There has been much backlash against the social media campaign #RhodesSoWhite, which I started on a thread on the Rhodes SRC Facebook page. The rationale behind the social campaign was to expose the collective mental violence faced by black students at Rhodes University on all levels.

The backlash this campaign has generated exposes not only how white students are (wilfully) blind to the safety net created for them by being the embodiment of social, cultural, political and economic capital that comes from white normativity. It also exposes how white students on this campus still believe in the trope that racism is racism only if you are grotesquely overt in your disdain for black people.

The social media campaign attempted to show how racism exists not only on a macro level. Micro-aggression, or what I call “palatable forms of racism”, are as rancid as those who have the blood of our foremothers and fathers on their hands. The campaign was to bring to the fore the intersections of micro- and macro-aggression faced by black students on an institutional level, but also in their interactions with other students on campus. We must dispel the myth that palatable racism is not an assault or visceral crushing of black humanity.

Although not surprising, a majority of those who felt offended by the campaign have adopted a politics of erasure and silencing, which, if not derailing the legitimate experiences and lived realities faced by black students at Rhodes University, have also been used as a tool to balance the debate. This “balancing” of the debate demands black students to dislocate themselves from the structural violence imposed by whiteness, white imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, and locate themselves in the lived oppression of white students at Rhodes University.

There are a number of implications that come with this burdensome demand. The most salient of these implications is the implicit demand made by white students to allow white normativity to mutate with ease, comfort and without resistance. This demand suggests further that although black students are in the process of constituting their subjectivity, the students must suspend the project of the humanisation of the self and understand that white students matter, too. This is a distraction. The very methodology of racism and the upholding of white supremacy works to distract the black political project of constituting and claiming black subjectivity. This, in and of itself, is the working of anti-black racism, which has unapologetically found itself comfortable enough to claim its space on the Rhodes SRC page and, by and large, a number of white students on campus.

Additionally, this social media campaign has also revealed the problematic logic of transcendence as a means of avoiding the discomfort of race. Many students are of the belief that South Africa is in post-racial era where race and racism are things we should get over. This transcendence is an attempt to banalise and conceal race and racism, to depoliticise history and its legacy while delegitimising the process of redress and restoring the dignity of those violently dispossessed. It is important to locate transcendence as avoidance within the national discourse of race among South Africans (white or black). In doing so, we are able to insert the particularities found in our universities into the national conversations of avoidance, denialism and erasure. These are the tactics being used by the Rhodes SRC when dealing with the issue of institutional racism and white normativity.

The trope “Our Blood Is Purple” is used by the SRC to create the illusion of homogeneity of the student body. The danger of using unifying symbolism is that they are an invitation to outside groups to assimilate into a normative culture that creates the illusion of inclusivity. This idea was cemented further at the emergency student body meeting held on March 19 with vice chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela. Although the VC was sympathetic to personal experiences expressed by students on how they have been affected by racism, the burden of the colonial legacy of Cecil John Rhodes, and the lack of transformation of the institution, Mabizela went on to depoliticise and balance the debate by assuring the students that the colonial legacy of Rhodes the man was no longer attached to the brand of Rhodes University as the institution has distinguished itself as a bastion of “academic excellence”.

These responses from the SRC and the VC should not be read in isolation. Although they speak to a particular context, when understood in relation to the national discourse on race and the “rainbow nation”, these unifying symbols are used as homogenising agents to avoid the race issue. It should not come as a shock that this has been the dominant response of students at Rhodes and members of staff to the campaign. It is endemic of a citizenry that is non-reflexive, reductionist and invested in the depoliticisation of transformation and redress, thus making it unnecessary.

The presence of the Black Students Movement (BSM) and their call for transformation at Rhodes has challenged the myth of the university having an apathetic and apolitical student body. The BSM has also exposed how, in an attempt to quell the fears of bogeymen alumni who will disinvest from a transformed Rhodes, the institution will label the organising of these students as a “racist storm”. A letter sent to alumni, with the title “VC acts swiftly to avoid racist storm at Rhodes”, showed how, in an attempt to scramble for the now exposed and shattered myth of Rhodes being a home for all, the BSM movement will be read as racist. This was done to avoid self-critique and reflection on why Rhodes’ culture has not transformed even with the change in demographics. The letter and the barring of students of the BSM on March 24 from the administration building are important messages being sent to these students – that the institution will protect itself from those who wish to disrupt its culture. Although the doors were finally open because the students on reading their memorandum inside the building, it speaks to the reluctance of the institution to transform. The doors to transformation will not be open unless those who demand it are persistent in their resolve.

These conversations and forms of resistance from the students at the University of Cape Town and the challenging of the presence of historical artefacts of colonial violence should not be reduced to a removal of a statue, the changing of the name of Rhodes University, or social media campaigns. These are all entry points into broader concepts of transformation and black students laying claim to space, and the right for their space to be reflective of a transforming institution. When students call for “Rhodes must fall” and rally behind #RhodesSoWhite as a collective, we ought to look deeper into the cause and align ourselves with any movement that vehemently rejects the untouchable nature of white normativity and its hold on shaping the experiences of black students at Rhodes, UCT and society at large.

#RhodesSoWhite was co-opted from #OscarsSoWhite.

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7 Responses to “#RhodesSoWhite: An Insight”

  1. Zintle Mvana
    March 27, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    I totally agree with you. To be honest I feel like I have grown so much in one term than I had in an entire year of trying to immerse myself into Rhodes culture. The Black Students Movement is not just a “political” movement in terms of formal politics but also in how a person lives their life (perceptions, attitudes, behaviours) because “the personal is political” They way we dress is political, the language we choose to express ourselves in is Political.

