OPINION | UCT doesn’t take charges of racism against black academics seriously

(Picture: Gallo images/ Getty images)
(Picture: Gallo images/ Getty images)

The UCT Black Academic Caucus has responded to various statements issued following research published by Nicoli Nattrass, which has been condemned as "offensive to black students" by the University of Cape Town.


It has been 4 days since we raised alarm about research published by Nicoli Nattrass. Research that we have flagged as being prejudicial and harmful to black students. In this time there have been statements issued by the UCT executive, the faculty of science, the faculty of economics, Nicoli Nattrass and many others.

In this statement we would like to address some of the issues raised over the last few days.

READ | Professor Nicoli Nattrass: Tumult at UCT Part 1 - the challenges of transformation

Various documents have been circulating on social media, and for the sake of conciseness we will not be addressing any group or individual. Our statement should therefore be read as a general response to some of the claims that have been raised.

Claim: The publication is a commentary

It has been claimed that the paper is a commentary. The paper is a commentary in name, but is it a commentary in substance? For an academic paper to be a commentary, usually, its subject has to be an existing body of research. A commentary may take on one of two forms:

  • Highlighting one or more existing research articles
  • An editorial nature and covers an aspect of an issue that is relevant to the journal’s scope.

What a commentary should not be, is a presentation of research results, as we pointed out in our first statement. This paper clearly presents the author’s own study, which constructs 'black students' based on historically fictionalised stereotypes about black people conjured in ‘the white imagination’, as defined by poet Claudia Rankine. The supposed commentary is peppered with unsubstantiated assertions about black students and their agency.

For example, black students are presented as being driven by materialist desires in their choice of fields of study. This is clearly an assumption speculated as being one reason for the low enrolment of black students in the biological sciences! At no point does Nicoli Nattrass offer evidence that the 'dearth of black students in the biological sciences' is a fact. And yet the supposed commentary is built on this premise – an assumption!!! As we noted in our first statement, such stereotypes and assumptions are located in histories of colonialism.

Next, there is the matter of the theory of the 'materialistic black student'. This too is pulled from the ether and stated as if it were a fact. We pose this question, 'Are white students not also motivated in their choice of study by economic factors?' Obviously, our question is rhetorical because it is known that the vast majority of students choose fields of study based on whether the hundreds of thousands of Rands that they invest in their study will bear economic fruit. Even a student in the biological sciences will have considered the economic reward of pursuing a study in this field. The theory of the 'materialistic black student' is utter nonsense.

The use of variants of such theories as an explanation to conceal the failure to transform the student or academic cohort is commonplace in our institutions. Never offering any evidence that it is fact. And when an academic makes it the centre piece of a study/commentary without a shred of evidence, we will object. We will object strongly!!!

On this matter we will conclude by saying that just because an author or a journal claims that an article is a commentary does not mean that academic rigour and respect for facts then become optional.

Claim: The article is not peer-reviewed

In our first statement we said that the article was supposedly peer-reviewed. From the various statements that have been issued we have come to learn that the article published by Nicoli Nattrass is not peer-reviewed. We would like to acknowledge this error on our part. The source of the error was our assumption that given the gravity of the subject of the study and the potential to cause serious harm, an experienced researcher and credible journal would have the good judgement to subject any scholarly work to peer-review.

Clearly, we gave the author and journal, too much credit. We will not be making the same mistake again.

What this situation reveals is that ethics in research, especially in respect to marginalised groups and the way in which people and cultures are studied need to be taken much more seriously at UCT and beyond. That such a study could pass through ethical clearance at UCT and then find its way into a journal without peer review is shocking to say the least. We call on the university to strengthen its ethics processes and to apply its ethics policies.

For the benefit of the public, the university should have strict ethics policies in regard to studies involving human participants and policies regarding research misconduct for those who disregard the ethics policies. As part of the policies, the moment a study involves human participants the requirement for obtaining an ethics clearance is mandatory.

Furthermore, those conducting research studies where UCT students are involved have to obtain the permission of the Executive Director of Student Affairs before engaging students. As the BAC we are curious to know how this study received an ethics clearance and also how it was cleared by the Executive Director of Student Affairs.

