What does UCT’s “executive” really think of “non-racialism”? On Wednesday 16 September UCT proclaimed that its vision was to “embrace inclusivity, say no to non-racialism and erase all traces of the past’s injustices”. Many readers were amazed. Saying “no to non-racialism” meant rejecting not only one of UCT’s former core values but also Section 1 of the South African Constitution.
In the face of criticism on social media, the article was quickly “corrected”. By Thursday it read that UCT will “embrace inclusivity, promote non-racialism and erase all traces of the past’s injustices”. Complainants were told that a “mistake” had been made by UCT’s media department.
Really? Was this a genuine mistake, made by the journalist and then overlooked by two editors within UCT’s media department? Might it have been an accurate if un-strategic reporting of ideological over-reach? Or perhaps a Freudian slip, in a university where non-racialism is under attack?
There is currently a strong ideological push at UCT against the understanding of non-racialism reflected in the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution. This ideological offensive has its origins in what we call the New American Ideology of Race, linked to explicitly race-reductionist identity politics. Central to this new ideology is a new understanding of what it means to be “anti-racist”. “Anti-racism” is very different to “non-racialism”. Indeed, rather than seeking colour-blind approaches, the new ideology has reinvented racial essentialism as something we are all expected to embrace if we are to be accepted as “progressive” and support “social justice”.
This is a deeply Orwellian project. Being an “anti-racist” requires seeing everyone in hard – even essentialist – racial terms, where assumptions are made about people based purely on their “race”.
According to the new ideology, racism is generated systemically and embodied in the minds of white people. Proponents accept, as a matter of faith, that there is an overarching system of white supremacy (sometimes referred to as “colonialism” or “systemic racism” or “institutional racism” depending on the context) that privileges all white people at the direct cost of all black people.
This perspective has its origins in the American Black Power movement of the mid-1960s. Whereas civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin sought to forge a broad political coalition to achieve equal rights for all, the ideologues of Black Power (including Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton) argued that white liberals were untrustworthy allies because “institutional racism” relied on the “active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes”.
This division was reflected in South Africa as an ideological and political divide between the non-racialism of most of the African National Congress and allied “Charterist” organizations, and parts of the Black Consciousness movement. Nelson Mandela was sceptical of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness, seeing it as an “American import” that had been “swallowed in a lump without regard to our concrete situation, in which progressive whites, including Marxists, liberals, missionaries, professionals and businessmen form part of the liberation movement and fight the enemy with the most militant methods” (quoted in Ian MacQueen, Black Consciousness and progressive movements under Apartheid, 2018: 5-6).
Contemporary proponents of the New American Ideology of Race remain fundamentally opposed to the non-racialism of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. According to Robin DiAngelo, King provided white Americans with a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card: “One line of King’s speech in particular – that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the colour of his skin – was seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end.” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 2018: 41.)
DiAngelo’s solution is straight out of the Black Power playbook: to force white people to acknowledge the racism that she herself sees everywhere, and then to act in racially conscious ways (as taught by her) to all people at all times. Any white person who rejects this approach in favour of non-racialism is denounced for supposedly refusing to confront race and displaying “white fragility”.
DiAngelo is an American consultant with a lucrative business in “anti-racist” training. She promotes her work in South Africa, including at UCT, arguing that her “theory” is as relevant in South Africa as it is in the US. According to DiAngelo, white people have “anti-blackness” baked into them whether they realise this or not. Her corrective training requires them to accept their inevitable complicity in racism, to excavate and confess their racial biases, and learn not to “decenter” black voices (which, being systemically oppressed, are necessarily weak and vulnerable). White people must also be (re)-educated about the many ways that words, symbols and arguments can be painful, experienced as “microaggressions” and even as “epistemic violence” by black people.
DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, although lauded by some as insightful, has also been condemned as profoundly racist towards both white and black people. David Edward Burke, for example, points out that her concept of “white fragility” is a “Kafkatrap” because it is an irrefutable theory: white people are either self-acknowledged racists (proving her theory true) or are denying it (displaying white fragility and therefor proving her theory true). He writes: “If a similar book were written about any other racial group – Asian Insecurity, Black Hostility, Latinx Insensitivity, etc – not only would the book never become a bestseller, it would never be published. People would see the book for what it is — an absurd generalization that attributes negative qualities to an entire race of people — the very definition of racism.”
John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University New York, similarly describes DiAngelo’s book as a “racist tract” pointing out that it “diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us”. He writes that he does not “need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive to my feelings” and that “I cannot imagine that any black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength”:
“Few books about race have more openly infantilised black people than this supposedly authoritative tome…. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think – or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanising condescension toward black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way.”
Matt Taibbi goes further, calling DiAngelo a “dangerous huckster” who “isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory”.
DiAngelo has been invited twice to UCT (most recently, for a virtual webinar, in August) by the university’s “Office for Inclusivity and Change”. According to last week’s article on UCT’s vision (Vision 2030), the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Transformation and her Office for Inclusivity and Change have “several anti-racism approaches” in the making to address racism “head on” at UCT. Important institutions within UCT appear to have become enthusiastic converts to the cult of “anti-racism” and its priest, DiAngelo. “Saying no to non-racialism” is entirely consistent with the New American Ideology of Race.
Even if we accept the story that a UCT journalist and editors made a mistake, the university is certainly sending out mixed messages. It reaffirms its support for non-racialism at the same time as embracing and promoting an “anti-racist” gospel that is fundamentally opposed to non-racialism.
Any university must address racism and encourage all of us to listen more closely to and deliberate with others, especially those colleagues whose voices were suppressed in the past. Any university should challenge the provincialism of ideas and theories developed elsewhere. The New American Ideology of Race poses a profound threat to the university not simply because it sneers at the non-racial vision of King, the Freedom Charter and Mandela, but because it justifies the suppression of deliberation and substitutes new and intolerant certainties for critical enquiry. DM
Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town and co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild). She is the former director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at UCT.
Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Political Studies and Sociology at UCT.
Nattrass and Seekings are the joint authors of Poverty, Politics and Policy in South Africa (Jacana).