Merit equals white

2014-10-05 15:00

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-year-old 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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