Race Trouble is a troubling book for activists, academics and teachers in South Africa committed to anti-racist politics. For it questions the efficacy and usefulness of the very category ‘racist’ as a critical and analytic tool for making sense of particular social practices, identifications and relations in post- apartheid South Africa. While ‘racism’ as a concept served as a necessary rallying point for mobilising opposition to apartheid, the authors argue that it is no longer relevant or appropriate in the post-apartheid era because, with the emergence of a predominantly black democratically elected government and a rapidly growing black middle class, race/power relations and divisions are much less clear cut.
This is not to say that racism is a dying idea 17 years into democracy. In spite of a growing black middle class, there are still massive racial inequalities and, while segregation is no longer prescribed, living and recreational spaces are still racialised. Furthermore the memory of apartheid racism lives on. How do the material and cultural legacies of apartheid influence and affect social relations and identifications in a new society where people of different races must co-exist and interact and where they are expected not to be racist? This is a central question in Race Trouble which focuses on the proliferation of concerns about and accusations of racism which make race a constantly troubling preoccupation in the post-apartheid era. [End Page 163]
The book ‘aims to understand how race and racism are reproduced in the post-apartheid context’ and advocates a research approach which explores how people construct, justify, explain, account for and make sense of their lives in a ‘troubling’ context in which race operates as an ever-present, if unstated, backdrop. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, the authors argue for research which makes performativity the central focus of concern, which questions the routine ways people present themselves and negotiate relationships in a context in which social inequalities, living, working and recreational spaces are still racialised and which investigates the kinds of subjectivities people inhabit and which are produced by these practices.
They provide rich examples from their own research and observations which illustrate the kinds of methodological, conceptual and analytic approaches they advocate, and this makes the book particularly engaging and insightful. They draw, for example, on observations of beaches where contact ‘between races’ is ‘kept to a minimum’ with white people moving away, as black people fill the beach, as the day progresses, and venture towards the places where white are located. These, they argue, are patterns of behaviour, structured by the legacy of apartheid, which produce new racialised subjectivities and troubling relations. Conversations with white and black beachgoers revealed how race came to operate in troubling ways as a source of identification and difference, with blacks attributing the movements of whites to ‘racism’ and whites complaining about blacks ‘crowding them out’.
The movement of black people into what were and, in many cases still are defined as white spaces, such as formerly white schools or particular suburbsis, the authors argue, a feature of the post-apartheid era, which reflects continuing white privilege. But rather than drawing on concepts of racism to explain how, on an ideological level, such dynamics are maintained, the book focuses on the complex ways people negotiate their identities in such a troubling context.
One could argue, as many commentators do, that social class has become the source of division and inequality in the post-apartheid era, and that race is troubling only because it is discursively produced by, among many others, the authors of this book. Why did the authors look only at race and not class when examining beach movements and explanations and rationalisations of these? Do, for example, middle class black people on the beach withdraw from less affluent blacks who they perceive as encroaching on their space? But even if class is no longer tied to race, class relations, the authors argue, are [End Page 164] still racialised and racial subjectivities are...