Having friends of colour is not an achievement

A few weeks ago, the Open Stellenbosch campaign released a short documentary called “Luister”. In it, black students recount their experiences of racism at Stellenbosch University. From the title, the video’s plea is clear: Please, it asks the public, listen to us.

Predictably, much of the reaction has been the exact opposite of listening. The #WhereIsTheLove event allowed only positive comments about the university. Then, last week, the Stellies SRC came up with the ill-conceived, profoundly tone-deaf #IAmStellenbosch campaign.

The Facebook campaign features over a hundred photos of students holding up handwritten signs with statements like “I’m white and I listen to kwaito”. The aim appears to be to break down stereotypes.

#IAmStellenbosch isn’t explicitly framed as a response to Open Stellenbosch, but given the timing it would be disingenuous to pretend that the two are unrelated. The campaign is trite and makes a mockery of the concerns aired in “Luister”. It doesn’t break down stereotypes; it reinforces them. If you think listening to kwaito makes you less of a racist because you view it as “black music”, that is in itself racist.

South African society is incredibly diverse, and here we have students patting themselves on the back for doing the barest minimum to participate in it. You’re white and your friend group is multiracial? Congratulations! Do you want a cookie?

You’re Afrikaans and you’re dating a (white) English girl? Well done on getting over the Boer War.

If we assume that the students participating in the campaign are between the ages of 18 and 21, it means they were all born in 1994 or later. If their social group is exclusively white, they would have a serious problem. Making friends with people of colour is not an achievement.

Other students claim that they “don’t see colour”. This is white privilege. In a society that is still very much racialised, being able to pretend that race is unimportant because your race doesn’t matter is ignorant and naïve.

Should we strive for a society where race truly does not matter? Of course. But first there are many conversations to be had and pain that needs to be acknowledged, and that will take a very long time. To quote the poet, Nayyirah Waheed:
trust anyone
who says
they do not see color.
this means
to them,
you are invisible.”

When read as a response to Open Stellenbosch, the campaign is essentially saying “not all Maties”. This is unhelpful and dismissive to students who are raising legitimate concerns.

One photo which deeply saddened me – and which unleashed a good deal of anger on Twitter – was of a student holding a sign in which she described herself as “non-white”. This is a racist term; defining someone’s race purely in relation to whiteness is beyond offensive. The internalised racism inherent in this image is a clear sign that the conversation still needs to continue.

Being accused of racism is uncomfortable, but becoming defensive and denying it is not a helpful reaction. We need to sit down, keep quiet, and listen for a change.

More from Louise:

The Sowetan's ‘Gays can join the ANC Women's League’ is ignorant and disrespectful

Why silence is a killer

Do anti-rape campaigns work?

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