By Ian Currie
I am a white, male student of Rhodes University. I understand that in writing this article and taking down a census in this manner I am further serving to centralise race in our society. My hope is that this is the start of a frank conversation that we should have with ourselves and one another. We all have the opportunity to change the way this country works.
Indulge in a thought experiment: you and your friends have been getting ready to go out on a Friday night. After a week filled with tests and essays, tutorials and late-nights, this is the night you can finally let off steam. You arrive at the door of favourite destination, ready to settle in for a night of adult beverages and variations of the tango. As you walk in you see that you are one of a few people with your skin colour in the venue.
At Rhodes University, this is not a situation that would likely occur. If it did, how would you react? Would you stay or would you leave? Would you be capable of feeling comfortable, of having a good time?
These graphs are drawn from a typical Wednesday night out in Grahamstown.
*Numbers indicate body count.
These statistics tell a simple and profoundly troubling story. At Rhodes University – an institution comprising of a racially integrated student body – white students go to venues where they will encounter white students; people of colour go to venues where they will encounter people of colour.
From another angle: white students go to venues where they will not encounter people of colour; people of colour go to venues where they will not encounter white people.
The racialization of spaces at Rhodes University is clearly visible: lecture halls, dining halls, sports teams, friendship circles; these all bear the markers of racial segregation that has underpinned South African society for centuries.
In this sense, these statistics should not be entirely surprising. In fact, those conducting the census predicted with unerring accuracy what the results of their research would be. In South Africa, a country torn from itself on the grounds of racial difference, our societies, cultures and tastes have been heavily racialised for generations.
Noloxulo Nhlapo, Director at Rhodes University’s Department for Equity and Institutional Culture, explains:
“Most people tend to feel much more at ease with individuals with whom they share a collective identity. Some identities are more salient than others and are salient across a wider range of situations. In societies in which the colour of the skin has been made to be socially significant, racial collective identities tend to be salient identities and these identities are constructed around frameworks of shared beliefs, values, behaviours, taste etc. Thus whilst, in South Africa, individuals who identify themselves as Catholic, Anglican, Jew and Atheist can go out to a pub together and invite one another to each other’s homes, this kind of socialising rarely happens across racial lines. Individuals will often assert that they have nothing in common, nothing to talk about, with individuals of other races. South African pubs and clubs are often constructed as raced/racialized spaces.”
Ok. It is at this point that students come in. Remember the thought experiment at the beginning of this piece?
After interviewing students and enquiring as to why they frequent the spaces that they do, many answers came up. All of these answers were either practical or taste-based, and none even alluded to the evident racial divide in those spaces. This indicates that students are entering spaces that they do not even recognise as being constructed along racial lines. This may be because most students enter spaces where they are in the racial majority and therefore normal in that space. When everyone around you has the same colour skin, that colour is not a differentiating feature.
If those tables are turned, and one is unexpectedly in the minority, race becomes something recognisable.
Nhlapo explains that the nature of constructed racial spaces is based in processes of “differentiation, keeping others out, devaluation of the Other, and justification.”
These spaces often manifest in such a way that they allow one group of people to feel comfortable in them and another to be alienated. At Rhodes University we, as students, continually recreate spaces that can preclude the comfort of groups of people whose skin colour is different from the majority in that space.
This is not necessarily the case. There are students who are of a minority race in a space and are completely comfortable being so. Yet the data suggests that comfort and taste still play themselves out along racial lines in nightlife spaces.
These spaces can be used to justify oneself through devaluing and othering those that are not the same as the majority. This is something to be conscious and wary of.
It would require an insulting lack of self-awareness to not know that the space one inhabits is racialised. That is not a claim any self-respecting person can make. Nhlapo believes that one cannot be blissfully unaware of the space one enters; one merely chooses not to think about that space.
Every person possesses agency and is able to break social boundaries if they so choose. This is a choice that could be made a lot more often.
If students continue to make the same choices they have always been taught to make then there will be a far lower chance of progress and reconciliation amongst our generation in this country. If we continue to play out the roles assigned to us by a violent and tragic history we have only ourselves to blame.
We should stop spouting nationalist ‘Rainbow Nation’ rhetoric unless we mean it in the sense that, like a rainbow, our colours are clearly happier sticking to themselves.
Nhlapo says that in order to cultivate a non-racialised nightlife in Grahamstown the following needs to happen:
- An equal status between different racial groups needs to exist in such spaces.
- Members of both groups need to be able to define themselves outside of collective racialised identities.
Before that point is reached, however, there needs to be honest engagement with oneself and the students around one. The current spaces inhabited by students’ on nights out need to be acknowledged as racially defined. Then this definition needs to be challenged, and ultimately corrected.
We are doing ourselves and our opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-racial growth and understanding a great disservice.
** Data gathered Wednesday 17 September between 21h45 and 22h45