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Wits University Press

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“Race as biology was created to justify politics of colonialism” – Zimitri Erasmus at the launch of Race Otherwise

The launch of the academic and author Zimitri Erasmus’s new book Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa recently took place at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Zimitri was in conversation with Angelo Fick, an old friend of hers, self-proclaimed “recovering academic”, and news analyst for eNCA. Hugo Canham, senior lecturer in Wits’ psychology department, introduced the speakers and described Race Otherwise an ‘unsettling’ read, as it challenges the way we think about race.

Angelo opened the conversation by commenting on Zimitri’s decision to include her own lived experiences in her publications, to which she responded that “so much of academic writing is bereft of soul … I aimed to create a book which was both intellectually sound, and soulful.”

She stressed the importance of lived experiences, as these are shaped by history and as such are wider and larger than the individual and/or the present. Zimitri added that it’s difficult to find one self in academic writing, and drawing on personal experiences is “welcome to the style.”

Angelo raised the issue of the symbiotic relationship between power and racism, where after he asked Zimitri to distinguish between the concepts of anti-racialism and anti-racism, and what an anti-colonial critique of racism entails.

“The book is not about racism as structure of power,” Zimitri responded. “It’s about racism.”

“Anti-racialism is being against the talk a racialised society relies on; and that’s what I want to write against.”

Anti-racism signifies being against the notion that racial being gets preference; “When what you look like becomes more important than what you do … Anti-racism is challenging structures we’re confronted with everyday – be it in the supermarket, university corridors, or taxi ranks.”

An anti-colonial critique of racism refers to “a legacy which is not bio-scientific; it lifts it [the legacy], and locates it to the 15th century, and not as a legacy of race as biological concept or phenotype. Race as biology was created to justify politics of colonialism.”

As Zimitri was stating that particular ways of learning race has been taking place for generations, a young man from the audience left the theatre, to which Zimitri responded by asking “Did I upset you?” After a hearty laugh was enjoyed by all, she added “I just wanted to lighten things up…”

Expanding on her comment about the way we have been learning race, she questioned why race has to serve as “the distinction between you and me.”

“Why is ‘race’ the point around which we create solidarity? Why don’t we create solidarity around reading the same books, or playing the same instruments? Why does solidarity depend on the genetic ancestry test? Our perceptions around ‘race’ is sedimented knowledge. This is how the world works; I want to unsettle the way the world works — profoundly.”

Zimitri draws upon the concepts of Eros (love/the life drive) and Thanatos (the death drive) in Race Otherwise as modes of explaining South Africa’s racialised society. (And, no, by Eros, she does not mean the “fluffy kind of love the missionaries brought with them”). Angelo asked her how (if at all) we can accommodate Eros in South Africa, with it’s current political climate.

“We have to let our guard down, but we have to be discerning about with whom we allow ourselves to let our guards down. South Africans should have a relationship based on integrity; we have to be warm … We have to be civil.”

Zimitri is a staunch believer in “if this is what you think, live it … Attempt to live your life according to that which you truly believe in, which radiates resistance to the sediment.”

She shared an anecdote involving her experience of being racialised in a bottle store in Melville, when a stranger queuing behind her asked her what “tribe” she’s from. This, Zimitri said, is indicative of the language which is still left behind when it comes to talking about race; a language which is embedded in phenotypes. “Go down south,” Zimitri quipped, “there are lots of people who look like me!”

“Working with Eros is not always successful,” Zimitri added. “It’s hard work trying to do life differently in the space of South Africa where life has so little value … Am I going on a tangent?” she laughed

“No,” Angelo replied, “tangents are good.”

“It’s only because I’m finally relaxing!” She jovially replied.

Angelo continued their conversation by stating that “[s]ome of us live in protected spaces, some don’t. This denies those who do not live in protected spaces their full humanity.

“How does love (Eros) work in spaces of supreme dehumanisation?”

After a moment of deliberation Zimitri responded by referring to her chapter on the Fallist movement of 2016.

“Love, in its political sense, was far more present at [the] Concourse [of Senate House, Wits University] than the eleventh floor of Wits. Students were supporting each other; arguing with each other; grappling with the complexity of the issue.”

A critical question she posed to the audience as a whole was “Where do you stand when matters of social justice are on your doorstep?”

“We should show empathy – not sympathy – for the devalued life,” Zimitri added. “Eros is absent in spaces of power … the realm of feeling escapes…” Expanding on one particular Fees Must Fall protest which took place at Wits she commented on her impression of the students present at the protest: “Just because they were there does not mean they embody the texture of what’s going on … they were quite distant from the texture.”

Class plays a significant role in Zimtiri’s work, and she addressed the issue of class divides and attitudes towards race, citing that “poor people are far more open to connections across race,” as opposed to racial attitudes in protected spaces. “Protected spaces are not where real work happens; the real work happens in hard, unprotected spaces where poverty is grinding.” She added that poor people “cultivate empathy in a much more real way.”

Monolingual (English-speaking) South Africans were criticised by an audience member in that they don’t contribute to a more inclusive South Africa, to which Zimitri responded that “non-English speakers do the work”, using monolingual registrars in hospital words who have to ask fellow registrars to translate patients’ requests as they don’t understand any South African language besides English as an example. If the majority of South Africans were able to speak more than one of our official languages, “structures of power might begin to shift.”

Another audience member had a query about the relationship between kinship, affinity, and race.

“I want the politics of politics, not the politics of blood,” Zimitri powerfully concluded before imploring the audience whether they could finish there because “I’m so hungry!”

Thank you for feeding our minds, Zimitri.

Mila de Villiers, @mila_se_kind

Race Otherwise

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