Reflections on Identity

Jeanette Maritz and Paul Prinsloo

Whether to testify or confess, that is the question. The difference between ‘to testify’ or ‘to confess’ is guilt. So, when does a testimony about finding oneself in the nexus of race-gender-culture-being-faculty become a confession of guilt, or remain, somewhat academic and aloof, a testimony? We wish we knew. We want to testify about how our race, gender, and culture impact our being faculty, but our testimony is, inherently, a confession of guilt. But, let us start with a confession, and then you, the reader can decide whether it was a testimony or a confession.

Some confessions come easier than others, while other confessions have to be extorted, and in the process, instead of ‘truth’, a distorted version is offered as appeasement, to stop the torture and/or stay the execution or, in the context of higher education, to get the appointment or tenure, promotion, appease the committee or get the grant. There is ample evidence of how specific metrics and information—such as race, culture, class, performance and gender—play a role in higher education—whether referring to the cult of performativity (Kenny, 2018), the role of gender and/or gender in an appointment, tenure, promotion (Croom, 2017), or research productivity (Mayer & Rathmann, 2018) feelings of being imposter (Akerman, 2020), or just overall, never good enough (Smith & Ulus, 2019).  And how confessions are extorted, and how often we would offer confessions in the annual rituals of performance management, or applications for promotion or tenure.

We offer our testimony/confession of our entanglement in race-gender-culture-being-faculty, knowing well that our testimony/confession may be rejected based on questioning how two privileged, tenured professors can complain when compared to the plight of untenured and ever-more precarious faculty? In offering this testimony/confession we may also be accused of being ‘snowflakes, of “white tears” (Moon, 2016), white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), or that our testimony/confession is an example of “self-indulgent tellings” (Youdell, 2010, p. 92). (Also see Westcott, 2004). We acknowledge the burden of our race-gender-culture-being-faculty on our experiences as tenured faculty may be nothing compared to more precarious and more/differently burdened intersectionalities. We also cannot ignore how our experiences of being white, queer and gay are, despite us sharing a gender, very different from the experiences of, for example, queer and black individuals and groups (Craven, 2011). Our subjectivities and our (dis)comforts cannot be de-contextualised  and disentangled “from all class, cultural, racial and economic dimensions” and come-into-being “as an axis of experience and identity” (Ringrose, 2007, p. 480).

We testify/confess in/through/with our entanglement in our race-gender-culture-being-faculty in the context of post-apartheid South Africa where each of these identity tags—being white, queer and gay, Afrikaans and tenured faculty (and their combinations) has its own set of “meaning, penalties and responsibilities” (Chinua Achebe in an interview with Appiah, 1995, p. 103). In this confession/testimony we reflect on the meaning, penalties and responsibilities flowing from the incommensurability of our identities (Boellstorff, 2005) on a continent where one cannot be African and queer and gay (Epprecht, 2013), from a culture where one could not be a member of the ‘volk’ (“nation”) and queer and gay (Falkof, 2018), and where our whiteness made the penalty for these combinations, worse, and, at the same time, less impactful.

In this confession/testimony, we own up. We testify. We confess.

We are two white queer (Jeanette) and gay (Paul) scholars that arrived in academia by accident or default, rather late (in age) and while having the necessary qualifications to be granted tenure, completely unprepared. For both of us, it was a new beginning, in more than one sense. Our new beginnings overlapped with South Africa’s dramatic move into democracy, a Constitution and Bill of Rights that created space for our gender, but also the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) process, that held our race and culture, and the generations preceding us to account (Falkof, 2018). As the TRC’s processes unfolded, we were confronted with what was done during apartheid in the name of our race, culture and language. Of course we were not innocent bystanders. There were no bystanders. Only victims and perpetrators (Minow, 1998). Vengeance and confession were in the air. Vengeance was replaced by reconciliation. Confession was replaced by a Rainbow nation imaginary and rhetoric (Walker, 2005).

The Rainbow rhetoric left whiteness unscathed and as our gender was protected by the Constitution and Bill of Rights we no longer had to confess our gender to employers, our faith communities and society at large. There was no guilt, no need for (more) confessions, only testimony.

Our relationship started with a testimony, a defiant claim. At an academic writing workshop, Paul introduced himself to Jeanette with a simple “Hi, I am Paul and I am gay”. As we both negotiated to make sense of how much of identities (and personal histories) we could share, we navigated our way into collaborating in various research initiatives, bringing our identities into a public, scholarly domain and focus. While much of our personal histories and identity were not known to our students or colleagues, we ‘came out’, making sense of the nexus of our genderised scholarly identity and we wrote our genderised scholarly identity into being (Maritz & Prinsloo, 2015). We testified.

As we became more established in our careers and identity as researchers, South African higher education was (and continue to be) faced with the slow pace of transformation which did, at that time and in many respects, still, not only referred to the fact that the majority of professors at South African universities were white, but also that the curricula were white, and the imaginary of what African universities should represent, was still saturated with white ontologies and epistemologies. Students started to speak out and for many months, if not years, South African higher education was turned upside down as (mostly black) students and staff vented not only their frustration with the continuing colonial project, but also dreamt of a different world of epistemic and economic justice and freedom (Badat, 2016).

