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South African non-racialism or American antiracism? UCT muddles through muddied waters


Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa. 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).

Contemporary American antiracism entails a rejection of non-racialism. It emphatically asserts an essentialist apartheid-style understanding of ‘race’. This contemporary American antiracism is being promoted with a missionary zeal at UCT.

South Africa’s history of institutionalised racism under apartheid, persisting racial inequalities and ongoing episodes of racism keep racism and “race” a burning issue. Debates about how best to achieve racial justice are shaped by different political ideologies and understandings of the drivers of racialised inequality. American ideas — i.e. ideas from the US — have also long influenced South African thinking, including most recently contemporary American “antiracism”.

American antiracism does not simply mean being anti or against racism. It means adopting a racialised and profoundly American worldview that frames all disadvantages experienced by “black” people as the result of “systemic racism”, meaning the institutional and cultural promotion of “white supremacy”. Contemporary American antiracism entails a rejection of non-racialism. It emphatically asserts an essentialist apartheid-style understanding of “race”.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), in a city where anti-essentialist ideologies of non-racialism — including radical as well as liberal and African nationalist ideologies — have a long history, this contemporary American antiracism is being promoted with a missionary zeal.

Almost two years ago, in September 2020, UCT surprised many readers by announcing that its new vision was not only to “embrace inclusivity” but also to “say no to non-racialism”. When asked if the university really was rejecting non-racialism, which is a value enshrined in South Africa’s democratic Constitution, the announcement was quickly edited to read that UCT’s vision was actually to “embrace inclusivity and promote non-racialism”.

We were among those who questioned whether the initial announcement had been a typo. Was it, instead, a Freudian slip? The “Office for Inclusivity and Change” (OIC), set up in 2016/17 as an “active home and promoter of social justice on campus”, was already promoting American antiracism. OIC had twice invited Robin DiAngelo, the American guru of “antiracist training”, to UCT, where she has promoted her racialised stereotypes (and without any evidence) about “white” people as inherently racist and as continuing to benefit from systemic “white” domination and “white privilege”, whether in America, South Africa or at UCT.

DiAngelo argues that Martin Luther King Jnr’s call for people to be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin was a lifeline for “white” people because it allowed them to pretend that racism would end if they acted in colour-blind ways. In this view, King’s non-racialism supposedly “denied the reality” of systemic racism. DiAngelo has leveraged these ideas to build a lucrative antiracist training career promoting the opposite ideology: that if institutions train “white” people to go on a lifelong journey (rather like an alcoholic) to confront their racism and learn to avoid the unintended slights and microaggressions they commit every day against “black” people, then racial justice can be achieved. She claims her methods are as applicable in South Africa as in the United States. For DiAngelo and other champions of the new American antiracism, “white” supremacy is a global system in which the whole world mirrors the US.

At UCT, the OIC has facilitated DiAngelo-style “affinity groups” for “white” people as part of a broader effort to “decentre whiteness” (while at the same time “centering blackness” in other projects) at the University. The OIC has committed to rolling out antiracist/diversity training despite questions about its efficacy and the obvious danger that promoting DiAngelo-style racial stereotypes about “white” people as arrogant perpetrators and “black” people as their fragile victims can harden differences between people and reinforce racism.

An OIC strategy document dating from 2020 but currently circulating and being discussed in the university reveals a strong ideological commitment to American antiracism. Interpersonal racism, it states, occurs “between individuals, where the person who is equipped with White privilege as a consequence of his/her/their beneficiary status within the system of White domination, inflicts racism upon the person who is oppressed by a system of White domination”.

Such racialised ideology is in direct tension with UCT’s existing policy on racism. Dating back to 2009, UCT’s policy defines racism as “the advocacy or expression in any manner of the belief or attitude that any person, by virtue of his or her skin colour or ethnicity is to be treated as inferior or superior to others”.  The 2009 policy makes it clear that racism can be expressed by any person, not only by “white” people as the OIC definition implies.  

At a recent online university “engagement” on OIC’s strategy, one of its architects confirmed that racism was a word that applied only to “white” people because of their position in a power structure shaped by colonialism and apartheid. “White” people, we were told, need to find a “new language” to describe any apparently racial discrimination or violence perpetrated against them. This speaker was subsequently asked what such language might be and whether incitement to commit genocidal murder of “white” people by constructing them as inherently evil would still not qualify as racism. She said:  

“I invite you to consider this for yourself. First unpack what racism is, why it is, and how it plays out. Then perhaps you will find the answer you’re looking for. What I cannot do is make white people feel comfortable for the multi-layered degree of violence that is whiteness by applying the term racism to black people’s enactments of violence. The question and requirement for continued explanation is an act of violence. The pretence that you do not know what racism is and means and its manifestation is deeply problematic.” 

What is really deeply problematic here is that, at one of South Africa’s (and Africa’s) premier universities, it appears that a reasonable discussion about the definition of racism adopted in a strategic initiative within the university is impossible even in a context specifically set up as an engagement. Not only are “white” people constructed as embodying “multi-layered violence” but even asking questions is an “act of violence”. This is ultimately performative, unreasonable and deeply ideological.

There is a messianic dimension to contemporary American antiracism in its construction of “whiteness” as original sin, in its dogmatic pronouncements, and in its quick condemnation of critics as heretics. In his book Woke Racism: How a New Religion has betrayed Black America, John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University in New York, argues that contemporary American antiracism is a new religion, complete with demonisation, liturgy, rituals, high priests etc. He calls it “Third Wave Antiracism” to distinguish it from the struggles in the USA against slavery and segregation (“First Wave Antiracism”) and against racist attitudes in the 1970/80s (“Second Wave Antiracism”).

