Realism and Racism: A Review Essay on 'After the Ball Is Over'

By Durrheim, Kevin | Critical Arts, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Realism and Racism: A Review Essay on 'After the Ball Is Over'


Durrheim, Kevin, Critical Arts


This is a challenging and timely article in which Shepperson takes issue with the idealism that is so pervasive in scholarly thinking about race and racism. The discourse about race that emerged from the SAHRC investigation into racism in the SA media was permeated with this idealism: the idea that "'race" is something between people's ears and nothing real at all'. The main impetus for this idealism is no longer psychological notions of prejudiced attitudes which deemed stereotypes as irrational and inaccurate beliefs. Today, in the climate of social constructionism, commentators move too quickly from arguments about the tenuous genetic basis for race, to an outright rejection of the reality of race. The reality of race was elided in both the commission's focus on narratives of race, and in commentators' views that race is a social construct--an illusion--and that belief in the existence of races amounts to little more than false consciousness.

Underlying his distinction between race thinking and racism, Shepperson seeks some factor outside of expressions about race--'some independent factuality in history'--that can ground the expression as racist. The independent factuality he proposes is provocatively derivative of genetics: race is grounded in a cross-generational continuity (reproduction) of qualitative marks or iconic features on/of the human body (e.g. skin colour, hair quality, facial features). Although it has this material grounding, racism is fundamentally social: 'the term "race" can only arise under the condition that existing adult generations choose to have offspring that do not discontinue social bodily iconic mark ...' (my emphasis). This is a sophisticated multidimensional view of race as a social and emergent material reality. Race--and its preservation, racism--is founded on social practices of mate selection. It depends on the emergence of a set of norms which dictate that 'fertile individuals do not ... explore their sexuality with members of excluded aggregations'.

In Shepperson's theory, race does have a reality independent of thought. It is grounded in the material reality of bodies, which are the product of sexual reproduction. Since ideas about race are the grounds for mate selection we have, in essence, a dialectic theory of racism as the articulation of representations of race, social practices and material forms. In this light, it is possible that Shepperson has overemphasised the independence of reality from thought. I also believe that his language of cause--that an analysis of racism involves establishing its underlying causes--is misplaced. Representations of race and the material conditions of their reproduction are not independent realities locked in causal relations. This is the wrong ontology. Rather, there are dialectical relations of co-constitutionality: each provides the conditions of possibility and constraint for the other (see Durrheim & Dixon 2005).

Is it really the case, though, that racism is premised on norms and taboos of mate selection? There are many seemingly contradictory cases. On the one hand, racism can flourish in a context where iconic differences are not clear. For example, during the nineteenth century the Irish were considered a race distinct from the English--they were subject to crude racism and represented as white chimpanzees, the missing link in a Darwinian scheme. …

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Realism and Racism: A Review Essay on 'After the Ball Is Over'
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