/ 18 March 2021

Adam Habib, you can’t say the N-word

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Unrepentant: Adam Habib tried to justify using a racial slur in a meeting with students at the University of London. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

I was in an online lecture when word spread across various social media channels that Adam Habib, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, had said the N-word during a student union (SU) meeting. Hearing the rumour, I thought surely not. Surely the director of one of the UK’s most radically left universities would not throw the N-word around, understanding the violence it holds? Surely the former vice-chancellor of Wits University, a man of Indian and Muslim heritage, would not perpetuate anti-Blackness on a public platform during working hours? Alas, my disbelief was misplaced.

In the clips of the Zoom recording, which have since been circulated widely, we see Habib’s anti-Black racism unfold over and over like a bad horror movie.

For context, Habib was addressing the SOAS student union in a meeting organised to allow students to give him feedback concerning the university’s strategic plan. During the meeting, the SU raised concerns about how SOAS issues statements supporting Black Lives Matter while axing the BA in African Studies degree, underfunding the Africa department, and allowing lecturers to say the N-word in class. 

Habib eventually responded by verbalising the N-word in full. Students called him out, with one Black SU member even explaining to Habib why it’s unacceptable for him to say it. Habib’s response becomes painful to watch as he becomes defensive, saying that he comes from a part of the world where “we do use the word”. 

I think I speak for South Africans everywhere when I say: not in my name. 

We who wield words every day understand how weighty they may be. A word holds a worldview, it holds a trauma, it holds a history. We cannot take these words lightly. Habib must do better. 

The way Habib dealt with the entire debacle belies a violent arrogance. He was patronising, even bullying, towards students. He then embarked on a Twitter rant which vaguely hints at apology but mostly justifies his use of the word.  With his actions and response, Habib is perpetuating a hostile learning environment for SOAS students, particularly Black students. His track record in producing hostile learning environments endures. 

We have only to look back at his tenure at Wits during Fees Must Fall. On his watch and by his direction, students — who were mostly Black — were financially excluded, brutalised and jailed by the police and private security, and will likely suffer mental trauma and financial strain for the rest of their lives.

What is dangerous about the particular anti-Blackness that Habib performs is the way he hides behind being politically Black in the South African context. While Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness urged all people of colour (POCs) to identify as Black in the fight against apartheid, this idea is outdated and lacking especially in the context of current antiracist movements today. Habib also hides behind the anti-Indian and Islamophobic racism he faces. 

As a South African Muslim woman of Indian descent, of course I condemn any and all anti-Indian and Islamophobic racism directed towards Habib unreservedly. But as someone who shares his positionality, it is important for me to acknowledge the responsibility non-Black POCs have in tackling anti-Blackness within our communities and in the broader antiracist movement. We cannot assume political Blackness in order to perpetuate anti-Blackness. Habib’s mishandling of the meeting felt reminiscent of the dismissive ways he had previously dealt with students’ grievances during Fees Must Fall protests. 

We have only to search any of Habib’s writing on the student movement to understand how he infantilised, patronised and dismissed concerns of mostly Black students. To see it happening again at SOAS made it feel like history was persisting, albeit in a different context. 

An alarming trend has been cropping up in nonpartisan politics where conservative and harmful laws and policies are being driven by Black and brown faces. This is evident in the way US vice president Kamala Harris has defended anti-Black laws which supported the incarceration of Black people. It is no more evident than the constant discussion in the UK parliament of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will give power to the police to shut down protests if they see fit. Just on Saturday, London police officers handcuffed and removed women from a vigil for Sarah Everard who was murdered while walking home a couple of weeks ago, citing Covid-19 restrictions. What’s more alarming is that this Bill arose after Black Lives Matter protests swept the UK last year. The limitations of identity politics are clear: no matter the institution, masking positions of power with Black and brown faces does not prevent draconian policies that promote racism, colonialism and imperialism. 

As the Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa rage on, there seems to be no justice in sight for students. Habib remains unrepentant both for the harm that he caused at Wits and his legacy of anti-Blackness at Wits which seems to be enduring at SOAS. If someone at the top can use racist slurs unchecked, then what precedent does this set for the university? If we do not speak truth to power then where will this leave us as a student body, or as a global community?

These are dangerous times we live in indeed when as students, especially Black and other marginalised students, continue to be clamped down upon. They are stifling our voices. We cannot be heard over the violence.

On Thursday, SOAS confirmed that Habib would step aside while the university investigates the incident.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.