the rainbow: the contribution of Black Consciousness thinking to identifying
and countering racism in the media.
(extract from submission to Human Rights Commission Inquiry, 1999)
by Guy Berger, Feb 2000
Over the rainbow: the contribution of Black Consciousness thinking to identifying and countering racism in the media.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with racism in the media is in the conceptual understanding of what constitutes racism, what is a racism-free media, and therefore what to do to get there. In these respects, the two studies conducted for the SA Human Rights Commission in 1999 are very weak (Braude, 1999; MMP, 1999)(1). Had they looked, however, to the country's own rich political history of analysing racism, and in particular to the insights generated by the Black Consciousness movement, they could have produced far more valuable and credible reports.
Racism and racialisation:
Before locating the contribution of Black Consciousness to understanding and acting on media transformation, it is important to define terms and set out the big picture. It is also important to make explicit the agenda. In order to identify racism in the media, one needs to have a clear notion of the opposite condition: i.e. when there is not racism, and the route needed to get there.
Racism, as a form of behaviour or representation manifesting racial superiority and inferiority, cannot exist without"racialisation" - the attribution of intrinsic meaning to race. Not all racialisation is negative (it can be positive, as in"black is beautiful"). It is hurtful or unfairly discriminatory racialisation that constitutes racism. But racialisation can be very fertile ground for racism. Racism is the serious social danger, but racialisation is not necessarily without problems.
It can be argued that racialisation is scientifically very shaky. Certainly, it is less credible than the sex-gender social correlation. Even in its biological sense, race is not a very rigorously defined category. More important, to explain human behaviour by reference to biological features is very dubious. In fact, race is usually conflated with a host of social, psychological and historical features. The racialised statements that"blacks have a sense of rhythm" or"whites have a superiority complex" are actually shortcut ways of referring to culture, educational status, wealth, language, privilege or the absence thereof, etc. When South African whites (a category designating people by virture of privileged legal status under apartheid) used to argue about protecting white identity from being swamped, this served, arguably, as a code for maintaining a white lifestyle - i.e. a specially privileged living standard, at the expense of others, amongst other things. There was nothing intrinsically or exclusively white about this, but race served as a subjective identity implying the right to such privilege. Indeed, it also served as an index of a person who - no matter how they identified themselves subjectively - objectively was placed to enjoy the benefits of racist privilege conferred by the power structure and behaviour of society.
In other words, from a scientific point of view, race means nothing intrinsically in terms of behaviour, and race per se cannot explain any social phenomenon. But the categorisation has over time come to be associated with certain socially-given advantages, demographics, pyschographics, etc. In other words, as erroneous as it is as a way of explaining the world, race has been highly socially significant both objectively and subjectively. Along with the classification today are still a range of social connotations, many globally relevant and some specifically related to South African history.
The importance of these observations is that we are alerted to the fact of the possibility of race becoming irrelevant to social life; that we should not eternally ascribe meanings to racialised identity. Of course it will take decades if not centuries to detach race from its historic coupling with political/educational/economic privilege, language, culture, domination and subordination mentalities, etc. Even after the dissolution/transformation of social structures and institutions defined along racial lines, cultural and linguistic advantage will still be associated with white skin colour. True deracialisation is a very long way off, but because race as we know it is a social, rather than a natural construct, it need not forever be with us.
A start to de-linking of race from expected traits, part of eliminating race as a signier of anything significant, is to counter the negative aspects of racialisation: i.e. racism. However, to replace these by positive aspects is not to provide a final solution to the basic problem. Positive racial stereotypes are, like negative ones, just that: stereotypes. Neither form will automatically lead to a system that is truly non-racial, and as long as race continues to be given significant meaning, the danger always exists that this can be used for practices that are highly negative from the point of view of human rights and equitable relations of power.
