Through Different Eyes. By Devi Rajab.

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 3.16.52 PMHow does one bring to the fore a deeply imbedded visceral problem? In a program entitled Through Different Eyes I subject my class to a video conversation among 10 men of all racial hues in the US and the outcome is mind boggling. The pain of the Chinese is not the same as the Chicano but the pain of the black man is the worst of all. At some point they all converge in a battle against white superiority. Racism is more that the sum of its parts. So even though I may think that I am a kind person and I treat all people equally I may have to think again. Racism is a deeply imbedded feeling of who one is in the pantheon of racial groupings. Where is one positioned in terms of ones history,economics architecture, monuments, writings, knowledge, scientific contributions, language and culture?  When ones culture is made invisible and inconsequential the bearers of this tradition are diminished.
Chumani Maxwell a fourth year student at UCT whom few of us would ever have known has captured the headlines for his wanton behaviour of dousing the great Cecil Rhodes in township poo. Like a human volcano he has erupted to release an inferno of racism against his alma mater against a backdrop of centuries of oppression? It could have been that he recently discovered what kind of a man Cecil Rhodes really was and he would be right if we removed him from the context of his times when there was a period of rapid colonization of the African continent by European powers. At a certain period in history when Europe’s misfortunes and Africa’s potential met, the Dark Continent was ravaged by the French, the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese and the Germans. The great Indian continent was also the subject of 300 years of colonization. So Africa is not alone in this respect. The times enveloped the conquerors with the conquered.  Who is to be blamed at this stage, the coloniser or the colonised?
The knowledge of a captured history with its by-product of ingrained superiority sits uneasily on the chest of morally indignant youth.
As disgusting as the act of the UCT student may be the symbolism of his message is potent. He has managed to shock and force his institution to start seriously engaging with black student perceptions of an uncomfortable institutional climate. How is it possible that in twenty years of our democracy having abolished institutional racism we are still struggling with interpersonal racism.
According to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) the lack of transformation taking place at SA tertiary institutions is of grave concern. Commissioner Lindiwe Mokate said that black students were largely the victims of racial incidents, with an increase in them being called k*****s. The “k-word” has featured in a number of racist complaints the commission received between April 2013 and February this year, making up 45% of the 529 equality complaints it received in that period. Although these did not all stem from universities, they were a reflection of the wider problem of discrimination. In my capacity as Dean of Student Development at the erstwhile University of Natal we received many complaints of racism on campus which warranted workshops and interactive discussions on the nature of the problem. Many students felt that they were invisible to their lecturers who seemed to reinforce white students in the lecture theatres more than others. I observed aspects of this behaviour at faculty board and senate meetings where colleagues would not greet or engage with you on or off campus. They simply did not see you and when you spoke they didn’t really hear you. Of course there were always the few who were open and receptive and kind. But the perception of prejudice as Adam and Moodley in their recent book entitled Imagined Liberation state is often experienced by individuals as personal rejection; the unspoken bigotry may be more hurtful to victims than legalised collective discrimination”.
Some forms of racism are so deeply disguised as social naiveté, intermingled with cultural chauvinism, where one believes that one’s own cultural ways are the benchmark by which everyone else has to conform that even the perpetrator is oblivious of his faults. . Ralph Ellison in his book Invisible Man and James Baldwin in his book “Nobody Knows my name” have referred to this phenomenon of prejudice as one of invisibility. When the dominant other does not see his inferior he makes him invisible and hence angry. On the other hand when the dominant other sees his inferior too conspicuously he makes him over visible and hence uncomfortable. The literature on racism distinguishes between conservatives and liberals. An old American adage runs …‘ In the South, whites let blacks get close so long as they don’t get too tall. In the North, whites let blacks get tall so long as they don’t get too close’. Parallels may be easily drawn on the home front. Whites who have roughed it on the mines or on the farms often hold the prejudicial attitudes about race and politics but their behaviour to other races is often more inclusive. Currently under black rule they appear to be making the transition more easily in their day to day interactions than their white liberal counterparts who have the tendency to articulate the right beliefs but who display shock or are repelled by the realities of a different culture.
Despite their differences South Africans seem to share one ineluctable similarity. They all cry ‘racism’ at the drop of a hat and each points a finger at the other.
For as long as there are people in the world, there will always be the affliction we loosely label as racism. The phenomenon of prejudice, which causes the condition, is as endemic as the common flu. Presently, the world is grappling with grave political disputes that have transformed into ‘cultural intifadehs.
So let’s not feel embarrassed or apologetic about what is a natural inclination of human kind that one needs to come to terms with rather than hide in a closet of denial.  In this respect both the victim and the persecutor need to reflect introspectively on each other’s condition. Unless South Africans openly air these spirals of prejudice they will never be able to truly reconcile and reconstruct a nation. Perhaps it is time for institutions of higher learning to heed the Chumane Maxwells on their campuses. In taking heed of their cries for help we need to hear their voices.


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