Context: Eusebius McKaiser is the host of Radio 702’s mid-morning show, The Eusebius McKaiser Show. The 8 April 2019 edition revisited a conversation from the previous edition about the problem of structural inequality and its solution. Lesley, a white female owner of a legal practice in her early 50s, was the main caller on this day, and she and Eusebius sparred for about 15 minutes. The podcast is available here.
And so, Eusebius McKaiser, perhaps Lesego , the black lawyer caller, was right: Lesley should sit down and check her privilege. Paraphrasing your words, Lesley has been able to use the words of wokeness to give the impression that she is fluent with privilege dynamics, but the longer she spoke, the more she gave away that she wasn’t truly woke or ready to acknowledge fully her privilege and its many impacts throughout her life. The difficulty with your answer to her (via Michelle) in response to the question, “What do we do about it now?” is that it is satisfactory for you, and perhaps even for Lesego, your ally, in this moment. You said to do the sort of thing that you regularly do, that is, when you are faced with an all-male panel to discuss an economics topic, you ask your team, “Why do we have four people coming in for a discussion [on the economy] on my show, and all of them are men?” and thus you “begin to chip away at privilege”. It is cosy and convenient (it doesn’t challenge you much), it aligns with what you happen to be able to do right now, and I could argue that it is cosmetic: it doesn’t address the unseen processes that result in the all-male panel in the first place. And, ironically, it sounds to me a lot like what Lesley has been doing for much of her professional life in her own law firm: making the case and making the space for (other) (black) women to flourish both as colleagues and as clients.
An essential difficulty with the stance of identity politics – as I heard it play out on your 8 April 2019 open line – is that there will always be someone to out-woke the present wokeness. Another would-be caller (who perhaps didn’t have the airtime or the confidence, and who is tired of hearing middle class callers [including me, irony upon irony] speak for her) could quite easily tell Lesego to sit down and check her black upper/middle-class privilege. And then, some even worse-off poor soul could conceivably do same to our would-be caller. Partly because of intersectionality and social hierarchies, and partly because our experiences are uniquely ours. We couldn’t quite go on ad infinitum, but the point is that this stance lacks grace for our fellow human being. Lesley cannot stop being white – and you are right, she needs to recognise the constant advantage this gives her in the current configuration of this society. However, she has made some progress in recognising this inequity. But it’s not enough for you, and your insistence on a certain “pass mark” in terms of acknowledgement of past “sins” means that she may be stuck for a long time or forever, trying and failing to meet your standard. Similarly, someone woker and (unlikely as this may be) smarter than you are might dismiss you in the same way, despite your noble efforts at allyship, particularly to women. When we are competing to be the wokest (and this competitive streak in the identity politics space is characteristic; the Wokeness World Championships are a cousin to the Suffering Olympics), this graceless ranking tendency is evident. In short, Mr McKaiser, there is someone out there who has dismissed people like you and me as bourgeoisie woke-lite narcissists because we like (and still drink) our Chardonnay.
As far as I can tell, there is only one antidote to this crucial flaw in identity politics. It’s a worldview with both grace and humility at its centre. It says both “I know a lot about you just because you are a white woman,” and, “I can discover a lot about you because you are a person worthy to be known,” in contrast to your “You have had white privilege all your life [and therefore, by implication, I know the essence of you].” It’s a worldview that doesn’t essentialise biological characteristics . It’s a worldview that essentialises humanness, without losing sight of the true and real distinctives that keep us apart and in conflict with each other. So, always, and as far as possible, in this my worldview I prioritise the humanity of the white woman, all of it – her insecurities, her self-justification, her courage, her optimism, her wrestling, her insincerity, her work – while I try to speak to her soul to revive empathy, compassion, understanding, sincerity, and conviction. My stance is hopeful. Similarly, I prioritise the humanity of the black woman, all of it – her insecurities, her pain, her sacrifices, her optimism, her bitterness, her generosity, her work – while I try to speak to her soul to revive empathy, compassion, understanding, sincerity and conviction. My stance is hopeful. In the end, I want them really to see one another, to ascribe unconditional dignity to one another and thereby show unconditional respect to another. In this way we recognise the innate capacity of both parties for right and wrong, and we can resolve the dehumanisation of the black in the past, without risking committing the opposite error (dehumanisation of the white) in our zeal for correction. [And it would be great if they could do it all without me, but what would SA be without a man in charge?]
