Mamphela Ramphele

Rustenburg Girls: Stereotyping in schools undermines our performance

2018-11-13 10:11

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We have allowed public schools in suburban areas across the nation to become privatised for the benefit of upper and middle class predominately white people, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

The tragic dismissal of Nozipho Mthembu from Rustenburg Girls' Junior School is a mirror in our face. The unfinished business of transforming our society and ridding it of stereotypes of our ugly legacy of racism and sexism is undermining our performance.

Mthembu walked into her new teaching job earlier this year confident and excited as an alumnus of the same school and graduate of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Little did she expect to be put under a microscope as a suspect of incompetence. Being the first black person appointed as a mainstream teacher beyond those appointed to teach isiXhosa marked her out for close scrutiny. 

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The lack of exposure of white children to black teachers, and the negative comments by their parents within their earshot, lies behind the innocent question by a junior school child: "Are black teachers real teachers?"

Alumni of the school who earlier wrote an open letter to their alma mater attest to the untransformed culture of the school. The dominant culture and ethos of the school turned on white Eurocentric values, with little done to acknowledge the diversity within our student body. The black women signed to this letter learnt early on that becoming more "white" in Rustenburg – by adapting how we spoke, what we shared of our home lives, what our parents could afford and how we presented ourselves – was an important tool in fitting in, getting ahead, and in securing recognition for our abilities. At a fundamental level, being a black student meant being "other".

Rustenburg Girls school is not the only so-called former Model C school that has remained an enclave of white privilege. One of our critical failures as a nation is our untransformed education system. We have allowed public schools in suburban areas across the nation to become privatised for the benefit of upper and middle class predominately white people. These public schools are recipients of a legacy of privileged colour coded allocation of taxpayers' money over many decades. We have failed to leverage these national assets to promote the emergence of a more inclusive high performing education system.  

Our society continues to be characterised by deeply ingrained stereotypes that are re-enforced by the continuing gross colour coded inequalities. Both black and white citizens are deeply scarred by stereotypical views of the "other" that frame our political, social and economic relationships. 

Political transformation is not sustainable without being actively complemented by a higher level of consciousness about the impact of racist and sexist views on our relationships and performance as citizens. 

Studies done in the USA by African American scholar Claude Steele have established beyond any doubt that stereotype threat is the enemy of excellence in performance in any sector of society. Stereotype threat is the impact of fear of failure that would serve to confirm the stereotypical views others have of the performer. Steele's studies demonstrated how negative announcements to a class that female/black students do badly in mathematics, followed by administration of a mathematics test, are associated with under-performance by that group compared to a control subset of students who have not heard the announcement.  

We have grossly underestimated the impact of stereotype threat on multi-generations of segments of our population who have been, and continue to be suspects of under-performance, however, high their demonstrated achievements are. The Rustenburg school affair is a case in point.  

Nozipho received her excellent education at the same school and graduated from the highly regarded UCT, yet she still has to prove herself to be worthy of the appointment. Many highly qualified black and women professionals speak of similar experiences in the corporate and public sectors of our society.

Our Basic Education Department's decision to establish 30% or even 40% as a pass mark in our matriculation examinations is a demonstration of the power of stereotype threat. The fear that the majority of school learners who are black would fail and prove the stereotype that black people are not as intelligent as white people, has led to the shameful lowering of the expectation bar in our education system.

The tragic impact of stereotype threats on those on the receiving end is the loss of self-confidence resulting from internalisation of the stereotypical views.

We urgently need conversations in all our social spaces to help us tackle the wounds of stereotypes that are undermining our performance as a nation. Healing conversations need to start in our homes, our schools, our faith communities and places of work to confront our deeply held stereotypes. The unseemly inequalities in our society are a result of the internalisation and normalisation of the chasm between rich and poor people. We need to acknowledge that our stereotypical views of poor people have made us tolerant of the appalling living, schooling and working conditions that undermine the dignity of the majority of our fellow citizens.

Healing the emotional wounds inflicted on us by our ugly past would liberate us from the stereotypes that are holding us back from becoming the great society we have the potential to become. 

The mark of visionary leaders at this stage of our long journey of transition is to promote healing conversations at all levels of society.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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Read more on:    rustenburg girls junior school  |  cape town  |  racism  |  education


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