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Racism's Last Word


“…for manifesting the last extremity of racism,

its end and the narrow-minded self-sufficiency of its intentions,

its eschatology, the death rattle of what is already an interminable agony,

something like the setting in the West of racism but also,

racism as a Western thing.”

˗Jacques Derrida, 1983.

Jacques Derrida’s 1983 text “Racism’s Last Word” is an examination of apartheid and still resonates today, as it continues to be a source of critical analysis of South Africa’s political setting. In this context, it is important to recognize that the history of classification of race has left (and continues to leave) a profound footprint on the constitution of a democratic post-apartheid South Africa. “Racism’s Last Word” was written by Derrida for a catalogue of an international art exhibition that portrayed apartheid; it was destined to become an exhibition offered to the first free and democratic South African government elected by universal suffrage. In his text, Derrida offers a blunt response to this ‘exhibit’ where he aims to contrast different historical structures at the heart of the metaphysics he questions. Throughout this paper, I seek to offer an assessment of Derrida’s intent to deconstruct apartheid as ‘the last word of racism,’ and also consider the relevance of Derrida’s analysis for a student of religion.

From the first lines of the text, Derrida claims that the apartheid cannot be found in the displayed paintings. For him the name “will resonate all by itself,” “the thing it names today will be no longer” (377) as well as the ‘remains’ of readings; literature plays a central role in Derrida’s consistent conflict with the colonialist features of culture. He does not ignore what is exhibited, but emphasizes that apartheid cannot be put together in an exhibition because “nothing is delivered here in the present, only in tomorrow’s rear-view mirror,” (377) as the ultimate racism, the last of many, where the ‘remains’ will be marked in your memory. Within these remains of culture, we see stains of colonialism. For Derrida, the last word of racism is apartheid, which appears as the last of systematic organized philosophical-political structure that institutionalized racism, and cannot get any worse.

When Derrida interprets apartheid in South Africa and what remains from that horrifying practice, he wants us to see the residues of a European colonialism with marks of white supremacy supported by lawmakers who are driven by clear fundamentalism. As we are all aware, Jacques Derrida is one of the major figures associated with postmodern philosophy and best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as ‘deconstruction,’ or how to read outside the classic binary opposition (e.g. black versus white; male-female; good or evil). Using this principle, we can assert that the fundamentalism behind apartheid “involved a misunderstanding of the nature of language”[1] and that the essence of the law of segregation was not simply dualistic. The apartheid had embedded in its laws the “old language of Europe, of the West” (380) that, despite Western states denouncing apartheid from podiums, their dialectics connoted denial and complicity. The old language of the West that colonized peoples included paradoxes, where colonizers such as the UK abolished slavery in its mainland but did not condemn the continuing of this practice in its colonies under the basis of economic advantage or simply put, due to the self-blindness of their privilege. Though the world of Western-international politics did not omit condemnations to the apartheid and the segregation it carried, those criticisms were clearly symbolic as bilateral diplomatic, economic, or arms shipments between countries never ceased and economic trades with South Africa were ‘business as usual.’ Some of the most powerful countries that take part of the General Assembly of the United Nations did not do enough to put pressure and to make things harder for the Pretoria regime or to obligate it to abolish apartheid. Derrida sums this up by stressing the irony and contradiction behind the “Exhibition [Exhibit] as it has been supported by the Colonizer, France” (382) despite the fact that it exposes and commemorates the whole of a Western history that brings state racism into question. Derrida is theorizing about the blindness of Western traditions portrayed in that exhibition as, just like in many of the paintings, it ironically seems to portrait the self-blindness of the West as well. With that said, it is noteworthy to highlight that the Exhibit was carried out by an association called Artists of the World Against Apartheid, made up of independent painters, sculptors, and writers.

While isms fall from labeling, and racism arises from culture and institutions, not all racism comes from state structures. Derrida wants us to keep in mind that injustices such as apartheid are not simply from the past, or specific only to colonialism or extreme forms of antidemocratic nationalism. The residuals of colonialism can still be found in the laws determining residency and citizenship in Western democracies today; regardless of how hospitable and open some states appear to be, we can find remains of apartheid in today’s world. Many powerful states take an international political stand in order to help refugees that are fleeing their lands. However, there is a concealed segregation during the selection of the ‘chosen ones,’ while the state seems to showcase a messianic role that, in the end, appears selective based on its internal economic needs. It seems cynical to highlight a long list of adjectives to describe the cruel actions of segregation behind apartheid when today, in the twenty-first century, refugees seeking asylum have their petitions either denied or approved based on country of origin, race, economic class, or social status. In the case of apartheid, the South African state carried out the institutionalization of segregation backed up with discourses of nature, life, history, religion, and laws that crafted a new culture outside its natural development. Religion, as one keen tool that shapes lawmaking, brought theological arguments that fashioned apartheid, and this aspect is what concerns us as scholars of religion.

