Merit equals white

Hugo Can­ham

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Im­pres­sively, she stands her ground in front of the large in­tim­i­dat­ing se­lec­tion com­mit­tee. Her pre­sen­ta­tion is well con­sid­ered and she re­sponds to ques­tions calmly as though dig­ging from a deep reser­voir of con­fi­dence. Her re­search ex­cites me and I can imag­ine her in front of a class of grad­u­ate stu­dents.

We are in­ter­view­ing her for a pro­fes­sor­ship. Should she be ap­pointed, she will be only the sec­ond fe­male black African full pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity.

At­tuned as I am to th­ese sig­nals, I know she will be deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the po­si­tion. The body lan­guage of my fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers com­mu­ni­cates their un­easi­ness. They fid­get and open their iPads. A note is sur­rep­ti­tiously ex­changed be­tween two friends who look alike. It could be about the weather, but I sus­pect it is a pre­dis­cus­sion cau­cus to agree on why she is not good enough for the post.

For a mo­ment, I imag­ine I am one of the nor­ma­tive groups of this cam­pus and lis­ten to the black fe­male speaker as though I was a white man. The first thing that stands out is her ac­cent. From my as­sumed white male po­si­tion, the ac­cent sounds “wrong”. It is jar­ring in this room of high cul­ture – the epit­ome of the “ivory tower”.

It is ru­ral, “un­pol­ished” and un­mis­tak­ably “black”. Such an ac­cent is usu­ally a host for bucket-loads of stereo­types.

In this con­text, they all point to one thing: her lack of com­pe­tence and a ques­tion­ing of her merit value.

The fact that she is a pro­fes­sor at another univer­sity is im­ma­te­rial be­cause that univer­sity is a for­mer “bush univer­sity” that does not have the au­to­matic stamp of merit.

See­ing the mount­ing dis­in­ter­est from the com­mit­tee, the pro­fes­sor lifts her voice to re-en­gage the au­di­ence – her jury.

Keep­ing my mask as a white male, my back im­me­di­ately arches in ir­ri­ta­tion. I be­gin to see her as ag­gres­sive, angry and en­ti­tled. I lower the mask and my black face crumbles be­cause I know she has lost the fight be­fore the ac­tual in­ter­view.

You see, merit is a sta­ble, un­chang­ing, pre­formed mass. It looks and sounds a par­tic­u­lar way. It is usu­ally white, but it can also be black. The catch is that it is a par­tic­u­lar kind of black – a black more “palat­able” to white norms and stan­dards. The sub­text is that if you wish to work at the “top” (read: for­mally ex­clu­sively white univer­si­ties), you must not speak too loudly, not take of­fence when stu­dents tell your col­leagues they can’t un­der­stand you and dare not ask why you were over­looked for a pro­mo­tion.

Oh, and some col­leagues might re­peat­edly mis­take you for the clerk. But hush, the stamp of merit is not re­served for you.

In re­spond­ing to an ar­ti­cle on staff trans­for­ma­tion at UCT by its vice-chan­cel­lor, a group of self-de­scribed black aca­demics had this to say: “The ar­ti­cle sug­gests that ‘qual­ity’ is com­pro­mised at other univer­si­ties that have more black pro­fes­sors be­cause at UCT ‘we are not low­er­ing the stan­dard for ap­point­ment or pro­mo­tion as pro­fes­sor for peo­ple of colour’. This is a con­tentious state­ment at best as there are no data sup­port­ing this view.

“Fur­ther­more, rais­ing the is­sue of stan­dards when re­fer­ring to black aca­demics is a dis­course that serves to un­der­mine the com­pe­ten­cies of black schol­ars and one that works to main­tain the false no­tion that white schol­ar­ship and white schol­ars are su­pe­rior.”

The ques­tion of stan­dards haunts black aca­demics, pro­fes­sion­als and ath­letes wher­ever they go.

The stan­dard dis­claimer that rugby play­ers of colour have to give is: “I am here on merit.” You never hear this from a 20-yearold white rugby player when he makes his de­but for the na­tional team. It is as­sumed he is born with the stamp of merit.

We do not ap­point the black fe­male pro­fes­sor. We ap­point a white male pro­fes­sor. He has the stamp of merit.

I try to put up a fight by pre-empt­ing the dis­cus­sion. I take the op­por­tu­nity to be the first per­son to speak and tell the com­mit­tee she would be an ex­cel­lent ap­point­ment for the univer­sity. She meets all the cri­te­ria and her pub­li­ca­tions speak for them­selves.

Some of my com­mit­tee mem­bers sym­pa­thise, but the mes­sage is con­sis­tent: she will not fit in at the depart­ment, she will alien­ate stu­dents, she should publish in more in­ter­na­tional jour­nals, etc.

The com­mit­tee agrees. We re­main with one fe­male black African full pro­fes­sor. The sta­tus quo will re­main un­til we rad­i­cally re­con­fig­ure the mean­ing of merit to in­clude all of us in our rich di­ver­sity.

This is a col­lec­tion of anec­dotes from a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences

Can­ham is an aca­demic

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