What do South African students learn when we teach about race?

“Everyone is saying you shouldn’t base university entrance on the colour of your skin, they should base it on your marks,” says Amy. “People keep on saying that but then they don’t stand up for it, do you know what I mean?”

She looks at me somewhat exasperated as we sit in her grade nine history classroom, the afternoon sun streaming through the high sash windows. We are discussing university admissions — a hot topic in this academically competitive Cape Town school — and inevitably the issue of race arises: “The whole world is basing everything on race but really it’s just a pigment.”

We have heard this reasoning many times in our conversations with young South Africans. It’s one of several misunderstandings that stem from the way in which race is discussed in the history curriculum. Having spent hundreds of hours teaching history and watching history be taught in South Africa, it’s time to reflect on what students are actually learning from the way we teach them about race, and why.

How the South African history curriculum teaches the complexities of race

In South Africa, history is the subject where most conversations about race occur. Policy statements for grade nine history stipulate that teachers spend two hours teaching about the definition of racism as an introduction to apartheid. However, surprisingly given the subject, the approach to teaching racism draws far more from natural science than it does from the humanities. In particular, teachers are asked to cover two points: “Human evolution and our common ancestry” and “The myth of race”. 

This natural science-focused approach to teaching about race is also reflected in the presentation of race in history textbooks. The Oxford University Press textbook, for example, discusses the development of hominids over about four-million years, accompanied by a picture showing the evolution of human beings. It speaks about the Cradle of Humankind in Africa and how early modern humans spread from Africa to the rest of the world. The Vivlia textbook similarly describes how “hominids eventually evolved into humans,” and displays a map showing where different hominid fossils were discovered.

The purpose of this crash course in evolution is to show students that there are no genetic differences between people of different races. Race — according to the curricula — is therefore a “myth”, which the Oxford University Press textbook defines as “a belief that is not based on fact”. However, the term “‘historical construct” is never used. Race as a concept is simply described as non-factual, and people who evoke race or are racist are therefore irrational. Students are left without a framework for how ideas like race developed over time, and why such ideas may still have meaning in the present.

What are students learning?

This approach to focusing on race through a scientific evolutionary lens in a history textbook, and concluding that it’s a myth without explaining how such a myth was constructed, presents several challenges in the classroom. 

The first challenge, commonly observed in predominantly “white” schools and exemplified by Amy’s comment, is the idea that since race “doesn’t exist”, all mention of race must be at best irrational and at worst racist. The idea that race was a myth therefore served a colour-blind agenda that proved very comfortable for white students, and which largely absolved them from looking for the deeper structural causes of racial inequality in South Africa.

The second challenge is when theories of evolution come head-to-head with the religious beliefs of students. Meaningful conversations about race during history lessons are easily waylaid as students attempt to reject evolutionary theories in favour of creationism. This becomes particularly challenging given that the widely used Vivlia textbook cites Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”, which students take as evidence of the claim that people used to be monkeys. 

From a religious perspective this is hugely inflammatory and the classroom discussions can quickly devolve into a discussion about the merits of evolutionary theory. When coupled with the absolute terms in which human evolution is described, the section on race begins to feel both unhelpful and unnecessary. Evolution — a controversial theory to many — is used to justify anti-racism — which is a very uncontroversial idea among grade nine students.

A third misunderstanding, which students of all backgrounds articulated, was confusion over the ubiquity of racial terminology within South African society. Since race is a myth, students believed that all mention of race (including affirmative action) must be racist and anti-scientific. Students became upset when someone identified as black or white, or at the idea that universities might be “racist” in granting easier access to black students. 

The last misunderstanding is perhaps the most disturbing, as students conclude that black people are less evolutionarily advanced than white people. Our sense is that this is not something which teachers are communicating, but which students are interpreting from the textbooks. For example, the textbooks say that hominids originated in Africa — and were therefore “African” — and the pictures show darker-skinned hominids evolving into lighter-skinned “modern humans”. There is a conflation between white, modern, and human, in contrast to black, pre-modern, and hominid.

Towards an historical understanding of race

It is clear why the history curricula have chosen to discuss race in this way. In a country with such a damaging legacy of racism there is a legitimate need and desire to communicate in the clearest possible terms that racism is irrational and wrong. The framework of natural science is often used to communicate something as “fact”. However, as the examples above show, this scientific explanation isn’t always clear to students. 

Evolutionary theory may help students understand that race isn’t “real” in any biological sense, but it doesn’t help them to make sense of the highly racialised society that they live in. Crucially, it doesn’t answer the questions that students themselves pose, such as “Why, of all the races, did white people end up on top?” or even more heart-wrenching, “Why do white people hate us?”

In order to answer these questions an historical understanding of race is required, rather than simply a scientific understanding. Similarly we need to move away from describing race as a “myth” — as though it was a story without clear origins — and start describing race as a construct, which is and has been constructed in different ways throughout time by people with agency. While a scientific explanation can be helpful for explaining that race is a construct, we need an historical explanation to teach students how and why race has been constructed. 

The good news is that there are many resources for teaching an historical approach to how the concept of race was constructed. Such an approach draws on a Du Boisian intellectual tradition that understands the construction of racial identities as a justification for African enslavement. As Facing History and Ourselves describes it: “Despite the fact that Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality inspired revolutions in the United States and France, the practice of slavery persisted throughout the United States and European empires. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American and European scientists tried to explain this contradiction through the study of “race science,” which advanced the idea that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races. If it could be scientifically proven that Europeans were biologically superior to those from other places, especially Africa, then Europeans could justify slavery and other imperialistic practices.”

Within this approach students are taught that race — although having no scientific basis — was invented for the political purposes of maintaining power and economic superiority. 

This historical approach to race is also discussed in a new history textbook on transatlantic slavery that was published last year. In a section on how slavery and ablution shaped European ideas about race, the textbook discusses whether racial prejudice caused slavery, or whether slavery caused racial prejudice.

Perhaps one of the most useful resources for teachers is a Guardian article by Robert Baird from April this year. The article entitled “The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea” argues that white superiority was invented as a way of justifying the slavery of Africans. Previously such slavery was justified on the basis that these Africans weren’t Christian, however, as missionaries started to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity, a new justification was required. People who previously would not have identified as white started to do so as a means of legitimating their dominance.

However, all of these examples address the construction of race in Europe and the Americas. There is a conspicuous lack of teaching resources that address the historical construction of race in the South African context. Yet creating these teaching resources will be essential if young people are to develop an understanding of the role of race in both the past and the present. With the potential of a new South African history curriculum in discussion, there is work to be done.

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Natasha Robinson
Natasha Robinson is a PhD student at the University of Oxford in the UK
Nicholas Kerswill
Nicholas Kerswill is head of history and an English teacher at Claremont High School in Cape Town

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