“Third Wave Antiracism, becoming mainstream in the 2010s, teaches that because racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity toward them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct” (2021d: 15).

There are many other “black” critics of contemporary American antiracism who emphasise that it misunderstands the multi-layered factors underpinning racial inequality, misrepresents history, is demeaning of “white” and “black” people alike, and undermines the broad coalitions needed to confront racial and economic injustice.

These critics come from across the ideological spectrum from mainstream liberals including the eminent sociologist Orlando Patterson to socialists such as Cedric Johnson, Adolph Reed and Touré Reed.

In his book “Toward Freedom: The Case against Race Reductionism“, Touré Reed argues that contemporary American antiracism is a racial ontology that “shrouds the complex forces shaping African American life in a densely packed fog of black suffering and white plunder” and “signs off on white liberal hand-wringing and public displays of guilt as alternatives to practical solutions to disparities”.

None of these critical perspectives are aired at UCT. Instead, (third wave) American antiracism is being pushed by initiatives linked to the OIC as a matter of ideological (or religious) conversion rather than critical engagement. Critics are dismissed as willfully ignorant and condemned as “violent” if they ask questions. Proponents of antiracism often speak a disingenuous, even saccharine, language of “inviting” people to have “engagements” and “difficult conversations” supposedly to facilitate “deep learning”.

As our experience makes clear, these are really invitations to “white” people to “do the work” of converting to antiracism, join white affinity groups and stay out of the way. They are clearly not occasions to engage with the priests of antiracism over the content of their mission.

UCT has struggled to deal with this antiracist vanguardism while continuing to appear fair and consistent with non-racialism. The term “anti-racism” has quietly entered the discourse, but in a way that leaves its meaning open to interpretation — and hence allowing for ongoing contestation within the university over how to think about racism.

A revised policy on racism was brought to — and, after some criticism and debate, adopted by — UCT’s Senate in March 2022. It now awaits approval by UCT’s governing Council. This new “Disciplinary Policy on Anti-Racism, Racial Discrimination and Racial Harassment” commits university leaders to creating an “anti-racist ethos” on campus and cultivating a “university culture through anti-racist teaching and learning practices, research, and University operations” without clarifying precisely what such an ethos and culture would entail.

The new policy sought to thread a needle between older (non-racial) understandings of racism and contemporary American antiracism. Racism was defined as an “ideology that explicitly or implicitly asserts that one race group is inherently superior to others” (which is in line with previous understandings) while dog-whistling to American antiracism by noting that racism “has also been tied to the aspect of power, i.e. the social, political, economic and institutional power that is held by the historically dominant group in society”.

The document did not endorse the OIC’s analysis of racism being something only white people can commit, but neither did it reflect any commitment to non-racialism. When pushed to include a definition of “anti-racism” in the document, the Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor responsible opted for the more common-sense understanding of the term (as being actively against racism), referencing the Anti-racism Network South Africa in support.     

UCT’s premier scholar on these issues was the late Neville Alexander, for whom the university’s old and now new School of Education buildings are named. Alexander was a champion of the radical tradition of non-racialism, which was implacably opposed to both the inequalities that characterise South Africa and the mobilisation of “race” to tackle these. As Alexander and others — in South Africa and the US — have argued, the mobilisation of “race” and “saying no to non-racialism” is likely to undermine the redress of inequalities. Contemporary antiracists not only essentialise “race” but also overlook the other (especially class and gender) inequalities that characterise our societies, undermining efforts to advance social justice. This is even more true in South Africa than in the US, given the differences in the relationship between “race” and power.

Proponents of American antiracism at UCT disregard Neville Alexander’s insights and warnings. Their vanguardism has given American antiracism a firm foothold at the university but has yet to prevail. The university is neither saying no to non-racialism nor confirming its continued commitment to non-racialism. This is not necessarily a bad outcome as it leaves the matter open to contestation.

But for that to happen meaningfully, space needs to be created for rational, respectful, deliberation between all people, whatever their supposed “race”. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Wow! Thanks for a really well laid out explanation of the battlefield of ideologies on how to address both racism and racial inequality. I appreciate how you keep your focus on the need for space to have the debates openly without ‘canceling’ phrases to shut it down, and to keep the ultimate focus on improving the relations and opportunities for healthy life experiences for all.
    I am however wondering what the anti-racist approach, as you have portrayed it, is actually hoping to achieve, as I don’t imagine either black or white would be happy being perpetually portrayed as victim and oppressor. It does feel like a rather blunt and violent stance with a flavour of resentment rather than love, empowerment and reconciliation.

  • John Stephens says:

    Americans, whether from the far right or the far left, have really become a threat to social solidarity and cohesion. They tend to create neologisms at the drop of a hat and then start arguing about them as if they were real. We certainly don’t need to import their ideological flatulence and become involved in their culture wars. Just leave them be where they belong, on the other side of the (real) world.

  • Robin Smaill says:

    Anyone or organisation that creates division between races is a racist. We are all essentially the same under the skin and especially so inside our heads. Race has been a successful political tool for a long time but socially that is a disaster. If progress in reducing inequality is desirable, then cooperation and consensus is essential. We need to talk to each other and cooperate in meaningful ways.

  • Bennie Morani says:

    The authors argue convincingly against the crude type of anti-racism (also found in “critical race theory”) that seemingly divides humanity between whites who are born with original sin and the never-ending suffering of blackness. But it falls short in acknowledging that in the US (and to a much lesser extent in South Africa), white racism is a significant and destructing force.

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