/ 26 February 2016

#ColourBlind campaign refuses to open its eyes to injustice

The locked gate of the Universiy of the Free State.
The locked gate of the Universiy of the Free State.

The idea behind the campaign #ColourBlind is noble in intent, but serves to be harmful – mostly to black people, who suffer various forms of racial discrimination, and more especially to students who have independently devoted themselves to addressing the issues that are unjust to them.

nayirrah waheed’s poem titled “is eloquently deconstructs why the perpetuated notions of colour blindness are deleterious to black people who bear the greatest brunt of the social injustices and inequalities they are faced with on university campuses and beyond. waheed writes: “Never trust anyone who says they do not see colour. this means to them, you are invisible.”  

The cracks of nation-building continue to show themselves through the current state of affairs in South Africa: from the revolt of students, workers standing up against the exploitative measures of outsourcing, to the increasing popularity for the call of land expropriation.    

The #ColourBlind campaign, like many other similar campaigns before it, has good intentions. However, a good intention does not directly result in a good outcome. #ColourBlind is, in fact, a shaming mechanism that frames the protesting students at University of Pretoria (UP) and University of Free State (UFS) as opponents of the idealistic hope and unity that the campaign advocates. It also absolves the actions (or lack thereof) of university management, private security and police in the violence – both systemic and physical – that students continually experience at their hands. 

While supporters of the campaign have defended it on the basis that it does not ignore the real issues students are facing, it shows a lack of nuanced understanding of their struggle while simultaneously vilifying those engaging in protests. It leaves the responsibility on victims to turn the other cheek, be the bigger person and simply “get over” their grievances. Even the social execution of the campaign is contradictory in its nature: participants post pictures of themselves with people of different races declaring that race does not matter even when it is the campaign’s cornerstone. These contradictions are a result of simplifying the visceral effects of racial inequalities.

Hope and unity are the easy part of the reconciliation process, the hard and necessary work (which continues to be ignored) starts when individuals confront how they are complicit in the perpetuation of injustice. When the white Afrikaans students introspect on how they have benefitted from the dual language policy that only allows them to study in their home language, despite the fact they make up only 13% of students at UP; and when black students have honest conversations about how their proximity to whiteness legitimises them in spaces they occupy.     

Preaching hope, unity and reconciliation while simultaneously ignoring justice and reparative actions from those in power is  why this rainbow nation is a blatant lie and a slap in the face of South Africa’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is in the name of unity that many of those who supported apartheid and even committed heinous crimes (such as FW de Klerk and Adriaan Vlok) were granted immunity and redemption with very little repentance expected from them. 

The call for tolerance and acceptance through #ColourBlind, which is intentionally or unintentionally directed to dissented black people (specifically students at UP and UFS), is in itself unjust. However, it is easy to just point fingers at this campaign and the deeply problematic nature of how South Africans process what racism is and how it manifests. Racism did not start at Shimlas Stadium at UFS, at UP when Afriforum and EFF students clashed at UP, nor did it start when Penny Sparrow spewed her venomous comments on Facebook. Racism will not end through gleeful selfies, speeches about racism in apartheid museums, marches by ruling parties, pizza narratives, and earnest prayers for peace.       

Writing about the #IamStellenbosch campaign, which was critiqued for the same reasons as #ColourBlind, Michelle Avenant argues that these campaigns  “silence consideration of race and racial inequality, all in the name of preserving a ‘positivity’ that vilifies those who speak out against these movements” through painting them as negative or lacking faith.