Closet racism
By fstimes On 4 Nov, 2013 At 02:48 PM | Categorized As Comment | With 0 Comments
dr mwaniki

Dr Munene Mwaniki is a senior lecturer/researcher at the University of the Free State

Munene Mwaniki

SOME pieces of academic thought and writing are simply timeless.

It is for this reason that such pieces come to occupy that rarefied pedestal of intellectual endeavour of being a magnum opus in a particular discipline or discourse.

Just sample the following: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

“A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”

And it does not stop there; if anything, this is only the beginning.

It goes on: “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.

“For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.

“It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many.

“Therefore, in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”

And then the kernel of moral philosophising that should ensure that this giant finds his legitimate place in the high altar of contemporary thinkers: “The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.

“Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.”

There you have it: “truth and justice are uncompromising”.

I know my readers are wondering whose words these are.

These profound words are drawn from American philosopher John Rawls’ magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, which is variously recognised as a towering contribution in moral and political philosophy in the 20th century.

The preceding words by Rawls came to my mind while reading the Sunday Times of October 27 2013 in which – under opinion and analysis – there was a three-part contribution on “white privilege” by Gillian Schutte, Steve Hofmeyr and Eusebius Mckaiser.

Of the three contributions, I rate Schutte’s to be the most original and incisive and I would wish to extend her discourse after citing a few of her ideas.

In extending her ideas – encouraged by Rawls’ quintessential insight that “truth and justice are uncompromising” – I argue that there is a latter-day mutant of racism that for lack of a better term I refer to as “closet racism”.

Schutte pointedly reminds us that “we, the so-called rainbow nation, remain blinded by whiteness” which according to her accentuates an arrangement where there are “double standards of a white-privileged dominant discourse at work”.

I wouldn’t agree more.

However, it is her next statement that caught my attention and had me thinking about “closet racism”.

She chides the white privileged class by pointing out that “the white privileged class is so sure of its moral high ground and superiority that it will continue to deride a government under which they have got richer in the past two decades, as statistics have shown”.

So, the question that arises is: why would a class that has summarily prospered under the democratic administration still nurture and actualise the urge to “deride” the very government that has literary delivered the goods to it?

From where I stand, this kind of posture can only be attributed to closet racism which is a brand of racism in our kind of space with an insidious sense of entitlement in determining and validating discourses as well as appropriating its victims’ feelings and values and, when caught at it, it has the temerity to behave surprised, or even hurt and/or offended.

The problem with closet racism is that apart from operating in and from the nooks and crannies of organisations and society where it has retreated to, it also seeks to arrogate on itself the right and the higher ground in determining what its victims feel and how they react to its vile machinations.

Where outright racism is about exploitation and brutality, closet racism is about privilege and fear.

My readers will agree with me that in our kind of situation privilege and fear make for a deadly combination especially if we ever hope to address issues of equity and transformation that remain a mirage in some sectors of our society and economy – especially in the knowledge sectors.

A sure and tested way of dealing with closet racism is truth.

Closet racism should be pursued in the institutional and societal nooks and crannies from where it is operating and confronted with the truth about the legitimate expectations of many of their country after two decades of democracy.

Such confrontations must, however, be girded in justice in the sense that there can never be a holistic understanding or justification of current privilege without redress of the ills of the past that essentially created the privilege enjoyed by so few today.

Only then can we be able to look up to Rawls and bow in supplication as we say: yes, truth and justice are uncompromising.


  • Dr Munene Mwaniki is a senior lecturer/researcher at the University of the Free State. You can follow him on Twitter @munenemwaniki.

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