Stellenbosch University has issued a response, following the publishing of a research thesis titled ‘Lived Experiences of Hidden Racism of Students of Colour at an Historically White University’.
The thesis was completed by Elina Kamanga, after speaking with 12 Stellenbosch University students about their lived experiences with ‘hidden racism’ at the university.
According to the Mail & Guardian, Kamanga defines ‘hidden racism’ as racism that “white people are sometimes unaware of because of how they are socialised”.
Before we get to the university’s response, let’s cover some of the examples that the students shared with Kamanga:
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 … 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.
You can find further examples in the Mail & Guardian article.
A complaint that came up regularly involved the language used in lectures, where discussions between students and learners were held in Afrikaans, which excluded them from participating.
Some of the students were so affected that they attended counselling, or generally avoided predominantly white spaces on campus.
In response, through spokesperson Martin Viljoen, Stellenbosch University issued a statement:
“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.
Good luck changing the attitudes of parents dropping their children off. Sadly, that’s a generation we may have to write off.
Credit where credit is due, though, for acknowledging the issue, and committing to finding ways to address it going forward.
This includes surveys that ask students to comment on how they experience campus life, and workshops for staff and students “to sensitise and equip them with skills to establish a culture of inclusiveness”.
See, it’s possible to have a rational reaction to accusations of racism that don’t involve name-calling and whataboutisms.
Whether or not students of colour see a change going forward remains to be seen, but admitting that there are issues is a step in the right direction.
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