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“Making a former white South African university function in a way that is not racist is not easy”

Date Released: Thu, 12 September 2013 12:59 +0200

Rhodes University senior lecturer in the Political and International Studies Department, Dr Sally Matthews will deliver a paper entitled “(White) Privilege and Institutional Culture” at Rhodes University Institutional Culture Roundtable on Saturday (14 September) at Gavin Relly Post Grad Village.

Sharing her paper’s argument before the Roundtable, she said the paper is adapted from a presentation she did two years ago as part of the Rhodes Imbizo.

“We are planning to publish the papers presented at the Roundtable in a book on institutional culture. I hope that the book will contribute to discussions on transformation at higher education institutions in South Africa and beyond,” said Dr Matthews.

When asked about the status of the Institutional culture at Rhodes University currently, she said”we don't really know enough about Rhodes University's institutional culture, but there is research being done (or beginning to be done) that will hopefully shed more light on our institutional culture.”

She suspects that Rhodes Institutional culture favours white people, “although more research is needed to show exactly how Rhodes University’s culture functions”.

“Because the institution used to only employ white people as academics and in management, the institution's culture moulded itself around white people. While it has changed somewhat, I think that in general the university's culture remains more welcoming to people who are culturally similar to Rhodes academics in the past (and thus is more favourable to white people),” she added.

“In my paper I argue that making a former white South African university function in a way that is not racist is not easy and cannot be achieved solely through putting in place appropriate policies and procedures. I argue that in post-segregationist settings (i.e. places where there was official segregation, but that has now been removed), racism often operates in subtle ways.

“Many white people today do not explicitly endorse racism, but still have what some scholars call 'whitely habits' – this means that many white people act in ways that endorse and further white interests even though they may not think they are doing this.

“I argue that in order to make a university function in a way that is more favourable to black people, we have to find ways to reveal to white people how white privilege operates so that they can see and accept that they are privileged.

“Furthermore (and perhaps more importantly), we have to find ways to change the environments that 'feed' ‘whitely habits’. We need to place white people in positions where their dominance is challenged and they are exposed to alternative ways of seeing and being in the world. This will help foster changed attitudes.

“Unfortunately this does suggest that white staff members are more likely to develop better, less ‘whitely habits’ once they are in a less dominant position (i.e. once there are more black staff members, especially in positions of power), but that in order to attract black academics, white attitudes and behaviours have to change. This might mean that stringent affirmative action policies are required in order to ensure that black people get appointed to positions of influence from where they can challenge white privilege.

“So, we need to think of racism as something more than just explicitly racist comments and behavior and we need to think of transforming a university as being a long-term, complex project that requires both changes in policies and attempts to slowly erode problematic ways of interpreting and acting in the world,” she concluded.