is a real phenomenon because it does not serve the dominant reality. Those who make it, speak all too often from a determinedly defensive position and do not want to listen to an alternate expression of reality that challenges their own because it would require the realisation that just because it is not about race for you, does not mean that it is not about race. It is an uncomfortable truth.
As Pierre de Vos argues, a denial of race, "helps many of us 'white' South Africans to remain soothingly blind to the structural racism from which we benefit - whether we choose to do so or not". It is often difficult for people to see how the argument is not about them, particularly, but about a structure that gives them certain privileges and that they endorse and maintain, whether tacitly or overtly.
Those ignorant of the way our lives are determined by race are often, but not always, possessors of a profoundly selective historical memory and a rudimentary grasp of methods of redress - always ready to be whipped out as an example of "reverse racism", or simply have been afforded the immense luxury of being blissfully unaware of other realities. They are uncomfortable when people share things about race on their timeline as they have the privilege of not being perpetually and consciously aware of their abridged humanity. It's inconvenient to recognise the way the world works because we have to often confront ourselves, our blind-spots and our privilege, and the way that we are sometimes complicit in maintaining these systems. It's hard but necessary work, which requires that we both educate ourselves about the dominant reality and its inherent racism, remain cognisant that it is in fact a particular reality, and act on this knowledge while always checking our own privilege.
We have fundamentally different lived experiences of the world. We might occupy the same space, but inhabit definitions of humanity that are worlds apart. Things that appear normal are not. Normal is an ideology. Normal has been made in the image of a white, rich, able-bodied, heterosexual, CIS man. Normal is not normal at all, it's a particular political standard that ensures that a skewed, dominant version of reality can shield some from uncomfortable, inconvenient truths.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler