why I answered “white” on the census form

January 22, 2012

The idea that the “right thing to do” is to refuse to indicate race on a census form isn’t new, and it isn’t exclusive to white people either. But in the preamble to the 2011 census it was discussed anew by some, so it deserves some reflection upon. More particularly, I want to respond to a recent article by Brent Meersman in which he argued for defining himself as “other” in the census. A kind of disclaimer need to be made first however. I agree with most of the individual arguments Brent made. I don’t consider his stance to be in some sense inherently problematic, although I do think using apartheid style categories has a use in South Africa which need to be recognized. To some extent I want to share Samantha Vice’s stance that I’m writing for those whites who see there own selves as problematic, because we recognize our own habits, thought patterns and relations to be constituted by the socialized location of whiteness which we find ourselves in. I do not think that it is impossible to break with my own whiteness, and indeed I believe that South African society provide important opportunities for doing exactly this, however I don’t think a easy refusal to admit my own embeddedness within a process of white racialisation will bring about breaking with these habits.

I think Brent’s introduction is important. Indeed we have in South Africa came to the conviction that racism is wrong. Well at least, white South Africans as a group has come to the conviction that racism is wrong, I doubt whether there is a long history of a black consensus that racism is morally defensible. But still, this “we”, white South Africans, who actually came to this conviction along with the rest of our country it important. Secondly, it remain important to remind ourselves that the whole enterprise of scientific racism, the attempt to defend a racist casting of the world on scientific grounds, has failed completely.

It’s however somewhat more complex to apply these two convictions to an actual public debate in South Africa. First of, we don’t agree on what exactly the racism is that we all agree on that it is wrong. Even if we take an Oxford definition (which is not a bad definition, but being a dictionary, can’t be expected to completely agree with the various sociological definitions of the word ‘racism’), we will differ on when exactly examples fit the definition. To provide a practical example: I don’t think Tim du Plessis consider his recent column to be racist, but read that in a diverse group, and see the difference of opinion on the question. Secondly, although we have a scientific consensus on the non-existence of race, public opinion is not formed by scientific consensus, and it is debatable how many of the ideas from a previous white scientific consensus still hold in the minds of people. Furthermore, to draw these two together, we don’t really agree on when our attitudes actually reflect a continuation of scientific racism rather than breaking with it. For example, if someone make the comment that black people don’t own businesses because of a particular “communal culture”, is that racism or not? It seems to rejects the biological foundation, yet it might very well again assume an essentialised identity which can easily be identified by a visible marker.

Brent is furthermore correct that there exist many instances where the census question is degrading, and where is simply doesn’t work. This is to be assumed, since the categories created by the apartheid system (and similar systems all over the world) cannot be connected to any essential marker and in spite of a whole generations of academics (well, actually a few generations) attempting to find a final solution on exactly how the various races supposedly fit together, nothing was produced. You cannot easily divide the South African society into 4 meaningful groups by using some kind of biological marker. On the other hand, if you want to divide South Africa into groups according to biological markers, you’ll end up with an endless list of divisions, all equally valid. On the other hand, we are stuck with the problem that the fourfold division of apartheid works.

And this is where I want to argue why I said “white” on that census form.

I am aware that many doesn’t fit into the fourfold division of apartheid. For example, a kid born in 1996 from a mother who was called White during apartheid and a father that was called Black has nothing to do with the particular communities which arose in the areas designated for those Coloured. This person’s identity would most probably not be formed by grandparents and parents that shared a social location formed by a particular relation to those who were White and in power, her/his opportunities are not determined by the historic developments and infrastructure in the areas where Coloured people were supposed to live. So it become very difficult to make any kind of argument that it would be helpful for a census to count one more person as Coloured. On the other hand, this young person, even when born in 1996, would be confronted with internalized ideas about those born out of sexual relations which involve persons from different racial groups (yes, these non-existing contructs which is the leftover from a dominant time and which we can’t find consensus on whether the category should still be used). This child will enter a school sometime, and people will treat this person while drawing on deeply held believes. Sometimes they will break with what has been carried over from their parents and the communities in which they grew up (and indeed, I do believe that every new group of grade 1 kids in South Africa provide more examples of children breaking the patterns handed over to them), but the fact that there is a norm for how relations form and examples of those breaking with them reminds that we have a way to go.

