Transformation questions that we shouldn’t be asking in 2021
Every now and again I get requests from schools to come and speak on transformation. This has been more prevalent since the global Black Lives Matter reckoning of 2020, which sparked a localised iteration on our shores, Black Student Lives Matter, against elite private schools.
Not too long ago I received such a request to speak at a private school. The theme that was provided was “Why is transformation necessary?” I could have suggested my own theme to the school, as I sensed their openness, but I decided I wanted to respond to the theme as it was presented. My first question was: who is asking why transformation is necessary? Is it the school management or the parents? What is the colour of the voice? Is it an individual or communal voice asking the question? Is it a voice assuming responsibility and accountability? Or is it an obfuscatory voice? Can the person who has to ask the question be trusted to undertake a self-directed course of change? What values are reflected in the question asked? And, more concerningly, what impact would the question have on the listeners, especially the black children attending the school?
The question I was asked to respond to reminded me of a lunchtime lecture I attended when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in the United States. A very white school in a very white town in a very white state. The theme of the lecture was “What is the virtue of diversity?” This question was being asked in connection with a case that was going to be heard by the US Supreme Court of Appeal on affirmative action, which in the United States is largely underpinned by diversity.
In this case, the voice asking the question was white, Federalist and Republican. And the majority of the listeners venturing an answer to the question were white. I was one of two black people in the room and upon hearing the question and the ensuing dialogue, I was saddened to tears.
The thought that struck me was that if they are arguing against the virtue of diversity, they are in fact arguing for separate but (un)equal. Personally, I felt that if diversity has no virtue, then by consequence the presence of me and those like me had no value.
To me, the question was antagonising because it was prejudice disguised as intellectual debate. Contrary to the white voice that asked the question, I do not think, and most African-Americans do not believe, that affirmative action is justified by diversity. From the black perspective, affirmative action is about “the compelling interest in remedying past discrimination and/or in addressing the present social condition of unsustainable inequality” – not about diversity. And certain rationales for diversity and inclusion can serve white interests in the manner in which they can enable change in small and palatable doses.
As with affirmative action, we need to always historicise transformation. If one is steeped in history then the question answers itself. The reason the question “Why is transformation necessary?” is problematic is that it fails to question how these schools were complicit in contributing to the inequality that haunts our country.
The more interesting question is what history parents and schools are passing on to their children. Transformation is necessary because we made a constitutional pact to rebuild our country with a more ethical imagination underpinned by the African value of ubuntu.
The question I left my attentive audience with is: what future do you want to live in? If we grow in the questions we ask, then in what direction is your school growing? And are you dedicated to creating a world your children will applaud?