At the same time, few people at present would deny the importance of what is sometimes called"Affirmative Action", but which is better rendered as "Corrective Action". If people have been disadvantaged, marginalised or held back because they have been black, special efforts are needed for them to advance. If blackness was negatively portrayed in the apartheid-era media, positive role modelling is now called for. Such measures are needed to balance out the historical consequences of white racism. As an interim objective, racial parity is a legitimate goal, and it requires continued recognition of race to be effected. Special privileges for the people disadvantaged by a very long history of racism are essential. Without reaching some kind of parity, it would be impossible to proceed to the ultimate goal of deracialising society entirely. Only when there is racial parity, is there a chance to be colour-blind, because only then will racial difference have a chance of fading into obscurity.
Media transformation in this light can be defined as follows (see Berger, 2000). The key focus is transformation from a racist society, based on unfair discrimination. Transformation of this goes through two moments: transformation first to fair discrimination ? corrective action to change racial imbalances resulting from racism; then transformation to a nonracial society. The end point of transformation then is doing away with racial distinction altogether: deracialisation such that race has no social significance at all. Transformation in media needs to pay regard to economics (and particularly ownership), staffing, content and audiences. The Black Consciousness movement's contribution to the topic is especially valuable on the matters of staffing and content.
Black Consciousness's definition of racism:
The Black Consciousness perspective, especially as developed by Steve Biko before the SA security police killed him in 1977, has a lot to offer in helping understand and work for racial media transformation today.
Racism, for Biko, meant more than "exclusion of one race by another - it always presupposes that the exclusion is for the purposes of subjugation" (1978:98a). Racism was the "discrimination by a group against another for the purposes of subjection or maintaining subjugation. In other words, one cannot be a racist unless he has the power to subjugate." (1987:39).
The significance of this starting point for media transformation today is that racial identity for Biko did not amount to racism if such identity did not entail the power to subjugate. The implication is that racialisation in society and the media does not equate to racism or racist content. While this is a point made in abstract terms by the HRC studies, in practice they pay no attention to the distinction. For them, in effect, all racialisation is racist. The problem with this view is that one then probably has to distinguish between bad racism and good racism, which leads to terminological confusion.
Further, what Biko's definition also raises is whether, for example, hate-speech against whites constitutes racism. Clearly, his concern - as is that of most South Africans given our history - was with anti-black racism. But the definition of racism cannot be used only to refer to the period when white South Africans subjugated their black compatriots. If that were the case, then one would have to say that anti-black statements or actions in South Africa today did not constitute racism, because whites no longer have the power to subjugate.
Instead, we need to focus on what the enduring characteristics are of racism. Racism is racialisation with the purpose (whether practical or not) of subjugation. This is consistent with Biko's definition, and it provides us with a general enough definition to apply to the media today.
Black Consciousness was, of course, primarily concerned with the construction of Black identity. Black, for Biko, was more a state of mind than an expression of origin. To be black racially was a necessary but not sufficient condition to be Black socially. As Barney Pityana later wrote: "the colour of the skin has become a superficial and inconsistent yardstick. Social experience is much more reliable" (1987:14)
Biko put tighter conditions than just social experience on the formation of a Black-Conscious identity when he wrote that all those who were not white, could not be counted as black. ABeing black is not a matter of pigmentation - being black is a reflection of a mental attitude," he argued. (1987:63). He cited as an example Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whom he said operated as an extension of a white system. To be black (with a capital B) was to identify with Black struggle: it was, for Biko, a political definition and a political identity (1978b:120/1).
The implication of this perspective is that racism, in the sense of anti-black behaviour, is not exclusive to whites. It could also be practised by blacks. Negative views of blacks could be propounded by what the Black Consciousness movement dubbed as "non-whites". What we are looking at in media racism today then, is not so much whether representations come from a particular racial journalist but whether they intrinsically have negative connotations.
This is not to ignore the difference between, for instance, a white South African calling a black person a chimpanzee, and the same abuse coming from a black South African. In the first instance, the intention and the effect may well constitute racism: the purpose and the impact contributes to desired racial subjugation. In the second instance, this is not necessarily so (although there may well be a gender subjugation dynamic in the particular instance being referred to). However, while the link between author and utterance has a bearing on racism, we do need to be alert to delinking these, and to the possibility that racist abuse or racist stereotypes can transmigrate away from their original authors. In short, research into anti-black racism in the media should not confine itself to media produced by whites.