But I was born from parents both from communities that were White. Although I can trace my ancestry to an Malayan slave from the 1700’s, this had little effect on the process of social formation happened. Even though our neighbours on all sides were black when I was a kid, I still grew up within a community which treated me as white, and day after day entrenched the identities which grew out of the European engagement with the world and decades of development of false ideas about race. Both white Afrikaner people and black Swazi’s reaffirmed these notions day after day. Yes, attempts were made to provide an alternative. My parents were very particular in emphasizing to us that all people are equal and created by God. We had black people eating lunch with us as if they were family. My father cried when a black friend died. These events was important. They are still important. They break the patterns. But they way in which I was treated, the teachers that taught me, the family that I spent holidays with (all of them with tertiary qualifications), the contacts I built up through friendships, these continue to show the patterns set out by a long history of racialisation of society (of which apartheid was a very particular extreme example).

I think Brent is correct that we won’t change a society by merely transforming statistics on how the elite classes of society look. Indeed, such a process of transformation can indeed become a “perverse legitimization of neoliberalism”, an insight which we need in our public debate in South Africa. On the other hand, we might find that challenging the same neoliberalism (without going into the debate on exactly what this neoliberalism is or whether this is indeed the system followed in South Africa today), or maybe more particularly the inequalities in society, without looking at issues of race. To point out that the growth in inequality among black South Africans was primarily responsible for the growth in our gini-coefficient is not sufficient reason to ignore the continued spread of capital. In other words, it is true that we have an emerging black economic elite which are gathering wealth in ways which is in no way morally defensible (yes, this do open up a new can of worms for another day, but that is indeed what I believe), but that does not take away that access to capital continue to be largely determined by race: if you were born white in 1994 you still have a much larger change to join that elite, be it the 1% of Occupy Wall Street or the 15% which get access to a tertiary institution.

That is why I said “white”. I don’t think South Africa can be fully understood by looking at race, but neither can it be folly understood by ignoring race. And I want to know how things have changed in the past 18 years, and how they continue to change in the coming 50. I want to know whether Black kids are getting the same opportunities as white kids (not whether a few elites are getting the, but whether the average kid is), but I also want to know whether all kids, regardless of what the apartheid system and Western racial thought wanted to classify them as, have better opportunities than they had 30 years ago. I want to know whether traditionally Black and Coloured areas continue to be excessively plagued by violent crime. I know my knowledge open the possibility that it will be misused the entrench old stereotypes that “black kids are lazy and therefore cannot go to university” or that “Coloured men don’t want to live and therefore kill each other”. This need to be fought as well. But since I’m firmly convinced that scientific racism got it wrong, I cannot connect “black” and “lazy” (since that would imply that this biological marker is somehow connected to a particular character).

If I notice that these Apartheid categories still “work”, if they still provide a pattern for who goes to university, who get’s jobs, who get access to money, who are treated how at airports and by the police, I have a responsibility to ask how this pattern is connected to our history. The history before, during and after apartheid. The relations might be complex, or very obvious, but they set the agenda for those who believe that the inequalities lessened. This will not give all the answer, it will not illuminate every fault line in society, but it will help us to tract our development along fixing one of them.

Therefore, I said “white”, because I want every government member, every activist and every researcher, to know that what the situation is that one person who was born out of a community which treated according the the rules and laws and cultural norms set for those who are “white” find himself in.

One Response to “why I answered “white” on the census form”


  1. Good to see another post on here! Hope you’re doing well Cobus. Always enjoy reading whatever you write.


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