Study unpacks the ‘hidden racism’ at Stellenbosch

Ignored, alienated and erased — these are the feelings of black  students at Stellenbosch University (SU), who say the institution and people there are riddled with hidden racism. 

This is according to a research thesis by Elina Kamanga, titled Lived Experiences of Hidden Racism of Students of Colour at an Historically White University. In Kamanga’s research, black, coloured and Indian students share stories about how they sometimes do not participate in group discussions because white students speak Afrikaans; how male students are suspected of being criminals; and how, sometimes, they are completely erased from spaces because of their colour. 

In her research, Kamanga refers to the students as “students of colour”. She spoke to 12 undergraduate and postgraduate students about their lived experiences with hidden racism at the university. The term “hidden racism” refers to racism that Kamanga says white people are sometimes unaware of because of how they are socialised. 

In one example, a student narrated the story of how, for an entire year, her roommate’s father did not acknowledge her because she is black. “Her dad never spoke to me and I was like ‘Ha! You don’t like black people.’ He would walk in … no eye contact … I think he doesn’t like black people; that’s the impression that I got … The fact that he is not coming to greet me or to acknowledge me from that side of the room just means he doesn’t like me, because he did that the whole year.” 

Other students spoke about how they would be talking with their white friends and other white students would join them but they would speak to the white students and not engage the other students. 

Students also spoke about how, in lecture halls, white students avoided sitting in the same row as black students. If a black student sat in the same row as white students, they would move, meaning the black students often found themselves sitting alone in a row. “The participants interpreted [this] as occurring because of their race, that is, white students evade sitting next to them simply because they are not white,” the research states. 

“It can be argued that the incidents in this theme could be an indicator of nonverbal forms of blatant racism, but it is also plausible that these behaviours are committed unknowingly by white students due to being socialised to think in that manner.”

Black male students also spoke about how they were used to white women clutching their bags when they approached them because they assumed they were criminals, or people who should be feared on campus. 

Other students said even their dress code was associated with gangsterism by white male students. 

In the research, students said the hidden racism also affected their academic performance. They could not fully participate in class, because some white students would ask questions in Afrikaans and a discussion would be held in Afrikaans. 

This is despite the 2016 language policy at the university that made English the primary language of instruction. The policy declared that either separate English and Afrikaans classes have to be offered, or that “all information will be conveyed in, at least, English”. 

That policy was challenged but was declared constitutional by the Constitutional Court last October. 

Despite this, some students spoke about how they were excluded during group discussions. One student shared an example: “One time I was in a group. We were working in a group of three. And I had my two group mates speaking Afrikaans over my head … If we should do work together and you speak in a language that excludes me, then it’s underground racial discrimination. They do speak English so why not … ? But, they would speak over my head in Afrikaans and I would just write what I need to write or do what I need to do and then give my part of the assignment.”

The students told Kamanga that the hidden racism made them reluctant to make friends with white people. Others said they have had to seek counselling because the practices at the university were hard on them emotionally and on their mental health. “Guys, like I’ve gotten to a point of feeling numb in Stellenbosch, because navigating this space is [like] a skeleton or as a hollow person … And [I] got into a very depressive state …”

Others said they cope by ignoring or brushing off the hidden racist behaviour and avoiding spaces that are frequented by too many white people.

In a response from Stellenbosch University, spokesperson Martin Viljoen said: “The university is well aware of many of the issues highlighted by Kamanga’s research, but in particular appreciates her articulating very specific challenges that confront black, coloured and Asian students on campus. Her research will inform actions and interventions instituted by the university over the last few years.

“The university is acutely aware of the need to accelerate and deepen the process of systemic transformation,” Viljoen said. “While progress has been made with regard to access and success, institutional language flexibility, integration, welcoming practices and student support, challenges with regard to high-level representation and the institutional culture remain.

“It should be mentioned that the university … cannot take responsibility for the attitudes of newcomer students and their parents arriving on campus for the first time, but will try and change those mind-sets where needed,” Viljoen noted. 

The university also highlighted the measures it is taking to promote inclusivity. “Furthermore, via surveys, SU regularly tests (prospective and current) students on how they experience the campuses and what their perceptions about the university are. Regular workshops are provided to staff and students to sensitise and equip them with skills to establish a culture of inclusiveness.”

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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