Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 23 April 2019

Heteronormative stereotyping leads us down the path of cognitive dissonance

If we are ever going to confront the question of who we are, we have to challenge the normative culture in South Africa, which is still underpinned by white privilege – a privilege that is unwavering and unforgiving, unable to hold itself accountable or to measure itself. A recently published Stellenbosch University study shows no glimmer of reflection or consideration that identity and race are complex and layered, but instead relies on the notion that race is a collective sentence.

This week, I stumbled on an authored article by Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche from the Department of Sport Science, Stellenbosch University, which purports to be rooted in facts and figures. The article seeks to consider the issues of “cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women”, which as a starting point is deeply problematic and a full-on display of cognitive dissonance, especially when the sample size of their study was simply based on 61 women “fulfilling the inclusion criteria” (and a limitation that is only noted but disregarded at the end of the article).

A number so small that many teachers in under-resourced schools across South Africa would be wrestling each day with the needs of a class that size, and knowing far more than simply the colour of their skin.

My own take after reading that article is that the research in question, if one may call it that, conducts a survey from a minute dataset and then seeks to extrapolate further information, context and analysis off this tiny sample size by referring to other statistical work that has been done – all on the basis that there is normative value in other studies done, for instance, in America. I am baffled at the number of assumptions and the summation that has recklessly been engaged in drawing conclusions as if they are supported by extensive research and integrated and layered datasets.

However, I am not surprised, as this is not unique to academic articles, but rather symptomatic of how little effort is made when engaging on issues that affect or are about vulnerable groups, i.e. anyone that does not fit that heteronormative and patriarchal normative culture.

If we are ever going to confront the question of who we are, we are going to really have to begin challenging the normative culture in South Africa, which is still underpinned by white privilege, the privilege that is unwavering and unforgiving, unable to hold itself accountable or to measure itself.

This study does not show any glimmer of reflection or consideration that identity and race are complex and layered, but relies on the notion that race is a collective sentence – a sentence that is rooted in the idea that agency does not exist but rather an entire group of women in South Africa (based on an engagement with just 61 women) display what they term “risky lifestyle behaviours”.

This piece of “research” then seeks to rely on the following statement, a statement that it clearly accepts as factual reality, “that Coloured women present with a high incidence of risky lifestyle behaviours including tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and recreational drugs”.

The underlying message of this research and paper issued by the gaggle at the Department of Sport Science is simply that the “Coloured community is, in terms of social class, considered the most homogenous group in South Africa and are generally described as a poor, lower working-class community”. A statement so uneducated, so divorced of nuance that it reminds me of Jimmy Manyi’s offensive rhetoric when he spoke of the “overconcentration of coloureds in the Western Cape”.

I am stunned by the brazen disregard for real thought or engagement in this piece of “research”. The authors fail to fully comprehend the complexity and multiplicity of identity, particularly in a South African context, somehow forgetting (but I guess that is them showing the full extent of their cognitive dissonance) that identity and race in South Africa are still a precursor to privilege, power and access.

The very notion of “being coloured” in South Africa is not a homogenous issue but rather a contested space. The race is a complex issue, and particularly issues of identity are about struggle, and often even self-articulation thereof is constrained. Identity cannot be reduced simply by the flawed argument showcased in this article, especially when that stereotypical thinking and conclusions are based on the engagement with only 61 women whose lives have been used and twisted to an outcome that simply relies on the flawed logic that they are all the same, simply because of their race and gender.

South Africa has made little progress in reshaping our spatial landscape, to confront our failing educational system and the resultant outcomes thereof, the socio-economic challenges and psycho-social ravages. We continue to muddle along through a quagmire without ever being able to define who we are, who we need to be and how we manage the abundance of diversity of our country. We have not spent enough time on our identity and particularly about the identity of those vulnerable in our society.

In this vacuum, heteronormative and patriarchal culture has been allowed to play out. The consequence of this is that we have been unable to arrest the culture of impunity that revolves around bigotry, abuse and sexual violence which have been entrenched by patronage, money, access and self-interest.

These are the issues that you will not hear being spoken of at the election rallies taking place across South Africa at the moment. These are the conversations that are not being addressed in our places of worship, community halls or even on the public square. The question of identity is not a new one, and yet far too many (often those in positions of leadership) have been surprised by movements such as #RhodesMustFall or #RememberingKhwezi.

It is for that very reason that consideration of these issues must be about respect and the complete avoidance of crude stereotypical thinking and generalisations. My view is that this article fails to do so – it acts disrespectfully, it draws wide-sweeping conclusions and displays a flagrant disregard for these women.

Cognitive dissonance, as displayed by the authors of this article, is not something new or surprising to many South Africans. We often hear about men of the cloth taking advantage of their position, or former State Presidents presiding over an entire State Capture project and Shadow State, or former apartheid regime leaders claiming the moral high ground.

However, this is a far bigger challenge for our society especially as we begin to shape our future. The solution is that South Africans must begin to speak with their own voice – about their own experiences, their own lives, and refute all those that peddle such dangerous and offensive generalisations and dare to pass it off as fact.

Saartjie Baartman was dissected and put on display. Black women in South Africa have a heavy burden to wrestle with – always confronted by violence. Violence through deed but also through the word. The authors of this article are but a microcosm of that violence as much as Stellenbosch University has a chequered past – a past that cannot simply be wished away. Incidents of violence, racism and misogyny have taken place often without any real consequence.

The question that troubles me about this article is whether it was reviewed, debated, considered by peers, by faculty, by mentors, by supervisors and ultimately by Stellenbosch University. The cognitive dissonance is layered throughout the concocted study. A reckoning is required in our minds, our hearts and needs to be seen through our conduct, but in order to do that, we must confront these instances with vigour.

Unshackling our minds, as urged by Bantu Stephen Biko, is what we should be doing. Embracing our identity and who we are is something that cannot be simply embodied in a speech, but rather it requires South Africans to begin challenging themselves, and their own preconceived ideas, inherent bias and prejudice.

The authors elected not to check themselves – they did not reflect on the nature of their work and how it would not only offend but also exacerbate stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a coloured womxn in South Africa. All of that is in spite of the fact that they believe that “Coloured women in South Africa are a vulnerable population group”.

Beyond this article, I am reminded of how complex and layered our history is, and how little effort and time are spent on investing and engaging in conversations about who we are. South Africa is in need of honouring its oral history – allowing South Africans to tell their own story, allowing South Africans to begin narrating their own lives, speaking about their own bodies, speaking about their victories, their aspirations, their hopes and their struggle.

If we are unable to do this, we will continue to allow half-baked ideas and thoughts on to the public square. DM

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