A subtle kind of racism

Max Price
Max Price

Max Price

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.

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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