In­sti­tu­tional racism is more ob­vi­ous to those on the re­ceiv­ing end than it is to those re­spon­si­ble for per­pet­u­at­ing it

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - Max Price voices@city­press.co.za

In March 2015, an in­di­vid­ual’s out­raged protest against the dis­play of the statue of Ce­cil John Rhodes at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town (UCT) led to a tsunami of an­gry protests and ex­pres­sions of pain, mostly from black stu­dents and some staff, though white stu­dents and staff were read­ily per­suaded of the of­fen­sive­ness of Rhodes’ pre­sid­ing po­si­tion on cam­pus.

The ex­plo­sive re­sponse sig­nalled that the #RhodesMust­Fall move­ment was not just about the statue. It was tes­ti­mony to a grow­ing sense of anger and alien­ation with “the sys­tem” among many stu­dents – mostly black – who live with a sense of be­ing out­siders who are just tol­er­ated at UCT.

How did this hap­pen on a cam­pus that for decades has been as­pir­ing to non­ra­cial­ism or, at the very least, to racial eq­uity and re­dress? Was it down to the racism of white lec­tur­ers and stu­dents? I don’t think so – although, no doubt, some of that ex­ists.

The real, and much deeper, prob­lem is how a mul­ti­plic­ity of in­sti­tu­tional prac­tices, which are not mo­ti­vated by mal­ice or prej­u­dice, are felt by black peo­ple at UCT. A host of ev­ery­day prac­tices on cam­pus are ex­pe­ri­enced by many black stu­dents and staff as dis­crim­i­na­tory and seen to per­pet­u­ate racial stereo­types of su­pe­ri­or­ity and in­fe­ri­or­ity. These ac­tions seem to in­di­cate an in­dif­fer­ence to the val­ues and be­liefs that black com­mu­ni­ties hold dear. They say: the onus is on you – the new­comer – to change and adapt to the en­trenched cul­ture of our in­sti­tu­tion.

In two words, the prob­lem is in­sti­tu­tional racism. Amer­i­can ac­tivist Kwame Toure – per­haps more widely re­mem­bered as Stokely Carmichael – de­scribed in­sti­tu­tional racism as more sub­tle than in­di­vid­ual racism and much more ob­vi­ous to those on the re­ceiv­ing end than it is to those re­spon­si­ble for per­pet­u­at­ing it. It seems to me that UCT has de­vel­oped over two cen­turies a cul­ture that re­flects the val­ues, aes­thet­ics and norms of white English-speak­ing South Africa. This cul­ture is so en­trenched and nor­malised that those of us who are part of it see it as the nat­u­ral way of the world.

Over the past two years, it has be­come clearer to me how this cul­tural blind­ness on the part of the en­trenched group can be hurt­ful to oth­ers. I am in­debted to the many stu­dents who have en­abled me to glimpse the dy­nam­ics of in­sti­tu­tional racism.

One such glimpse re­lates to the uni­ver­sity’s art col­lec­tion, which in­cludes a body of pho­to­graphic work in­tended to re­veal the cal­lous­ness of apartheid. Black peo­ple are shown in the waste­lands of the Ban­tus­tans, in des­o­late squat­ter camps, and in the de­hu­man­is­ing grip of the mi­grant labour sys­tem. Pho­to­graphs of white peo­ple, in the same col­lec­tion, por­tray them as pow­er­ful, priv­i­leged over­lords.

Be­yond any doubt, the pho­tog­ra­phers in­volved – Peter Magubane, David Gold­blatt, Paul Wein­berg, Omar Bad­sha – in­tended them as am­mu­ni­tion in the strug­gle against apartheid. But if you are a black stu­dent born well af­ter 1994 what you see is a pa­rade of black peo­ple stripped of their dig­nity and whites ex­ud­ing wealth and suc­cess. Even if you know the his­toric con­text of the pho­tos, a pow­er­ful con­tem­po­rary con­text may over­whelm this, lead­ing you to con­clude that the pho­tos are just one more in­di­ca­tion of how this uni­ver­sity views black and white peo­ple.

In the UCT li­brary you would pass the fa­mil­iar naked sculp­ture of the Khoikhoi woman, Sarah Baart­man, with her ex­ag­ger­ated but­tocks that made her a freak show in Vic­to­rian Eng­land. You might feel that this sculp­ture pro­longs her hu­mil­i­a­tion. Per­haps your views would al­ter if you knew that the sculp­tor, Wil­lie Bester, is black and that he utilised the fig­ure to project his per­sonal pain. Or this may be ir­rel­e­vant, and your anger at the sex­ual ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of this woman – this black woman – may con­tinue to burn.

It is not dif­fi­cult to see why black stu­dents would say: “This is not sim­ply art that pro­vokes. This art makes me deeply un­com­fort­able ... the uni­ver­sity surely doesn’t care about my feel­ings.”

The fact that English is the medium of teach­ing fur­ther en­trenches the dom­i­nant cul­ture of UCT and deepens racial stereo­types. A young black stu­dent from the North West has re­lated how she grew up not know­ing any­one who spoke English as a first lan­guage and had never shared a meal or a class­room with a white per­son. She came top of her class at school, and en­tered uni­ver­sity a con­fi­dent stu­dent.

Early in her first se­mes­ter at UCT she put up her hand and asked a ques­tion. The lec­turer mis­un­der­stood the ques­tion and peo­ple chuck­led. The lec­turer asked her to re­peat the ques­tion but could not get what she was ask­ing and re­quested that she see him af­ter class. She never asked a ques­tion again. The lec­turer was not racist but the stu­dent felt deeply hu­mil­i­ated. She knew she wasn’t stupid, so it must be the in­sti­tu­tion that was mak­ing her – and other black stu­dents – look inar­tic­u­late and sec­ond rate.

The ob­sta­cle of lan­guage is ex­ac­er­bated by dif­fer­ences in so­cial dis­tance be­tween lec­tur­ers and var­i­ous stu­dents. White stu­dents tend to have free and easy re­la­tion­ships with white lec­tur­ers and pro­fes­sors. At Sun­day lunches, many white stu­dents mix with pro­fes­sion­als just like their uni­ver­sity teach­ers at their par­ents’ homes. This sense of fa­mil­iar­ity ex­tends into the class­room and it con­trasts with the dis­tance and for­mal­ity that many black stu­dents may feel to whites in au­thor­ity. These un­equal re­la­tion­ships in­crease per­cep­tions that “the sys­tem” is dis­crim­i­na­tory and racist to its in­sti­tu­tional core.

I could pro­vide count­less ex­am­ples of stu­dents who are black or fe­male not be­ing taken as se­ri­ously as their white or male col­leagues. Who gets at­ten­tion when speak­ing in a meet­ing? Who gets named first when form­ing a com­mit­tee? Whose gram­mar or pro­nun­ci­a­tion gets cor­rected in pub­lic? Who is suc­cess­ful when deal­ing with bu­reau­cracy?

When UCT re­moved the statute of Rhodes this was not a one-off con­ces­sion to the pres­sure of stu­dent anger. The uni­ver­sity made a sig­nif­i­cant dec­la­ra­tion that we wanted to make a de­ci­sive break with the colo­nial­ist past and we are well aware that this de­mands that we tackle the elu­sive but ex­tremely pow­er­ful crea­ture of in­sti­tu­tional racism. Price is vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town

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