‘Race matters. It matters because of the meanings we give to it.’ Read an excerpt from Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa by Zimitri Erasmus

This excerpt is based on a chapter from a Zimitri Erasmus’s book Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa.

Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa
Zimitri Erasmus
Wits Press, 2017

Read the excerpt:


Race Matters

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.

The foundation of the enduring effects of race lies in the racialisation of what it means to be human. ‘The human’ is not ontologically given in a way that is independent of the mind. We create our human-ness as we open ourselves up in the interactive presence of other sentient and non-sentient beings. We forge our human-ness in the midst of changing social forces and power relations (historical, cultural, political, psycho-social, scientific and economic) and over the duration of our lives. These constellations of social forces produce particular interpretive frames and practices with which we make meaning of ‘the human’. If becoming human is something we do with other humans and with other sentient and non-sentient beings, then, in the words of Tim Ingold, ‘to human is a verb’. Where there are humans, ‘what goes on is humaning’ (Ingold 2015: 115–120). 

Humaning is a different activity from humanising. To human is a lifelong process of life-in-the-making with others. To humanise is to impose upon the world a preconceived meaning of ‘the human’ (Ingold 2015: 115–120). There is no one way of humaning. There is no perfect way of going about it. Humaning is a social and cultural practice which we constantly hone. Humaning as praxis is historically and contextually specific.

Pre-modern European ways of seeing continue to shape conceptions of human difference in the West and in worlds formerly colonised by Europe. The manner in which these ways of seeing linked cultural practices to genealogy can be understood as antecedents to conceptions of race—or protoracial conceptions—that were recrafted over time. The use of skin colour and ancestry to make social distinctions among humans circulated prior to the onset of modernity. However, the violence of the first colonial conquest of the Americas in 1492 ushered in a long history of turning these pre-modern ways of making social distinctions into technologies of disciplinary power that permeate European constructions of the Other and Eurocentric ways of knowing. The modern idea of race—a composite of skin colour, ancestry, culture and geography—is key to these technologies of power. From the nineteenth century racialised hierarchies of ‘the human’ were naturalised by Western science and reinscribed into the juridical, economic, administrative, knowledge and symbolic realms of societies structured in terms of colonial dominance (Hall 1980). In the Western imagination, European Man came to personify ‘the human’. European modes of humanising—by way of its civilising mission—came to dominate the world. Thus, the relationship between processes of racialisation and the emergence of dominant conceptions of what it means to be human is constitutive. As from the nineteenth century race is the code through which one knows what it means to be human, and through which one experiences the effects of this meaning (see David Scott’s interview with Sylvia Wynter, Scott 2000: 183). 

This book is less about racism as a structure of power and more about specific processes of racialisation, namely, processes of making meaning that are framed by the history and the politics from which this structure of power emerges. In this book I challenge three normative ways of knowing integral to practices of racialisation: the look, the category, and the gene. I grapple with ways one might think about the inside of racialised social life as a space from which new arts of coming to know and new arts of making meaning can emerge. All of us live in among 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 racialised world, its ways of seeing and its injustices can be apparent to us, and we can be inspired to change it. 

I take up a challenge offered by the writer Toni Morrison. For her, the racial house we live in does not have to be ‘a windowless prison’. Nor should we wait for the perfect liberation theory to do the work of ‘un-mattering race’ (Morrison 1997: 3–4). In the ongoing process of our liberation we must create openings in the racial house. We must refuse to live by its rules of dominance and its significations. We must refuse to ‘bleed the raced house for the gains it provides in authenticity and insiderdom’ (1997: 11). This demands that we figure out ways to make definitive statements about why race matters ‘while depriving it of its lethal cling’. My book is born of this struggle for ‘race-specificity without race prerogative’ (1997: 5). 


  • Zimitri Erasmus is a professor of Sociology in the department of Anthropology at Wits University. She is the editor of the seminal volume Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town (2001) and in 2010 she was a UCT–Harvard Mandela Mellon Fellow. Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa is her first monograph.

About the book

‘Race Otherwise brings together the full amplitude of Zimitri Erasmus’s thinking about how race works. It tunes into registers both personal and social. It is not without indignation, and not … insensitive to emotion and … the anger inside South Africa. It is a book that is not afraid of questions of affect. Eros and love, Erasmus urges, are not separable from the hard work of thinking.’—Crain Soudien, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council

‘People from different parts of the world ask ‘what mix’ I am. Which would you prefer? Salt and vinegar or cinnamon and sugar? Neither one of my parents was black Black. Neither one of them was white White. I am not half-and-half.’
From Chapter 1, ‘This Blackness’

How is ‘race’ determined? Is it your DNA? The community that you were raised in? The way others see you or the way you see yourself?

In Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa Zimitri Erasmus questions the notion that one can know race with one’s eyes, with racial categories and with genetic ancestry tests. She moves between the intimate probing of racial identities as we experience them individually, and analysis of the global historical forces that have created these identities and woven them into our thinking about what it means to be ‘human’.

Starting from her own family’s journeys through regions of the world and ascribed racial identities, she develops her argument about how it is possible to recognise the pervasiveness of race thinking without submitting to its power. Drawing on the theoretical work of Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter and others, Erasmus argues for a new way of ‘coming to know otherwise’, of seeing the boundaries between racial identities as thresholds to be crossed, through politically charged acts of imagination and love.

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