Claim: The BAC is curtailing the academic freedom and freedom of speech of Nicoli Nattrass

We must confess that this claim took us by surprise, especially as it came from the same quarters that always make a big deal about maintaining the academic standards of the university.

Let us be clear that academic freedom is offered so that academics can pursue knowledge without political or religious interference. That said, academic freedom is not a license to conduct bad research or research that has questionable ethics. Neither does academic freedom shield an academic from peer critique or an examination of the ethics of their work. And most importantly, academic freedom is certainly NOT at the expense of the oppression of others along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion or disability, which is what this study does, specifically in relation to race.

We know this to be a fact, because a pillar of academia is the peer-review system. So those who claim that Nicoli Nattrass is being robbed of her academic freedom would do well to remember this. 

That some at the university want to use academic freedom as a defence mechanism in this case speaks to a rot in the academic project.

Nicoli Nattrass chose not to subject her prejudicial work to peer-review. The South African Journal of Science chose not to subject her work to scrutiny in spite of its subject. It is now on the rest of the academic body to do what the author and the South African Journal of Science failed to do, i.e., hold an academic accountable for bad research methodology, bad science, questionable ethics and reinforcing of problematic stereotypes.

Claim: It's not research. It's exploratory research

This claim also took us by surprise. What exactly are we supposed to take away from this distinction? Do those who make this claim as a defence believe that if research is qualified as being exploratory it is freed from the strictures of academic rigour and ethics? Or scrutiny on its racist underpinnings/epistemological grounding? It certainly seems so. It is rather sad that such claims are coming from within the university. This should be a wakeup call for the university.

Claim: A control group was not necessary in the study

In our first statement we said that a major shortcoming of the study was that it did not have a control group. Our position was that students in the biological sciences should have been studied to determine their reasons for enrolling in the biological sciences. This control group would have served three purposes, (i) it would have tested the validity of the assumptions and hypothesis of the study, (ii) it would have tested the validity/integrity of the instruments (in this case the questions) used to test the hypothesis, (iii) it would have helped in forming more relevant hypotheses and instruments to test them.

But the author did not begin the study at the source of the problem. At this point the question to ask is whether this was an oversight or a deliberate choice – hence her assumptions based on stereotypes. Any scientific study worth its salt will test the validity of its hypothesis, the assumptions that the hypothesis is built on and the instruments used in testing the hypothesis. As we have pointed out the study abjectly fails in this regard.

For example, the theory of the 'materialistic black student' would have been quickly discarded had students in the biological sciences been asked if their choice of study was motivated by economic factors.

Again, to our shock, some have claimed (even from within the university) that a control group was not necessary. This too should be a wakeup call for the university. If some in the university believe that any hypothesis or any instrument will do in a research, then something is very wrong. Moreover, if this view is pervasive, then the potential for harmful research is high.

Claim: Students were asked more than seven questions

In the article the author states that seven questions were asked of students and that these seven questions were used to test the hypothesis of the study. In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that in the study students were asked 'many' more questions. If indeed more than seven questions were asked, then we request that UCT include this in its investigations.

We make this request for two reasons. As we observed in our first statement, six of the seven questions were irrelevant to the study. If more questions were indeed included in the study, we ask (i) are the other questions also irrelevant and if so are they as bad or worse than the mentioned seven questions? (ii) are the other questions relevant and if so, why were they disregarded?

Claim: The questions posed to students were relevant and unbiased

We could go into a lengthy discourse on bias in research, but we will hold off on that for now. The subject of bias in research is well documented and papers on the subject can be readily found. Instead we will make minor changes to the questions posed to students in the study and the bias in the questions will become self-evident.

Below are the original questions

1. Considered studying the biological sciences

2. Agrees ‘Addressing social inequality is more important than wildlife conservation’

3. Agrees ‘I support wildlife conservation but have no interest in having a career in it’

4. Agrees that ‘Humans evolved from apes’

5. Likes having starlings around at UCT

6. Agrees that disciplines like conservation biology are colonial and should be scrapped at UCT

7. Agrees that many of South Africa’s national parks should be scrapped and the land given to the poor

Here are the tweaked questions

1. Would you consider studying the biological sciences

This version of the question leaves room to discover what circumstance would need to change for the student to choose the biological sciences.