Politics and race:
In the Black Consciousness view, Black was not an intrinsic, nor an eternal, identity. It was historically bound, and tied to the project of liberation. Once the struggle was over, said Biko, "the attitude is a simple one: an open society, one man, one vote, no reference to colour." (1978b:42)
To achieve that end, Black Consciousness aimed to conscientise blacks to become Black. For Biko, if whites were racist towards any group not classified as white, then the political response ought to be to unite all these under the counter rubric of black. In part, his concept was driven by a rejection of apartheid's divide and rule strategy whereby distinctions were made between people classified as Africans, Coloureds and Indians, and distinctions drawn between Xhosas, Zulus, Sothos, and so on. The challenge for Biko was to forge an overarching identity that would eclipse these separate identities. This was encapsulated in the Black Consciousness slogan: One Azania, One Nation. For him, South Africa was basically a bipolar situation: the white oppressor nation and the oppressed black nation.
The significance of this perspective in Black Consciousness is that it draws attention to the way that racial identity - racialisation - gains extra force from political purpose. Like the Marxist distinction between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself, Black Consciousness highlighted the power of racial identity for itself. Race is, and can be, not just a matter of cultural or linguistic diversity. It was about power and politics then, and arguably is still about this today. Understanding racism in the media, including the HRC inquiry, needs to appreciate this factor.
The political project:
Biko's primary concern was with what he saw as the psychological effect of racism on blacks. There was both an exclusion of blacks, and a devaluing of blacks: in effect, racism by omission and racism by commission. It rendered blacks as non-whites. Said Biko, the black man (sic) "rejects himself precisely because he attaches the meaning White to all that is good. ... The homes are different, the streets are different, the lighting is different, so you tend to begin to feel that there is something incomplete in your humanity, and that completeness goes with Whiteness. This is carried through to adulthood ..." (1978b:19). More assertively, SASO policy was that "(t)he basic tenet of Black Consciousness is that the Black man (sic) must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic dignity." (1978b:50).
Biko was especially bitter about what he saw as white arrogance - complexes of superiority that "continue to manifest themselves even in the >non-racial' set up of the integrated educational complex. As a result, the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the Whites doing all the talking and Blacks listening." (1978b:xvii).
In short, Black Consciousness drew attention to the negative consequences of black identity when black people were treated as an object, indeed as a second-class object-in-itself. To become a Black subject was the Black Consciousness challenge. Biko was against whiteness being held up as setting a standard of superiority. He challenged the idea that white was the norm, often taken for granted so that it was invisible, and that black was the conspicuous aberration. His aim was "to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the >normal' which is white"(1987:63).(2)
Spreading Black Consciousness:
For Biko, the solution to racism was inclusion of Blacks, and a valuation of Blackness. This required the spread of Black Consciousness into arenas where it was lacking - like the media. For a start, Biko himself wrote for the media - not just his column "Frank Talk" in the SASO newsletter, but also pseudo-nonymous newspaper columns after his banning and befriending of Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods. The latter later wrote that Biko told him: "(S)tart giving some decent coverage to the Black Consciousness movement." (1979:64) Woods said he then agreed to assign a reporter to the beat, and to allow a Black Consciousness proponent to write a column. Biko did not wait for Woods to choose the reporter - he successfully nominated Thenjiwe Mthintso to be hired for the job. He also put forward his associate Mapetla Mohapi as the columnist (Mohapi later died in detention, allegedly by hanging himself with his jeans). (1979:106). Ultimately, Black Consciousness as a social movement saw the formation of the Union of Black Journalists in 1973, which played a powerful ideological role in promoting Blackness until its banning along with the BC-influenced papers World and Weekend World in October 1997. Its successor, the Writers Association of South Africa (Wasa) and later the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa) and more recently the Forum of Black Journalists have tried to keep the legacy alive.
What this history reveals is that Biko not only highlighted the contribution that blacks could and should make to the media. For him, black was not skin-colour alone - but also a frame of mind that celebrated black culture, history and experience. There is still lots of room for this perspective in South African journalism.
