Race and Racism

Race is a very sensitive topic particularly in South Africa. As a black African race and racism are concepts that have shaped my life to such an extent that they have even affected who and what I have become. Some theorists refer to the concepts of race and “race.” The former alludes to biological distinctions and the latter to social and cultural constructions. This distinction is not always so straightforward when it comes to race but “race” in quotation marks is used to call attention to the extremely constructed nature of the term. “Race” is a culturally formed expression but no matter how much the concept may be shown to be unscientific, ‘it seems to persist and reinvent itself and so requires critical academic examination.’

From as far back as the time of early human writing there is evidence of the existence of views about the differences between peoples of different cultures. These views often emphasized physiological differences to explain differences in mannerisms and intelligence (Appiah, 1999). The early Greek and Hebrew thinkers also used certain criteria to explain differences between people. The Greeks explained their supposed superiority over people of Asia by citing geographical factors. The argument here was that the barren soils of Greece had made the Greeks tougher and more independent therefore making them more superior than the Asians (Appiah, 1999, p. 1575). The Hebrews placed emphasis on the relationship that people had with God (Appiah, 1999, p. 1575). What emerges from this way of thinking is that people have always been seeking to explain their superiority over other people by suggesting the presence of certain factors that inherently make the others weak.


‘For many centuries the western world has accorded superiority to lighter skin types and relative inferiority to darker skin types’ (Chancer & Watkins, 2006, p.50). Their ability to do this is related to the history of the rest of the world and the way it was conquered by the west resulting in them being the ‘in-group’ and the rest of the world being the ‘out-group.’ As the in- group they were in the position of determining what was deemed normal or abnormal. To buttress this biased world view the west had theorists and academics that came forward with ideas from their different disciplines that explained their superiority over people of other skin colours. Immanuel Kant is an example of one such person. Writing at a time when opposition to the institution of slavery was rising in Europe Kant used anthropology and geography to come up with a hierarchy of races. This hierarchy explained the link between skin colour, geography and anthropology and intelligence.


As opposed to being the truth Kant’s ideas were just a way of normalising the power relations that existed between Europe and the rest of the non-white world (McCarthy, 2003). This was just a way for Europe to continue the ill-treatment of non-white people. For, example Ideas like this supported slavery in that it was stated that even though Africans were lazy they made good slaves because of their docile nature, that is, they were incapable of performing other tasks except those of servants. Ideas like this also support the view that when Europeans embarked on imperialist policies in Africa and elsewhere they did it in innocence to bring commerce, civilisation and Christianity to backward uncivilised, lazy savages. This ignores the other motives that Europe had by coming to Africa. For example even after the abolition of slavery Africa still offered Europe a source of cheap labour. Africa was also a source of raw materials for European businesses. With the colonial administration in place Europe was able to take advantage of this in a way that benefited the mother country in Europe and its white citizens residing in Africa (Rodney, 1981).


The idea that a set of inherent characteristics were passed down from one generation to another based merely on race sounds antiquated in today’s world. However not so long ago these very ideas informed government policy in places like South Africa and Nazi Germany before that. In both these countries the definition of who was superior was based purely on race. Every one had their place in these societies. The advantaged group was the white race and everyone else was considered inferior therefore they had to take a corresponding place in society. This happened in every sphere of society be it in the economy, education even in housing and access to health.


Definitions of race are an issue of controversy. This is due to the existence of many ideas about the issue. If we look at history however we realise that they way this concept came about was because of a certain context. It was not inherently in existence. It was a combination of the power relations that existed at the time and the imperialist policies of others that influenced how we define race even today. The end of colonisation has not coincided with an end to racism or has it necessitated an end to the need to continue to critically analyse this concept of race. Certain things have remained the same however the issues around racism have changed. For example the issue in South Africa is no longer about discriminatory policies but more about the legacy of those policies. In my view current theories on race do very little to show the relationship between olden day thinking on race and current ideas about issues of tribalism where skin colour even amongst people of the same race is said to determine behaviour.


Granted the ideas of Kant have no space in a world looking to transcend the category of race but so many other current situations show evidence of this way of thinking. For example the case of the white South African who applied for refugee status in Canada based on the fact that he is a victim of black criminals in South Africa stinks of the same kind of thinking applied by Kant. It ignores the context in which crime occurs in South Africa and assumes a universalistic approach to issues of race and behaviour. If there is to be a move forward there needs to be recognition of race not as an isolated concept but one related to others such as gender and class.



Biko, consciousness, oppression and the South African Media.

Black consciousness recognised two forms of discrimination or oppression against black people:

1. Institutional oppression e.g, laws that restricted blacks from travelling or residing in certain areas, poor education and laws that protected white workers more.

2. Oppression by way of attaching good to all that is white and bad to all that is black.

The term black in this post is used inclusively to refer to all people who were oppressed by the apartheid system in South Africa. It therefore includes people who today would be more commonly referred to as Indians and coloureds.

The origins of the black consciousness movement in South Africa are usually traced to the break of SASO (South African Students Organisation) from NUSAS (National Union of South African Students) in 1969.  The break was caused by the fact that on one hand some members supported NUSAS’ liberal non racialist ideal while on the other hand some, mostly black students including Steve Biko, felt that this way of thinking was out of touch with the reality of South African society at the time.

This group felt that white students were part of the section of society privileged by apartheid intentionally or unintentionally due to the pigmentation of their skin. It was therefore felt that white students could not continue to lead an organisation concerned with championing the cause of black students and black people in general when they were not oppressed or exploited by apartheid in the same way black people were. Steve Biko was one of the founder members of SASO and was elected its first president.

Black consciousness can be defined as the state of awareness by black people of the need to come together so as to defeat all that holds them in a position of perpetual inferiority in relation to the white man socially, economically and politically (Biko 1987). Black consciousness seeks to infuse in black people a pride in who they are.  The black consciousness movement espoused by Biko defined black people as all those socially, economically, legally and traditionally discriminated against in South African society.

South Africa’s history has resulted in identity being understood very much in racial terms. A lot has changed in terms of politics and this is evidenced by black people’s dominance in this field (Steenveld 2004:102). In terms of the economy very little has changed because economic power is still dominated by white people and this is reflected especially in media staffing, ownership and media products. The media industry in South Africa is controlled by a few largely white owned media companies (Steenveld 2004:102).

While institutional racism still exists, the democracy now available in South Africa means that to a large extent, ideas about inferiority and superiority amongst different races are changing. It is no longer acceptable in our broader society to attribute superiority, intelligence and rationality only to people of certain skin pigmentation. The role of black consciousness in changing these ideas is important.

In South Africa, in a media environment where media production is accused of becoming more and more westernised, it is important to question the dominance of certain ways of thinking over others even after the end of apartheid. Black consciousness therefore still has relevance in helping black people shape and negotiate their identities. This is especially important given that definitions of who is black in post-apartheid South Africa are also changing. So this blog is a small step for me, a black student of culture and media, in my attempt to break into the African media.