2. Agrees ‘Addressing social inequality and wildlife conservation are equally important’

Given the economic and social inequalities that exist in South Africa, the original binary

question is practically a 'Gotcha' type question for most black students.

3. Agrees ‘I support wildlife conservation but have no interest in having a career in it at this time’

By narrowing the question, the student is allowed to consider whether changes in their future circumstances might cause them to change career. The scope of the original question is so broad that it is practically a 'Gotcha' type question for many black students.

4. Agrees that ‘Is not convinced by the theory of evolution'

Because of racism most black people are sensitive about being associated with apes or monkeys. The question in its original form asks black students to indirectly associate themselves with apes. The question becomes psychologically even more problematic when/if the interviewer is white.

5. Likes having snakes around at UCT

The intention of the original question was to test student's like/dislike of animals. But the notion of what is or isn't a pest differs from culture to culture.

Asking students about feeling about snakes would have revealed far greater similarity in the answers between black and other students. Snakes are animals too.

6. Agrees that disciplines like conservation biology at UCT should consider indigenous knowledge on conservation

The problem with the original question is that it is leading. By mentioning the word 'colonial' it primes black and white students. It's practically a 'Gotcha' question for all students.

7. Agrees that many of South Africa’s national parks should be redesigned to ALSO accommodate the poor

The original puts students in a difficult position. It is especially on unfair for black students, many of whom come from poor backgrounds. This question is practically a 'Gotcha' question for black students.

Claim: The study does not make gross generalisations about black students

 This claim flies in the face of the title of the study which reads, 'Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?'

Enough said!!!

Claim: The study included students from the biological sciences

In our first statement we pointed out that the study was faulty in its logic in that conclusions can't be drawn from the choices of participants if the choices and actions are decoupled.

For example, let us suppose that black and 'other' (using the author's terminology) students were asked if they prefer sweet or sour tastes. Let us also suppose that black students had answered that they prefer sweet tastes and the 'others' had said that they prefer sour tastes. It is illogical to then conclude from this that black students 'do not contribute to consumers of lemons because of their culture'. More so if all the students are found to eat other fruits, but not lemons, then there is clearly a disconnect between choice and action.

At that point to proceed with a regression analysis makes no sense.

We also observed in our first statement that biological science students should have been interviewed as a separate group. We have already discussed this in the text above.

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that students from the biological sciences were also included in the survey. If this is true, then we seem to be diving deeper into the rabbit hole. To ask a biological sciences student 'Have you considered studying the biological sciences' and including the obvious answer in the data is to effectively contaminate the data. It then also becomes clear that the only relevant question, 'Have you considered studying the biological sciences', in the study is itself a terrible instrument for testing the hypothesis.

Claim: The BAC has accused Nicoli Nattrass of racism and white supremacy

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that we, the BAC, have accused Nicoli Nattrass of being a racist and white supremacist. The claim is out there, therefore we have to address it. Nowhere in our statement did we make such a claim. What we did say is that the work published by Nicoli Nattrass is grounded in epistemological assumptions that are steeped in a colonial archive that is prejudicial to black students (and black people in general). It is epistemic violence and we stand by this.

As black academics at UCT we have long since learned of the futility of expecting the university to take claims of racism by our white colleagues seriously. When we do raise the alarm about racism, accused white colleagues weaponize the rules and regulations of the university to bring counter charges of racism against us.

This is the crazy world we live in.

In many instances the arbiters of these cases end up being white bodies who unsurprisingly judge that the racism claimed by black students and academics are imagined. To further add insult to injury the black student or academic is then judged of being guilty of racism for accusing a white academic of practicing racism. As black academics at UCT we are all too familiar with this game and the manner in which it is played by some of our white colleagues. We will not be dragged into this charade.

Claim: The UCT Executive did a hatchet job on the Nicoli Nattrass paper in response to the BAC statement.

Let us suppose for a moment that this is true (which it is not), are those making this claim suggesting that that the paper by Nattrass is consistent with good science and good ethics?