A dual approach to black and white:
According to Woods, Black Consciousness was "a positive black self confidence thing ... it isn't a negative, hating thing." (1979:63). Biko himself asked: "Can we in fact crack this cocoon ... to get whites away from the concept of racism, away from the concept of monopolising the privilege and the wealth of the country?" He replied "we can only generate a response from White society when we as Blacks speak with a definite voice and say what we want" (1978b:57). He added: "I don't believe that Whites will be deaf all the time (1978b:59).
Using Hegelian terminology, he wrote: "... since the thesis is a White racism, there can only be one valid antithesis, i.e. a solid black unity, to counterbalance the scale" (1987:65). Blackness had to be developed and projected as a positive, assertive mass consciousness. The message had to reach both black and white South Africans. Applied to the media in particular, transformation for Steve Biko was a two-pronged matter: encouraging conscientised blacks to become journalists, and changing the worldview of whites already working there.
Biko challenged whites to decide if they wanted to be part of the solution or "part of the total White power structure" (1978b:41). He noted that whites who "have been exposed to SASO thinking, to BPC thinking, and there are quite a few reporters and so on who go to our meetings" were awakened to the fact that time for conciliation was running out (1978b:171). He argued that "the average Afrikaner man in the Free State who farms does not bother to read the Rand Daily Mail and all those funny papers [that] report on Blacks - he is not aware of where the thinking is. ... (H)e is aware of what [SABC's propaganda programme] Current Affairs says ... So the whole prospect of change has not presented itself to him in an urgent manner... Ordinary people who get exposed to Black thinking begin to be aware of the need for change." (1978b:171/2)
In 1972, the SASO council meeting expelled white reporters from The Star and the Rand Daily Mail for using the terminology "non-white" in their reports, an action which precipitated the latter paper to begin to use the term "black", a practice that gradually spread to other papers. (Howarth, 1999:184)
However, much as Biko criticised blacks who thought like Whites, he did not believe Whites could think like Blacks. He was scathing about Whites who said they empathised with oppression, and claimed that they had black souls wrapped in white skins. (1987:34). Social experience meant that while not every black was Black, no white could become Black. This did not mean, however, that whites were predestined to be racist in their identity. Biko foresaw that Black Consciousness could liberate not only the oppressed but also the oppressor (1978a: 215). According to Woods, "even for many of us who described ourselves as liberal, a long political road had to be travelled away from racism." (1979:40) It was the encounter with Black subjectivity that shifted whites away from the racist features of white identity.
Applied to the media, Biko would not have seen transformation as being possible by only changing the mindsets of racist white journalists. That was important, but it did not, and could not, go far enough. Nor was transformation going to be achieved by this action coupled with blacks joining the media. The latter was a necessary condition, but not sufficient. The black journalists needed to be Black conscious.
Thus, Biko wanted Black journalists to be committed to black liberation. But he also wanted them to counter negative images of blackness. In fact, Biko tended to slip into African references when he spelt this out, pointing to things like "the one-ness of community" and "the ease with which Africans communicate with each other" (1987:44). He referred to human-centred values, and community orientation rather than individualism. "In the long run, the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in the field of human relationships ... the greatest gift is still to come from Africa - giving the world a more human face." (1987:61). He asserted: "We must seek to restore to the black man the great importance we used to give to human relations, the high regard for people and their property and for life in general; to reduce the triumph of technology over man and the materialistic element that is slowing creeping into our society." (1978a:96).
These Africanist remarks do not detract from Biko's insistence that all racially oppressed South Africans, i.e. including those classified and acculturated as Indian and Coloured, could count as Black. He did not ignore the cultural contribution of Indians and Coloureds, even if he did not go into as much detail as in the case of Africans.
Multiracialism and fusion:
Following his Hegelian model, Biko argued that "(i)f South Africa is to be a land where black and white live together in harmony without fear of group exploitation, it is only when these two opposites have interplayed and produced a viable synthesis of ideas and a modus vivendi" (1978a:51). But he went further than envisioning harmony between two separate and parallel race groups living without racism. He saw identities on each side as existing within a joint culture.
