Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa by Zimitri Erasmus
Zimitri Erasmus. Johannesburg:
Wits University Press, 2017.
Paper, 195 pages. $30.00.
In a succinct summary of her project at the beginning of Race Otherwise, Zimitri Erasmus states, “Race matters. It matters because of the meanings we give to it. How and why race has come to matter, and how and why we continue to make race matter, has to do with ways in which history, power and politics shape the frames within which meaning is made, contested and renegotiated” (xxii). Even so, she acknowledges that her book is more about the normative meanings that we ascribe to race, how we come to know race and the meanings that it carries, than it is about “racism as a structure of power” (xxiii). Each chapter informs the reader about the different ways in which race is given meaning depending on the circumstances. By the end of the book, Erasmus offers a challenge to her readers when she invites them to think that “these ways of coming to know engage conditions of possibility for challenging racialisation” (146).
Race Otherwise is indispensable for anyone wanting to know the state of conversations about race in South Africa. For this reason it deserves a larger readership outside the confines of the academy. Erasmus articulates the concept of race with history and personal anecdotes that echo how the “personal is always political.” As readers we come to understand Erasmus’s conceptualization of non-racialism through her personal narratives. It is a [End Page 218] style designed to make her readers more empathetic to her racial politics. By the end of the book the reader is once again reminded of the different ways in which we come to know race and how those meanings change depending on one’s geographical location, education, class, and gender. This is noted in four anecdotes that she shares: “reclassified Caucasian; defending the spelling of ‘coloured’; unclassified; and lived anti-racialism” (18–22). These anecdotes help to explain why Erasmus argues for humanism. She states that this project requires the defiance of “reductionism, the violence and the reliance on a foundational Otherness of both Eurocentrism and nativism as modes of knowing and being. It implies ‘not just . . . changing the contents but the very terms of the conversation, in so doing shifting the terrain for argumentation” (26).1
Erasmus ends the book with a radical call toward understanding race through a radical form of love defined as eros. She writes, “Love adds to the world. It does not take from it (Bauman 2010: 9). Love invites beginning, and beginning again, in relation. ‘Not yet’ is a space in which to reconfigure the world. A space in which to reconfigure subjectivity, resistance, learning living and doing. ‘Not yet’ is the future in the present. You and I need not wait. We can grow the future for our time” (146). This radical love is much needed, but it is a pity that the author does not spend enough time outlining what this radical form of love would look like in practice. While it is clear that eros can only work when both individuals in any relation Black or white need to have a level of self-love and self-actualization, the idea of eros seems unattainable in a country like South Africa when most of the individuals who experience racism in any form are the poor working class (often Black). Erasmus offers us a romantic notion of love as a way forward, one that does not consider the everyday realities of race in South Africa. There is an attempt to articulate how eros works in practical ways, anchored in aimance, which is defined as “a composite of friendship, imaginative co-creativity, care for the Other and transformative politics ushered in as a consequence of lived experiences of domination” (141). However, the idea of aimance leaves one wondering how this is fostered and who in the relationship has to do the work. Is it the Other? More importantly, what good is this relation if it will merely make people feel good about themselves yet it will not force the much needed change in our society? I certainly believe that Erasmus is on to something here. Is it that love leads to structural changes or do we simply want to change people’s hearts so they feel good about themselves? That is, if people truly understand love [End Page 219] they would change structurally, which is the argument that was used to end the slave trade. But such an argument assumes that people think of love in deep ways. Erasmus and other scholars who write about forging humanism need to move beyond theorization and start to speak about how this humanism can be forged in practical ways, ways that would benefit not only those who have educational or class privileges but would include the poor working class.
Erasmus fails to acknowledge how educational privilege often informs how one is racialized. For example, when relating her refusal to classify herself racially when joining the University of the Witwatersrand in 2011, she fails to recognize her educational and class privilege. One wonders whether a cleaner or a member of the administrative staff would have had the luxury of refusing to classify themselves racially. Race Otherwise is indeed a timely book, but writers need to recognize their privileges when theorizing and conceptualize the issue of race or non-racialism in South Africa. They need to engage with what these theories would mean for the laypersons who live in the racialized and racist world that a humanistic approach seeks to deny. That is why I find the manner in which Erasmus ends her project discomforting. First, the book forces one to interrogate one’s conception of race and how that relates to ones lived experience. What does it mean to hold on to one’s race? As a Black South African woman, I am left questioning what the identity “Black” means.
By way of concluding I want to return to the remarks made by Erasmus in the prelude; she states that all “of us live in amongst racialised structures of social meaning. We cannot be outside, above, or beyond the past and the present. Nor can we be outside, above, or beyond race. Because we are embedded in a racialized world, its ways of seeing and its injustices can be apparent to us, and we can be inspired to change it” (xxiii). I am left wondering whether this change is necessary or whether we can celebrate this racialized world and move toward working with the differences. For this reason her decision, announced at the beginning of the book, to leave racism as a structure of power to one side haunts the book and leaves some of the most pertinent questions her book poses unanswered. [End Page 220]
nompumelelo zinhle manzini is a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University. Her areas of interest include ethics, critical philosophy of race, black feminism, personhood, and African philosophy. She previously taught philosophy and applied ethics at the University of Zululand (South Africa) and the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) while completing her MPhil at the University of Witwatersrand as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar.
1. Erasmus is quoting from Arturo Escobar, “World and Knowledge Otherwise: The Latin American Modernity/Coloniality Research Program,” in Globalization and the Decolonial Opinion, ed. W. D. Mignolo and A. Escobar (New York: Routledge, 2013), 41.