In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Georg Hegel suggests that we only come to know ourselves through the way that we believe others perceive us, and that the motivation behind many of our actions is the attempt to assert an individuality that frees us from the objectifying views others hold of us. In other words, our own sense of human worth is often determined by the extent to which we believe that others recognise that worth. We define ourselves through others.
Hegel puts it this way: “On approaching the other it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as another being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for this primitive consciousness does not regard the other as essentially real but sees its own self in the other.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 111)
Hegel uses the term “sublate” to describe a state that simultaneously preserves what was but also fundamentally alters it. When we come into contact with another, it may not change who we are, but it shifts how we perceive ourselves. Suddenly we become aware of how we appear through others’ eyes. And we are changed by that knowledge. The nature of the change depends on where we perceive the power in the interaction to lie. We reflect on what it is about us that makes us worthy or not to the other, and we attempt to present those things in ways that we believe will compel the other to recognise their worth.
Crucially, both ‘master’ and ‘slave’ roles (to use Hegel’s terms) are essentially narcissistic. Both do not really see the other, but focus primarily on how they are perceived by the other they perceive. But there can be no true equality while these perceptions of power dictate how we see and present ourselves.
Because we only know ourselves through others, it is not enough that we merely come to consciousness of our own worth. We desire that the validation of our worth move beyond a subjective self-certainty to a more universal truth. And so as long as we feel that others have not recognised us, we will fight to impose the reality of our selfhood on them. We have been seeing this play itself out very violently in recent times – from the massacres in Europe, to the “Black Lives Matter” campaign in the States. It is at the heart of so many of the racial tensions in South Africa and, indeed, all over the world. Throughout history, this phenomenon has shaped the collective psychologies of entire races and cultures.
While each of these situations is unique and complex, and one should be careful to resist the urge to simplify and conflate them, there is nevertheless a lot that they have in common, which could help us to understand them, the better to negotiate our way through them.
I won’t presume to speak on everybody else’s behalf. I will not offer a black perspective here. Not because I am overlooking it, nor because I cannot theorise what such a perspective might look like, but because I think somebody black needs to do so. I do not offer an “Other” perspective not because I do not value it, but because I value it enough not to presume to speak for it. I speak to white “Christian” people, because that is where – by virtue of common experience – I have the most authority to speak. But I would appreciate it, and I think it would be very valuable, if somebody black or gay or Muslim, for example – would offer some comments on how this might apply in those contexts.
First, as white people, we need to understand that these consciousness movements are both about us and not about us.
It is about us in the sense that the violence we see in the assertion of others’ selfhood exists because our societies (and I mean white, Western societies) do not make sufficient effort to recognise the legitimacy of other selves. The fact that protestors resort to violence at all is indicative of the fact that existing social constructs – whether cultural, linguistic, or economic – refuse to grant legitimacy to the voice of the other. Those voices demand to be heard and are fighting for a space to do so. If we want to end the violence, we need to start to institute social reforms that will address that problem. And we need to accept that whether or not we like it, we are part of a culture of white oppression that has shaped the lives and self-perceptions of millions. And we are the beneficiaries.
We also need to understand that the solution is not simply to make everybody more white. Already the world is set up in such a way that black people are encouraged to become more ‘white’ – speak European languages, dress in Western styles and adopt Western cultural practices – in order to be acceptable. We need to accept that black worth is often determined by its proximity to whiteness, and that as long as this is seen as necessary, there can be no peace.
That is why I say that it is also not about us. If, as Hegel suggests, we use the other as a mirror by which we come to know ourselves, then we need to stop interpreting initiatives like Black Economic Empowerment as an attack on whiteness and see them instead as an attempt to affirm blackness (or Muslimness or gayness – you get my point) within a system that does not recognise states of being other than whiteness. We need to stop being defensive by responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All lives Matter”. Of course all lives matter, but within the present social structures, white lives matter more. This is not about whiteness. Not everything ought to find its reference point in whiteness.
The question you need to be asking yourself, as a white person in such times, is simple: How do I listen? What do I do (or not do) to acknowledge and listen to others’ assertions of self-consciousness? It’s a more difficult question to answer than it initially appears. Merely saying that others have value is not enough when the circumstantial realities speak to the contrary. It is not enough that legislatively black people in South Africa are equal to white people, or that gay people have the same rights as straight people. It is not enough when the lived reality is different. You cannot legislate people into a sense of self-worth. You need to be a part of constructing a reality that fosters it. You need to stop denying that the system as it is paints whiteness as the benchmark. That is not a denial of your worth. It is an acceptance that you are not all that matters.
Now Hegel is tough to understand at the best of times, and I am certainly no expert. Not that I think that matters. Because whether or not I have ‘properly’ grasped what he was trying to say, his thoughts have had an important influence in shaping how I think about race, and about prejudice in general. The most important of those insights is this: because self-consciousness is so deeply rooted in the other, we can never achieve it alone. Black consciousness can never be fully realised unless white people play their part. Gay pride is a dream unless heterosexual society plays its part in recognising it. And until we can transcend our narcissism, and recognise that we can only attain full humanity through a process of reciprocal recognition, we will continue to be trapped in a discourse about self-consciousness and self-worth that ultimately diminishes everybody.