Issues of race infuse South African society. Race remains both an informant and determinant of culture, history, politics, spatial patterns and social relations in our country. Thus it is difficult to avoid the use of racial classifications when talking or writing about South Africa; in fact, it is often very useful. I have often justified the use of the terms ‘white’, ‘black’, and ‘coloured’, as have many other academics, because they maintain relevance even today. This view draws authority from the way that members of these socially constructed groups will self-identify with one of these terms. But does the use of these terms perpetuate racial discourse and divisions in South Africa?
I would argue that it is still necessary, in some cases to refer to these classifications, but one has to be careful, and aware, of how you use them. For example, I think it is pragmatic to talk of ‘black townships’, the ‘coloured vote’ or ‘white guilt’. Speaking of the ‘formerly-black townships’, the ‘so-called coloured vote’ or ‘aparthied-oppressors-and-their-apathetic-beneficiaries guilt’ gets a bit clumsy – others may disagree. However, there are some obvious, as well as subtle, ways in which these terms betray some underlying prejudices in South African society. For example, I don’t believe it is necessary to say “I have this black colleague, Steve, who can help you”. To me the insertion of the word ‘black’ indicates, firstly, that the speaker believes it is an anomaly that his/her colleague is black, and secondly, that if the persons name does not immediately allude to their race then it is necessary to clarify this. Similarly if someone says “There was this white cop waiting at my car”, it would, in my opinion, betray some prejudices (or favouritism) toward white policemen because of their race.
I don’t think I can generalise my observations to be able to say when it is, or is not, ok to make racial references. All I am trying to say is that I think one needs to be aware of how often we, and others, still use racialised language, even when it is not necessary. It is something to watch out for – and, if you feel strongly enough about it, to correct. I think as South African society starts to normalise we will hear a lot less of this language, and only feel the need to use it in reference to past injustices. To be sure, racial language will never disappear from speech and print in South Africa, but one needs to think about whether its use is pragmatic and necessary, or whether one is simply perpetuating a social evil out of habit.