Racism has roots in the universities
In the modern era no institution has done more than the modern university to create racism, writes Xolela Mangcu.
Cape Town - Having grown up under apartheid I hardly get excited by insults from the likes of Penny Sparrow, Mabel Jansen and Matt Theunissen. The word k****r has long lost its shock value for me and there is no use trying to sugar coat that by referring to it as the “k-word”.
While well-meaning, that politeness also has the effect of putting a curtain between ourselves and our past.
The warding off of the past is as unnatural as separating the Sparrows, Jansens and Theunissens from the sources of their racism - the universities that continue to manufacture the stereotypes in which the racists trade.
In the modern era no institution has done more than the modern university to create scientific racism - from 18th century natural scientists to 20th century physical anthropologists.
But as Saul Dubow has observed, scientific racism became untenable when black kids scored higher on IQ tests than white kids. Hence the shift from scientific racism to cultural racism. That cultural racism stalks our university departments today. Thus, a UCT philosophy professor can openly argue that Africans are exactly where Europeans were 500 years ago.
This is part of a department by department push-back against the gains of the movement for decolonisation initiated by black students at UCT. As in the bad old days those students have now been expelled, thrown out to the wolves.
While I have repeatedly and publicly opposed their tactics I also know that expulsions do not solve anything. They simply push the problems underground and invite more protest.
Those of us who have benefited from the student movement - and that is the entire black intellectual community - cannot lose patience with these young people.
We must seek them out and teach them under lamp-posts if necessary. Anything less would suggest we are hypocrites and free riders who are all too happy to benefit from their demands while not willing to speak out in their defence. Given that their expulsion follows a high court ruling it comes with an order that they must pay R250 000 in costs.
Back to the challenge of cultural racism. Unlike the vulgarity of the Sparrows and Jansens, modern cultural racism rests on two pillars: plausible deniability and counter-attack. Plausible deniability is when someone in your department insults you with a smile and still calls you an esteemed colleague.
They feign surprise that you could have interpreted their words and actions as racist. They ask you to stop being so sensitive.
The accused becomes judge and juror who acquits himself at the same time.
However, if you should stand your ground then the counter-attack comes into play. They now call you racist for calling them racist. In the end a moral equivalence is immediately drawn between racism and its critics. In short, to be the good black is to accept the plausible denials, lest the counter-attacks come into play.
Let me illustrate with an example. I was on my way to class in the computer science building this past Wednesday when I thought to ask a professor on the third floor for the nearest bathroom. His response was swift and unmistakable: “No there aren’t any. The only ones on this floor are for staff.”
Ouch! The last time I checked I was a member of staff. I was momentarily at a loss for words. And so I gave a rather lame response: “So you don’t think I could be staff?” “Listen I am busy here,” came the response, as he turned to work on his computer.
Here I was, dressed in my finest formal attire, with my UCT tag prominently displayed around my neck, but to this man I was no more than Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. And this is just but one of many such experiences. I was once in the engineering building looking for a lecture hall when I asked a professor for directions.
Instead he asked if I was there to deliver a parcel. If this can happen to me as a professor, can we really blame the students for their anger, and instead punish them for saying enough is enough?
And what feudal nonsense is this that there should be a bathroom only for staff?
Are we back in the days when individuals can police the use of public facilities?
I thought of reporting this latest indignity to the university but where would I start. I had a glimpse of plausible deniability when one of my students asked if I had really needed a bathroom or if I had just wanted to test this person’s response.
By this logic, I had left my house with a plan to pick a fight with a white person about a toilet.
It is this trivialisation of black people’s quotidian experiences that requires our attention, much more than the occasional flare-ups with the Penny Sparrows and Jansens of this world.
Hannah Arendt described it as the banality of evil which becomes so routinised that it becomes the norm. The abnormal become those who resist it. That is where we are in our country and our institutions with racism.
But we could still learn from those who refused to take on the label of abnormality, who refused to be silenced.
Robert Sobukwe argued black people could not expect to be treated with dignity unless they demanded it: “It must be clearly understood that we are not begging the foreign minorities to treat our people courteously. We are calling on our people to assert their personality.
“We are reminding our people that they are men and women with children of their own and homes of their own, we are reminding our people that acceptance of any indignity, any insult, any humiliation, is acceptance of inferiority.
“They must think of themselves as men and women before they can demand to be treated as such.
“The campaign will be the mind of the Africans. Once the mind is free, the body will soon be free. Once white supremacy has become mentally untenable to our people, it will become physically untenable too, and will go.”
* Mangcu is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent