Black rage in privileged universities

Bids to transform historically white institutions, such as the University of Cape Town, have frustrated black academics, who feel measured as tools for change and not as scholars. (David Harrison, MG)

Bids to transform historically white institutions, such as the University of Cape Town, have frustrated black academics, who feel measured as tools for change and not as scholars. (David Harrison, MG)

On reading Xolela Mangcu’s article last year, “SA’s black academics are getting a raw deal” (Business Day, November 3 2014), it occurred to me that one of the things that keeps happening in the public discourse about black academics in historically white universities is that the texture and detail are being stripped from the experience of race in the academy.

What dominates is the problem of quantity – a bean-counting exercise.

We know that bean-counting exists for a purpose but it has the effect of quantifying blackness for use as a currency in the transformation agenda.

I think the conversations we need to be having alongside the quantity debate are the stories of black scholars’ rage in these historically white universities. Particularly relevant are the emotional, psychological and sociopolitical realities of being a “visibly raced” scholar.

Inside these academic communities, the “black experience” is often one of feeling undermined, misunderstood and marginalised, as was evident in the furores at the University of Cape Town last year.

Partly, this is because in white academies the work of transformation has been compartmentalised. The official bean-counting happens somewhat apart from the fullness of the person who is the so-called “black” academic, and whose visibility is considered the most pressing evidence of transformation. 

Yet spaces of safety for black academics that deal with “being black” are on the margins of these academies in little associations or special programmes where one gets a reprieve, a release, from the daily beating-down by colleagues who are positioned as the natural citizens of the academy.

This normalisation leads to social and cultural privilege – the privilege to foist one’s world view upon others as the usual world view that remains unquestioned and non-negotiable.

In the imbizos and the “race forums” that are tasked to hear “black testimony”, one feels constantly mined of one’s experiences and thoughts “on transformation” and often with very little awareness that, when we speak about it, we do so from a position of being wounded.

When transformation is addressed it’s the black scholar’s burden to articulate the problem fully: one is often required to give evidence of their problem and furnish its solution.

Testifying through the intricate mess of personal experience risks the black scholar’s testimony being labelled “anecdotal” and therefore without substantive merit; and so we fall back on the bean-counting exercises of numbers over people.

This is problematic in that it doubly marginalises us, allowing the privileged institutional community to remain stubbornly unchanged.

I’m singling this out as a primary function of privilege hoarding by those who risk their privilege if “transformation” were truly to happen.

This suggests that the university’s attempts to “understand” my position, to “let me speak my truth” of this experience, has become one of objectification, and also (but worse) a monologue where the black scholar speaks, but is not necessarily heard.

I attribute this to the lack of ability on the part of these universities to see and their invulnerability to acknow-ledging the ways in which they support and endorse (as well as often reward) institutional behaviours that perpetuate white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal ways of being.

It is no wonder that black academics are resorting to screams of rage on public platforms and in the media.

Black academics are finally insisting that our primary task here is not to be black, but to teach and research, as with all other academics. 

The reality is we know as little about “transformation” as the white folk – we are just asking that our outsideness not be made so jarring and that we be judged on the functions of scholarship and not as functions or tools of “transformation”.

So, my white colleague, you bring your experience and I will bring mine and we can meet and speak as people with one another.

Yes, we know that even in this conversation we bring to bear our social and political baggages, so it will be difficult. It will be messy.

If we speak openly and honestly, and can forge a way to make links between our experience and the institutions in which we find ourselves, we can ask: How do they treat people? How do they relate to people? What are the glaring inconsistencies?

This open and honest debate can lead to transformative practices that may begin in staffrooms and reach out into our classrooms and personal lives. We must all be willing to do the work of transformation.

Lieketso “Dee” Mohoto is a junior lecturer in Rhodes University’s drama department

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