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Can we only understand racism in terms of postmodern litcrit academic jargon?

20 May 2015

There seems to be a growing tendency among academics to define racism in terms so abstract and obscure that it is difficult to know what they are talking about. The most recent example I have enountered takes the cake: You must be in deep denial Max du Preez – Sunday Independent:

There is a new non-racist discourse that contains implicit racism though its purveyors seem not to recognise it. This is a depoliticised liberal discourse that has enabled some to convince themselves they are not racist whilst they spew racist discourse on social platforms and into their columns at an alarming rate.

So cleverly disguised is it in a seemingly benign veneer that there is often not even an outcry from the public. The modus operandi of this contemporary discursive trend appears to be to downplay the race element in the master narrative and hoodwink all into believing that racism is no longer a problem.

Rather, it is now about race denialism and it is very clear how the discourses of power, social discourses and media discourses seek to mollify, circumvent, disguise and even ignore the issue of racism in contemporary societal narratives.

This is the trick of the new depoliticised liberal double-speak. It allows racists to be racist without any accountability.

Four paragraphs into the article and I still don’t have a clue about what Max du Preez is supposed to be denying. All it is is a lot of very abstract nebulous jargon, which is as easy to grasp as morning mist.

And that’s the point where I stopped reading. I don’t know what Max du Preez said, and I don’t particularly care what he is alleged to be or what he is actually denying or actually affirming. What I do care about is this kind of diseased language that seems to be a mammoth con trick to persuade readers that since they cannot understand it without an English Honours Degree in the right school of literary criticism it must therefore be profound and important, and leave it to the academics who are fluent in this kind of cant to define what racism means for the rest of us.

One of the better comments on this kind of language was made by Stanislav Andreski, himself an academic, aimed at colleagues in his own discipline, Social Science.

The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of ‘sticking one’s neck out’ or ‘putting one’s foot in it’. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly (Andreski, Social sciences as sorcery, p 82).

If we can only talk about racism in such complicated and abstract terms, it disempowers most of the people who have historically been victims of racism in South Africa, since for most of them English is a second or third language.

jargonEven as a native English speaker, I find it almost impossible to understand phrases like “modus operandi of this contemporary discursive trend”, so how easy must it be for those for whom English is a second or third language? In my understanding of English, “discursive” discourse means discourse that is rambling and digressive, wandering around all over the place without ever really coming to the point. I have a vague idea that in postmodern literary criticism it has some kind of specialist meaning, but I’m not sure what it is. But I do think that if people want to use such language, they should be writing in academic journals rather than Sunday newspapers.

If we can’t talk about racism without using such elitist academic language, then we can’t talk about racism at all.

Though apartheid, the insitutionalised legalised form of racism, ended 21 years ago, racism has not gone away, and can be seen all around us, so we do need to talk about it. And we all need to talk about it; the discussiojn should not be confined only to those who can follow the convoluted abstractions that some academics are so fond of.

Here are some useful links:

For an example of writing about racism that is clear and easy to understand, try this article White Racism Matters! | CounterPunch:

…the wave of recent anti-police brutality protests has provoked a backlash in certain quarters, revealing the oozing sludge of bigotry that in more quiescent times simmers just beneath the surface of some segments of “civilized” white society.

Social media is one barometer of this entrenched prejudice. Consider the YouTube video circulating in recent months claiming to show Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown engaged in an assault on another man. One link to this video (since removed) showed millions of viewers, titled “Michael Brown Criminally Assaults and Robs an Older Man,” and begins by describing what follows as “What Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Don’t Want You to See.”

The video shows a stocky young Black man physically assaulting an older man outside an apartment complex. It’s ugly to watch, as the older man can’t do much to defend himself. Too bad the video is from 2012, was filmed in Woodland, Texas, and the real Michael Brown is nowhere to be seen, as the Christian Science Monitor reports. This is only one of many slanders against Michael Brown that has gone viral in social media.

You don’t need a postgrad degree in postmodern litcrit to understand that. OK, it’s not in South Africa and it doesn’t try to give a definition of racism, postmod or otherwise, but it operates on the “you know it when you see it” principle. And social media are everywhere, and don’t tell me no one in South Africa has ever retweeted or shared those things about Michael Brown being guilty, which of course is not just racism, but also prejudice.


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