Understanding the politics of Representation in Practice: Two Reflection on Positionality in Movements for change

By Asanda Ngoasheng and Kirsten Pearson

We are the co-directors of the Centre for Dialogue and Community based in South Africa. We came together as social justice activists, sharing the belief that dialogue and community building are part of what is needed to help solve some of the world’s most pressing socio-economic issues. We are middle class women of different race groups in South Africa, who are constantly challenged by our different identities and the complexities they represent. As women, we are disempowered by our status in a patriarchal society, but being middle class means we are empowered by our economic status. Our embodiment of different race groups also complicates the picture as we have to be aware of being in spaces where we hold privilege, and in ones in which we don’t.

Our work constantly forces us to engage with the ways in which intersectionality plays out at different times in different places. We constantly have to think about when to speak up and when to keep quiet, allowing other voices in the room to be heard. When working in academic and government sectors, we respectively have attempted to engage with the concept of missing voices, and build platforms for narratives absent from these sites to be heard; however, we encountered many obstacles. We both left our spaces of comfort – as a full time academic at an institution of higher education and as a deputy director in government – because we realised that the work we were doing at these institutions was limited by structural inequalities which left some vital voices out. After leaving, we had to challenge ourselves to build new methods of engaging community and think of ways to bring excluded voices into our work. 

For more, see: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/understanding-the-politics-of-representation-in-practice-two-reflections-on-positionality-in-movements-for-change/

Toni Morrison taught us to be unapologetic about racism

The death of Toni Morrison, 88, American editor, novelist and professor, is a huge loss to many around the world. Morrison, who won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was especially influential on black authors, academics and activists working on race issues today.

Morrison wrote her debut novel at almost 40-years-old after working for years as a book editor. She started writing because she was tired of the lack of representation of black people as full complex human beings who love, laugh and cry in most of the novels she was editing.

I was in my teens when I read her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The book told the story of a young black girl who was teased about her dark skin, hair and eyes. She then decides that what will solve her problems is if she was to get light skin and blue eyes. It is a desire she starts praying for consistently.

The novel made me think deeply about internalised racism and how the black community copes with the trauma that racism visits upon us daily. Through reading The Bluest Eye and her other work, and listening to her interviews, I was able to craft my voice on race issues better and be unafraid and unapologetic about my stance because Morrison constantly emphasised the importance of being unapologetic when dealing with racism.

In an interview, when asked when she would write books with central white characters, she admonished the interviewer for her racist question that centred whiteness and then declared that she writes for black people and does not need to white gaze for her work to be validated.

Morrison also constantly reminded us that the real work of racism is to keep black people busy proving they have a history, a language, a heritage. This reminder was important for me, when as part of the “Decolonising the Curriculum” movement, I would constantly be challenged with the question how it’s possible to decolonise Mathematics and Science which was claimed as Western subjects of enquiry. This despite the existence of the pyramids and other entities on the continent that proved the ancient mathematical prowess of Africans long before imperialism, colonialism and other systems of oppression.

With Morrison’s death, I am comforted by the fact that while we won’t hear any new thoughts from her, we are left with a large canon of work and many interviews that can inspire us to think differently about race and racism.

In her own words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

– Ngoasheng is a political analyst and research associate at the Centre for Rights and Justice at the University of Sussex.