Thus, Biko ultimately saw a fusion in South Africa: "you have got to synthesize. This is all part of the values, the beliefs, the policies that have got to be synthesized in the bargaining process between Black and White in this country" (1978b:52). He argued that "... at the present moment we have a culture here which is a European culture. The Black contribution will change our joint culture to accommodate the African experience. Sure, it will have European experience, because we have Whites here who are descended from Europe. We don't dispute that. But for God's sake, it must have African experience as well." (1978b:56). History meant that "eventually any White society in this country is going to have to accommodate Black thinking" (1978b:58). Herein are the seeds of seeing South Africa not as racist-free multi-racial society, but as an entirely non-racial one.
Weaknesses in Black Consciousness:
With the reactive focus on racial categories, Biko adopted the same basic racialisation of apartheid. Ironically, apartheid ideologues in some ways had the last word after the 1980s when Black Consciousness finally failed to transcend the different identities of African, Coloured and Indian, and the word black became restricted only to African. Today, much discourse focuses on the black (meaning African) and white dichotomy, giving short shrift to the situation of Coloured and Indian. Black Consciousness is of little help today in understanding forms of racism between African, Coloured and Indian, and correspondingly, in helping us understand media's role in this.
Other lacunae in the Black Consciousness perspective were gender and class identities. By privileging the structure of racial oppression over the economic system, Black Consciousness casts little light on how media transformation relates to economics. If the Eastern Province Herald caters to a white community market, the Post Natal an Indian one, and the Sowetan to an African one, to what extent do these racialised "niche" markets imply racism in the focus? Does the omission of content about other South Africans in each of these publications amount to a from of negative racialisation? How do language?based media, especially broadcasting, service different audiences and at the same time avoid falling into the trap of reinforcing racial blinkers and exclusive narrow racial or linguistic identities? In short, when does racialisation blend into racism? The same questions can be asked about gender content and genderised audiences.
Perhaps the answer that Black Consciousness suggests here is that of rainbow media, where colours retain, proudly, their core hue, but they also blur at the edges into the bigger spectrum. That is certainly an advance on where we come from, where the various shades of black were either invisible colours or dirty ones, and at the very least kept separated.
But we would betray the historic nature of Black Consciousness if we were to see that as the end point to be reached. A fusion of racial colours at one level, and at another level a proliferation - on grounds not attached to skin-colour, class or gender - is surely the pot of gold over the rainbow.
By focussing on race, Black Consciousness helps us go beyond race. By dealing in questions of identity, the perspective lends itself directly to the role of the media. Steve Biko himself acted as a journalist. He inspired many black South Africans to become journalists, and his thinking impacted strongly on important writers at the time like Charles Nqakula, Thenjiwe Mthintso, Mapetla Mohapi, Percy Qoboza, Mathata Tsedu and others. In addition to promoting - and conscientizing - black journalists, Biko also broadened the minds of white editors like Donald Woods, educating them beyond the blinkers of white racism and government censorship. This basic model, evident in his thought and his practice, is a legacy that can still help with media transformation today.
(1) For a detailed critique of the studies, see Berger (2000).
(2) As cited in Berger (1997: 5), a revealing phone-in programme on Johannesburg talk-radio station, 702, showed well what Biko was getting at. In the programme, a white caller told how she worked in a big department store, and had a child brought to her, who had become separated from his mother. She had announced over the loudspeakers that a child had been found, could the parents come and fetch him? She received no response. After a few repeats without success, she announced that "a black child" has been found. The call brought the mother directly. Was this wrong, she asked? Was it racist to have mentioned race? The white radio journalist hosting the show replied that there was a difference between distinguishing a person on the basis of colour and discriminating against a person on these grounds.
This response sounded reasonable enough to the caller, and
to several subsequent white callers as well. That is, until a black person
called the show and commented that it was noteworthy that the announcer,
and the lost child's mother, would presumably not normally think it significant
to mention race when a white child was found. In South Africa, a child by
definition is a priori white, a black child is black. In other words, white
is the norm: in fact it is a transparent or invisible colour - not even
a colour. To be black is where the difference comes in. This in a country
where black is the vast majority. The sad part about this story is the inability
of the white radio host to comprehend the point at all.
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