As if history was repeating itself we are now, once again, faced with owning up to what was (and continue to be) done in the name of our language, our race and our culture. We confessed. We testified. We navigate our way and negotiate meaning between not speaking, being alliances to a struggle that is not ours, but a struggle that holds us (and should hold us) accountable and living with many of the unresolved tensions in our own understanding and praxis of racism. It often feels as if we are in a state of perpetual confession, as if there is always a new audience that demands a confession, extorting an acknowledgment of our complicity in the injustices of the present and/or past. We are in a state of perpetual coming out, and this time, coming out as white. And then again, we recognise our own discomfort in admitting our white fragility when we see/say/write it.  In naming our discomfort, we do not plead innocence, sympathy or absolution or confess being consumed by “colonisers’ guilt” (Tuck & Fine, 2007, p.147).   Our acknowledgement of our (dis)comfort is also not “false generosity” (Tuck & Fine, 2007, p.154) but part of a “coming clean, coming out … unforgetting” (Tuck & Fine, 2007, p.155). Recognising that our confessions may “constitute a form of pleasurable relief because what has produced the discomfort of learning about complicity is removed and one is purged of wrongdoing” (Applebaum, 2010, p.19), we are learning to accept white moral responsibility.

While our gender, culture, and whiteness are entangled, it is our whiteness and our becoming and being white that shaped and continue to shape our public performance of being and becoming faculty. Our stories are saturated with affectivities and attachments that we cannot remove from our telling (Youdell & Armstrong 2011, p. 145). We are and remain implicated. This is not a confession; it is a testimony.

Through our scholarly writing we have come to accept that talking as white (and queer/gay) faculty, but also talking white and queer is inherently political and insecure. We came to understand that our performance of our raced-ness and queer/gay-ness does not have moral authority because of the proximity of the performance to the personal and that this performance does not aim to produce “saintly white person[s]” or an act of “self-glorification in which whiteness is equated with moral rectitude” (Butler, 1995, p. 443). We came to acknowledge that by speaking white and queer/gay we may merely have reorganised our white and queer/gay bodies as “sanctioned and sanctified” (Westcott 2004, par. 22). By acknowledging our gender (in contrast to other identity characteristics and constructs) there is a danger that we perpetuate the “epistemology of the closet” (Sedgwick, in de Villiers 2012, 2) and cause certain types of “privileged ‘knowledges’ to circulate” (de Villiers 2012, 2).  Our disclosure is, therefore, both “compulsory and forbidden” (de Villiers 2012, 3). Thus, being white, queer and gay faculty results in an amazing kaleidoscope of guilt, anxiety, privilege, and (dis)comfort that is self-perpetuating.

We are and never have been just one identity—whether white, queer and gay and (late to arrive) faculty. We testify/confess that our narratives are “partial and governed by the discourses of [our] time and place. These recountings cannot, however, ease or resolve the contradictions born in language, the discourses that bind and unleash meanings, and the real made present and absent by [our] efforts” (Britzman, 1995, p. 232). We live our race, class, gender and being-faculty not as separate but jointly (Nichols & Stahl, 2019, p.1256).


As we have come to the end of this testimony/confession (but continuing our fall through the rabbit hole), we are held to account by Westcott (2004) who asks “whose interests are vested in the articulation of a self-reflexive whiteness?” (par.1). To testify about or confess our whiteness, we “acknowledge the cumulative force of historical discourse imprinted on the self as subject. It is to discern that the self has derived benefit, be it material or symbolic, from the possession of the skin legally or scopically sanctioned as white” (par.2). There is, however, a danger in confessional writing “that the conflation of utterance and atonement allows for the cathartic pleasure to be enjoyed in the process of writing” (Westcott, 2004, par.31).


There has never been a time that we can remember not being white, queer and gay. In some way we would like to celebrate the claim that we have always been white, queer and gay from the start. While both of us had to ‘come out’ as queer and gay at some point in our life, our whiteness was always a given. As we grew older, we also learned whiteness—how to be white, what privileges were embedded in living in/with a white skin, and inevitably, that we were superior to other races. Contrary to the colour of our skin, our gender remained hidden, in the closet, banned. We learned the language of being queer, being gay in secret—practicing the vowels, learning the language, and paying the penalties when we were found out/came out. But even paying the price for being queer and gay were ameliorated by our whiteness, our privilege. And then we became faculty. We engaged, theorised, and articulated our gender in and through our scholarly and teaching practices. But it was our whiteness, and the stickiness of our whiteness that eluded (and continue to elude) our scholarly grasp— “… race, like sex, is sticky; it sticks to us, or we become ‘us’ as an effect of how it sticks, even when we think we are beyond it. Beginning to live with that stickiness, to think it, feel it, do it, is about creating a space to deal with the effects of racism” (Ahmed, 2004, par. 49).


We introduced this meditation on race-gender-culture-being-faculty with the question whether to testify or confess. We proposed the difference between confession and testimony is guilt. As we shared our narrative of race-gender-culture-being-faculty, we alternated between confession and testimony, getting lost as we tumbled through the rabbit hole.

“Identifications are never fully and finally made; they are incessantly reconstituted, and, as such, are subject to the volatile logic of iterability. They are that which is constantly marshaled, consolidated, retrenched, contested, and on occasion, compelled to give way” (Butler 1993, p. 105).


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