    South African culture is rooted in a sort of purposeful will to collecively forget that anything existed pre1994 and that is problematic and it isolates people whose realities are not part of the myth that we’ve made so many leaps and bounds in our 21 years of democracy. Which is probably why so many people freak out when politicians speak about land reform, increasing minimum wage and, surprisingly, when government commits to budgeting more money for NSFAS

    Great article

  2. brett Fish anderson
    March 28, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    hey Lihle

    Thank you for this – can imagine it will be met with quite strong comments from either side but so important that we keep speaking about these things with the hope that speaking moves towards more transformative action… i have been trying to use my blog as a space to have conversations about race and reconciliation and restitution and one page i have is where i have been asking different South Africans to share some ideas on first steps – i have a lot of white friends for example who genuinely want to be part of change and while we are starting to realise that land is one of the biggest conversations for a lot of people, we don’t necessarily have land to offer up and so it feels a little less helpful – but if you were to share your ideas on one or two first steps [to help us get closer towards where we need to be getting] that would be super helpful:

    https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/race-in-south-africa-moving-towards-a-truly-rainbow-nation

    Let me know if you’d be up for that but in the meantime, keep on
    love brett fish

  3. Rupert Taylor
    March 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

    Yes: in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Racism is not a thought”… “racism is built into the system” (Introduction to Memmi’s, 1957, The Colonizer and the Colonized).

  4. Richard Cohen
    March 28, 2015 at 11:56 pm #

    Lihle hi

    I came upon this conversation by chance. Looking at it from the UK ie: outside of and with little knowledge of the context you describe, all this talk of colour really jars, and my first thoughts were that all of you within the conversation are still trapped in a racial paradigm.

    So I’ve read your article twice and there are a few things I can’t get my head around. What do you mean by “whiteness” and “white normativity”? Isn’t the ascribing of a particular way of behaving onto folk with a certain skin colour the very thing the struggle was fought to get rid of? “A free, non-racial democratic South Africa”, yet racial (racist?) stereotypes abound.

    You mention “collective mental violence”, “disdain for black people”, “structural violence”. Are those conditions really prevalent in a country where the ANC, a largely black party if one has to get racial about it, has been in total power for 20 years? And at a campus where I presume the majority of students are black, should you give a damn about what white people (all of them?) think about you?

    You mention “transformation” and “capitalism”. If the goal is a rainbow nation non-racial future, does it matter that more staff have white skins at the moment? That cannot last. Capitalism belongs to no skin colour, just look at the explosion of the high-earning, high-owning black middle class. Do they care about the workers, black or white?

    It is very surprising that that racial classification still exists in SA. Apartheid legislation lasted 40 odd years yet 20 years on (half the apartheid years) from freedom the authorities still make divisions like this. I had to complete a professional application form and it asked for my “race”. There is no such scientific category , if one wants to be rigorous about it – see Institute of Race Relations paper by Prof Philip Tobias. I was in Cape Town in December and it struck me that many so-called white people felt that they were demonised at every turn for being “white” (I hate using these stupid terms), and therefore saw there was no hope for reconciliation and it was every man for himself.

    Lastly, I’d like to say that if Rhodes as a university doesn’t match up, if it really is place where “collective mental violence” is the order of the day then my advice is for you and all who feel like you to leave and set up your own university. I’m serious. It’s not so far-fetched. You could link up with a British or Australian campus that would initially recognise or ensure standards until the uni got onto it’s feet. You’d secure funding from abroad. It’s not such a stupid idea. When Jews in numbers arrived in the USA in the late 19th cent. there were quotas at the major US colleges for Jewish students, so they started their own institutions, that now at the very least match the institutions from which they were excluded. Why spend your collective energy on conflict when you could spend it positively building up a new institution for the future you want?

  5. Chris N Greeland
    April 8, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    The is a problem at a paradigm level as regards the whole debate around Rhodes.
    Certainly one can conclude that he does not represent the current values of UCT. No problem. Move the statue.
    However one cannot pass judgement on the man himself unless one first locates him within the norms, values and morals of HIS times, NOT ours.
    1. In his time there was no human rights culture, and there had not been from the time Cain killed Abel.
    2. In his time there was no concept or culture of equality and there had never been in previous history.
    3. In his time the culture was “invade, conquer and subjugate” .. and had been so throughout previous history.
    4. These realities were also located within this region in that King Shaka Zulu, Mzilikazi and Lobengula were hardly any different.
    5. Everything only changed in 1948, when the World signed off on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after two (2) World Wars and the Holocaust.
    For the first time mankind had a human rights culture and was no longer a matter of “might is right”.
    6. Before that you were either “dominant” or subjugated”.

    Regrettably there has been no evidence of any understanding of these critically important fundamental realities in the debate about Rhodes., even as regards academics and none other than a Supreme Court Judge.
    The approach has been to pillory Rhodes with the evils of apartheid, even though apartheid came about as an express repudiation of the UDHR, which Rhodes, as a passionate British subject would have undoubtedly supported.

  6. wendzzzzz
    April 10, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    just to interrupt: I also feel that the dynamics of post apartheid have put a plenty of black south africans in the position of white south africans during the apartheid: 1) The government takes care of a small percentage, then ignores the rest because they never had anything to start with so why start giving it to them. 2) Day to day civilian are not enthralled in social and economic upliftment of extremely poor black. i bring this up because I am not bothered by the 4 million afrikaans/english south africans left in SA. But the Millions upon Millions of black south africans acting and living like the minority. aint nobody going to boost us but us. nobody.

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