/ 17 May 2019

‘No place for black academics’

Exclusion: A collection of essays on institutional racism was compiled after student protests raised academics’ awareness that they too struggled with being black at former white universities.
Exclusion: A collection of essays on institutional racism was compiled after student protests raised academics’ awareness that they too struggled with being black at former white universities. (Madeleine Cronje)

Things were meant to be better. They were meant to change. But, speaking at the launch of their book this week, 12 black academics described how institutional racism challenges their every step.

Black Academic Voices: The South African Experience is a collection of essays by the academics, who work mainly at the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits), North-West and Johannesburg (UJ).

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian at the launch, Professor Grace Khunou, one of the editors and co-authors of the book, said their motivation was the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015.

Khunou, a professor in the sociology department at UJ, said the protests were an eye-opener: the students’ struggle resonated with the academics because they had gone through the same hardships when they were students. She said the protests also made them realise, however, that even though they were no longer students, they had not overcome the experience of being black in an academic space.

“There is already a sense that by being here we are making a political statement, [so] why not just be deliberate by making that political statement and challenge the powers that be? And also, most importantly, challenge our own peers and speak out about some of the issues that we experience,” said Khunou.

The book illustrates how black academics experience the workplace. It tackles issues such as belonging and exclusion. It also captures the opportunities and moments of fulfilment that come with being an academic.

Khunou said the academics had written the book to assure upcoming scholars that they are not facing difficulties because they are not worthy, but because there are structures in place intended to make them feel that way.

At the launch, the academics explained how they came into a space marked by whiteness and are constantly made to feel that they don’t belong to it.

Hugo Canham, an associate professor at Wits, said that when black academics question whiteness it is seen as a sign of ingratitude: “We are in these institutions, we’ve got jobs, so we should be grateful. With that gratitude there is an expectation of silence. You are here, you are diversity, therefore what more do you want of us because you are here? That’s what whiteness demands of you. So, you should be grateful because you are there sitting with us at the table. It’s disarming,” he said.

In her chapter, “Sitting on one bum — the struggle of survival and belonging for a black African woman in the academy”, Motlalepule Nathane writes about how the academic world can be an unfriendly space with entrenched practices, which are not university policies and which can only be enjoyed by selected individuals.

“The fact that there are powerful, untouchable individuals became very clear during a trying time in my academic life. I went to a particular unit with the confidence of getting help about a situation where I felt I was treated unfairly, and had the backing of labour laws and university policies,” writes Nathane.

“The official who analysed my case advised me not to fight the issues; he explained that I wanted to take on a giant who was well published and a rated researcher who had brought millions to the university … This officer pointed out that I stood no chance against an individual who was highly valued and certainly an asset to the institution.” Nathane, a lecturer at Wits, said she felt like a “grasshopper” compared to the individual and retreated to her place of “submission and silence”.

Katijah Khoza-Shangase tells of how she had been labelled an “angry black woman” for speaking out about injustices in the academy. She is the first, and to date the only, black African to be awarded a PhD in speech pathology and audiology.

In her chapter, “Intellectual and emotional toxicity”, she writes about how, in 2000, when she expressed a desire to do her PhD, she was discouraged by a white professor who was a potential supervisor for her work.

She writes that the professor said: “Well done on your MA! Congratulations! Are you certain you want to do a PhD? You are such a good clinician! Our profession needs good clinicians you know … not everyone is cut out for research.”

She says she interpreted this as a way for the white professor to tell her that no black person had ever enrolled for a PhD in that profession and that she should stay in her lane.

At the book launch, Khoza-Shangase said that being labelled an angry black woman was a method used to silence her. She, however, said she embraces the label because it tells her that she is “disruptive” and is not allowing the status quo to dictate to her.

“I had to be angry. I had to become this angry black woman.”

The editors said that despite calls to all universities for contributions, it was only academics from historically white universities who responded.

“It is our contention that blackness becomes salient in a very particular way in previously white universities because, in these contexts, race continues to be a marker of exclusion and inclusion,” reads the book.

“To demonstrate this, from North-West University, we received contributions from colleagues from Potchefstroom campus, where white Afrikanerdom continues to subjugate black experiences; and nothing from Vaal Triangle and Mafikeng campuses — that are historically black.”