The apartheid, one of the most repressive systems in the world conducted by a state that segregated people based on race, conceded laws and regulations deeply entrenched with theological discourses. The dogmatism behind this oppressive law inflicted by a white minority (16 percent) on the mass of black population, claimed that “the political power proceeds from God and therefore remains indivisible” (383). This theo-centric view of the state was one of the many Calvinistic methods of reading scriptures where, just as the old post-European Reform claimed, God requires Christian states as scriptures determine. Derrida provides clear examples where “the theo-political discourse of the apartheid was filled of contradictions” (383); these were none other than strong manifestations of European colonialism. Occasionally, the laws rooted in political theology inspired supporters to carry out innovative forms of antisemitism and racial segregation such as the National Party which excluded Jews until 1953, though economic trades with Israel never ceased. Another example of evident theo-political cynicism is to see South Africa’s “apartheid sustained while at the same time [it was] condemned in the name of Christ” (384); in addition, the Christian Institute deemed apartheid contradictory with the evangelical message but openly supported the ban of black political groups. These are some of the many domestic contradictions found within this systemic discrimination in South Africa called apartheid, upheld and supported by Europe. With these accounts, I must confess that it is difficult for a student of religion to understand canonical rhetoric of a particular circle of faith (and its practices) when their actions obviously refute their discourse. This difficulty is furthered when the theological sermon seems to privilege a hegemonic and repressive system of ruling power over its creed. As researchers of religion outside its faith, we observe the anthropology of religion, we take into account the extent to which religion and social structure mirror one another. However, I firmly stand by French Sociologist Émile Durkheim’s assessments on the subject when he argues that religion is a projection of society’s highest values and goals. With that said, the South African Christian Evangelical view of the state embraced the image of a deity in terms of a hierarchical set where it depicts God not only as a father-protector but also as a monarch whose laws are indisputable. However, this literalistic approach to scriptures not only shows ideological signs of fundamentalism, but also observes society at large in a homogenous way where those in power seem to hold the Truth.

One cannot avoid the idea of Derrida’s recurrent confrontation with the colonialist dimensions of culture, his experience of displacement inside and outside Algeria, and his deconstructive practices. There is a suggested link between the decolonization and deconstruction of his proposals as the final determinant of Derrida as a postcolonial theorist. I find Derrida’s attempt to deconstruct apartheid honed through the inheritance of his own experience as a victim of French-colonized Algeria. I argue that Derrida’s gesture in ‘Racism’s Last Word’ is not an attempt to shift the text of apartheid as specifically South African. His gesture is not, as it were, a characteristic denial of the question of complicity by cosmopolitan intellectuals. He reminds us that injustices are not merely actions of the past attached to colonialism or anti-democratic forms such as extreme nationalism. Derrida constantly points out that the ‘remains’ of colonialism can still be found underneath current laws that affect citizens of post-colonial states such as South Africa. The apartheid, whose title has never been translated, is no longer named but its memories remain. The fact that it has never been translated in other languages implies signals of lexical defense, and suggests that the untranslatability of what is named apartheid constitutes “a violent arrest of the mark within the abstract realm of confined separation” (292). Derrida recaps that the symbolic condemnation of apartheid by Western states appears to ‘exhibit’ a verdict without effect, just to conform the “discourse on human rights” (385). There can be no frame to the recognized means of human rights, and the guarantee of their applications, as long as the remains of apartheid persists in today’s laws. Derrida claims that beyond the theo-political discourse, it is imperative to demand another law and another force outside the totality of this present.

Derrida does not offer a personal wish to whether or not the exhibition should succeed. To him, it is what the Exhibition summarizes (with a single stroke) and that must give us something to think, and to act upon. He underlines that only the future will know; if this enterprise wins its final place in South Africa, it “will keep the memory of what will never have been” (386). As mentioned before, I consider that Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the discourse of colonialism demonstrates deconstruction as already in decolonisation. Perhaps the movement of such a reading would, among other things, trace the lines of the discourse and reality of colonialism still alive today in many political, cultural, or theological forms. In his text on apartheid, Derrida calls ‘the totality of its text’ akin to the call of decolonization as a call to justice, and a request for ethical and humane relations with the oppressed in the dismantling of colonialism. In his notes, decolonization could be seen as a ‘model’ for deconstruction. This proposal seems more than symbolic, and knowing Derrida’s Franco-Maghrebian status, we can read between the lines that decolonization and deconstruction somehow meet his history with the Algerian movement for liberation.

Jacques Derrida and Peggy Kamuf, "Racism's Last Word," Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (Autumn, 1985): 290-299.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1976), p. 148.

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