South Africa

RACE, SCIENCE & SOCIETY

New book Fault Lines explores the lingering effects of racism in academia

New book Fault Lines explores the lingering effects of racism in academia
Daily Maverick Associate Editor Ferial Haffajee. (Photo: Gallo Images / Destiny / Nick Boulton) /Former Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) Professor Jonathan Jansen. (Photo: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award)

A new book from Stellenbosch University delves into the mire of race and racism. Two recent academic research articles caused a furore by presenting arguably racist findings, raising questions about where the fault lines lie in racial discourse and what action can be taken to create an anti-racist society.

“Is race real?” “Where does race come from?” “Can race be unlearned?”

These are some of the questions raised in a collection of hard-hitting essays published in the new book Fault Lines: A primer on race, science and society

Co-edited by Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University, and Cyrill Walters, a postdoctoral fellow in higher education studies at the university, the book angles itself as a “must-read resource” for students and citizens concerned about the lingering effects of race and racism in South Africa and globally.

Jansen explains in the preface that a controversial piece of sport science research, published in the Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition scientific journal in 2019, forced open a long overdue debate about troubling epistemologies relating to race in research and academia.

“One of the things that’s always struck me about a crisis around race in South Africa is that when you talk to people about terrible research, or terrible racist actions … what they say in response to the crisis they provoke is, ‘What did we do wrong?’” said Jansen during a virtual book launch hosted by Stellenbosch University Business School on Thursday 25 June.

Jansen said he has realised over the years that what he perceived as feigned naivety was, in fact, genuine oblivion to racist nuances.

“There isn’t a moral consciousness that kicks in that says, ‘This is horrible’,” he explained. 

The sport science article in question, by Professor Elmarie Terblanche and four others, analysed a sample of 60 coloured women from the impoverished area of Cloetesville in Stellenbosch and, in short, concluded that “coloured women in South Africa have an increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as they present with low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours” (this is taken from the abstract of the paper).

The article caused a furore and has since been retracted.

But Jansen and Walters saw this as a “teachable moment”, hence the genesis of this book which brought together accomplished scholars and scientists from a range of disciplines such as health, anthropology, social science, gender and music.

“I think we need to deal with this as an educational matter,” said Jansen, who suggested to Stellenbosch vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers that the book become a part of the core curriculum for undergraduate students.

“You’re still going to have racist acts in this country, therefore you need to get out of this dilemma educationally. You can’t get out of this politically only.” 

In the book, Jansen addresses the idea of a fault line: “In geology, a fault line is a sudden crack or fissure in the earth’s surface that portends deeper problems in the crust below. The crack is therefore a warning sign that requires urgent action, failing which something worse could happen.”

Journalist, author and columnist Max du Preez, a key speaker at the launch alongside author and Daily Maverick associate editor Ferial Haffajee, made mention of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests about George Floyd’s death at the hands of US police.

“We only sit up and notice and change when something dramatic happens that gets lots of media coverage,” he said, acknowledging that racism and police brutality are entrenched and ongoing issues. He later pivoted to the problematic shortcomings in understandings of race, imposed by the apartheid regime.

“Most South Africans cannot distinguish between race on the one hand and ethnicity and culture on the other.” 

The idea of “unlearning race” is one which Dr Anita Jonker tackles at length in her chapter of the book. Jonker is a lecturer and co-ordinator of the Extended Degree Programme in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch. She outlines the racist, Afrikaner nationalist ideologies that Stellenbosch was built on and acknowledges how the social context of the historically white institution was a breeding ground for “offensive research”.

During the discussion, Haffajee brought up another, more recent, example of “offensive research” — by University of Cape Town economics professor Nicoli Nattrass, which sparked the ire of some academics and members of the public. The paper titled Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences? was based on a sample of UCT students and, according to Haffajee, concluded that, “Black students in the main are materialistic and not really interested in the natural sciences.”

“For me it would be tragic if it wasn’t so funny,” Haffajee said with a straight face. “Stupid questions like those were going to beget the stupid answers she got,” she later added.

Some of these questions, simplified, were along the lines of: Do you have pets? Do you want to study conservation? Do you believe ‘Rhodes Must Fall’? Another was about putting land reform above national parks and nature conservation.

Haffajee deduced that ignorance portrayed in the Nattrass and Terblanche articles was a sign of people “retreating into their laagers”. In other words, the researchers weren’t prone to leaving their spaces of comfort or immersing themselves in communities or cultures different from their own.

Du Preez delved into the role white people can play in transformation.

“We need to explain that the new mantra by so many white people that they are ‘colour-blind’, so to stop talking about race all the time, is more about denialism than a noble post-race state.”

He admitted that, in the past, he had resorted to confrontation and accusation when tackling racial injustice, but was now seeing the benefit of a “slightly softer approach”.

“Especially helping white people to not resort to defensiveness as the first reaction, but rather to understand and empathise and look deep into their own hearts.”

In his closing remarks, Du Preez addressed academics: “I challenge you, as I challenge my colleagues in the media, to seize the current revolution to explore and explain this complex problem to help South Africans re-evaluate their own ideas on race.” DM

 

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