While the BAC initially raised the alarm about the harmfulness of the paper, many other academics have also come forward to condemn the paper for its bad science, ethics and its epistemological assumptions that are prejudiced. While Nicoli Nattrass may not want to accept it, it is no longer just the BAC condemning her paper.

Claim: Nicoli Nattrass is being singled out because she is a white woman

In our previous statement we mentioned the academic at the UCT GSB who resigned because he authored a paper with racist undertones. He is black and we had no problems condemning his article. Why? Because his work contributed to the systemic/institutional racism that black bodies are exposed to at UCT. That the author is a white woman, with preconceived notions of what it means to live in a black body, is merely an aggravating factor. We would have condemned the publication as equally had it been written by a black person.

We would like to use this moment to ask our white colleagues to critically reflect on how they position themselves when they do research on the lives, culture, thoughts and attitudes of black people.

We have observed that some have fallen into the belief that because one does research in townships, on farms, on mines and elsewhere that one is transformative and is a champion for black people. To approach research in this fashion is to treat black people's lives as a laboratory in which the values, culture and beliefs of black people are put under a microscope and examined through European and western lens.

Unsurprisingly research approached with this mentality leads to patronising and condescending conclusions, such as black students not being primed for the biological sciences because they are deemed not to possess enough pets. Partly to blame for such misguided attitudes is probably the premium the university places on social responsiveness in academic promotions. This possibly invites academics to develop a 'saviour complex'.

Besides, as we stated in our first statement, science and research has not always been productive or neutral, it has a history of dispossession and endorsing racialised, gendered as well as oppressive narratives along the grammars of sexuality, class, religion, nationality and disability – to mention but a few. Any self-respecting academic who is truly transformative in a decolonial sense understands this and would distance themselves from colonial-style racist research.

Claim: The name of Nicoli Nattrass/Natrass has been misspelled

We, the BAC, have been accused of misspelling the author's name and it is claimed that thisfailure proves that we lack credibility. This is clutching at the proverbial straw.

For the record, in the paper the author is referred to as Nattrass, on not one but four occasions. For consistency we are using the name as written in the article.

Those who wish to take issue with us on this subject, should address their complaints to either the South African Journal of Science or the author.

Claim: The criticism of the article is based on the ideology of the BAC

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that the BAC's objections in this matter are informed by ideology. Apparently, our ideology is then framed as being:

  • An opposition to black students being asked about social inequality and wildlife conservation because we supposedly deem it racially problematic and prejudicial to black students
  • A belief that the questions posed to students are informed by epistemological assumptions grounded in a colonial archive.
  • A rejection of research into correlations between socio-economic conditions and culture
  • A rejection of quantitative studies that involve loose linkages between quantities
  • A belief that pets are like slaves, which is in contrast to the premise of the study that pet ownership is an indicator for compassion for wildlife
  • A call for the paper to be retracted from the South African Journal of Sciences (this does not qualify as an ideology, but the claim has been made and we include it).

How absurd!!! This is classic straw manning and smacks of desperation. The claims de-contextualise the position of the BAC in relation to the article and attempt to cast the BAC as an irrational actor. 

For example, it is laughable to say that we, the BAC, believe that it is racially problematic to ask black students about social inequality and wild-life conservation in any context.

What the public is being asked to believe is that as black academics we are against any discussion regarding social inequality or wild-life conservation. Please take a moment to consider the absurdity of this assertion.

We are however not surprised by these tactics. The de-contextualisation of black thought and actions by whiteness has a steeped history within the colonial archive. The construction of the black people as irrational actors also has a long history. In other words, in defending herself, Nicoli Nattrass is using the very same tactics and assumptions like she did in the problematic paper, to position us and discipline us. The rhetoric is endless!!

But as we said earlier, we will not engage in these charades that some of our white colleagues enjoy dragging us into. Our focus is on the bad science, bad ethics, and the harming of black students through the production and propagation of racialised stereotypes of black students.

And we end by saying, your so-called academic freedom, will NOT be at the expense of our oppression! Check the bill of rights.

And here is an example of a transformative article/commentary:

Asai, J. D. (2020) Race Matters, CelPress (https://www.cell.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0092-8674%2820%2930337-8)

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