If I believe what I’m saying, I must be consistent and extend grace to you, so here goes. I recognise that your current job is dominated by probably two things: ratings and the radio clock, so I accept that you might be a little bit more bombastic and cutting on-air than you would be off-air, both because of time and because of the incentive/pressure to make compelling radio. Perhaps with an hour over coffee, and no audience, you would take more time, and listen more generously and graciously to a Lesley. She cannot unwhite herself physically, but she may be persuaded of the flaws in her thinking and sentiments. Time helps, relationship helps (and coffee makes it happen!).
Another key weakness is the obsession with equality (not necessarily a feature of all wokeness, I don’t think). People simply are not equal – and you acknowledged this. No matter what the socially-engineered flavour of the day is, some people will be smarter than others, some will be better at doing stuff than others, some people will be harder-working than others, and (yes) some people will be more beautiful than others. What will be prized will itself change with time (as will the measures by which prizing is done), part of the fluidity of human relations. This reality complicates the world of the identity politician – and we are probably all, to some degree, identity politicians. For at least two reasons: first, whatever moral, practical, or aesthetic attribute I’m tempted to attach to my pet (or problem) demographic is not equally distributed within that demographic (not all black women are “strong”); secondly, that attribute – accurately identified and framed – will be found scattered fairly randomly across all people (there really are white people who are stupid; some are even rich too). It means in the end that our assumptions and expectations of people groups will at best be a useful rough guide (especially where social mixing has not happened or has been prevented by effective social engineering of whatever sort – South Africa is obviously one such place), and at worst meaningless and an obstacle to getting to know people. Many of us like to think that we’re far more independent of our roots and backgrounds than we really are, so we over-emphasise our individuality . The gracious stance tends to go with this, respecting the autonomy of the individual. However, many others of us actually defer deliberately and consciously to our roots and backgrounds, even suppressing at times our own individualistic impulses, to the extent that they occur. The gracious stance appreciates this too, and thus does not unduly dislocate an individual from their social context. But the gracious stance is not helpless, pliable and ineffectual – one can challenge both of these social orientations in terms of their outworkings for individuals and for a given society.
In the end, grace finds a way to recognise people fully; to recognise that people are not only different but unequal, and yet equally worthy of dignity [and respect]; and to acknowledge both the group- / background-generated characteristics and the idiosyncrasies of a person as true (if not necessarily equal) contributors to the personhood.
- Three callers are referred to:
• Lesley re-instigated the discussion that had started on Friday. The article focuses on the exchange between Eusebius and Lesley.
• Lesego commented on Lesley’s call. Like Lesley, Lesego is a female lawyer who started her own law firm.
• Michelle was the final caller and re-posed the question that Lesley had insisted was her focus: what do we do now?
- While I know what kind of a-holes men can be, both because I am a man who knows himself and because I know [of] men who are a-holes, it is at least an invalid logical leap to conclude that all men must be a-holes possessing at least my a-hole range. That most men are a-holes does not nullify those few who are not, at the same time as it does not justify that a-holic majority.
- The stuff may be socially good and useful (e.g. growing food), socially neutral (e.g. wiggling ears), or socially abhorrent and destructive (e.g. killing children)
- Historically, many attributes have been inaccurately identified and framed – e.g. phrenology is a scientifically discredited methodology, and many intelligence tests are culturally and linguistically biased, and therefore produce questionable outcomes.
- Ironically, this tendency is itself a product of particular (typically “Western”) socialisation.