Michelle Avenant
Michelle Avenant

#IAmStellenbosch and the quiet violence of the ‘colour blind’

Hanging in an office at my old school is a yellowed newspaper article titled “School for the colour blind!” featuring photographs of children of different races laughing and playing cricket together.

It was 1981 — three years after the small, independent school started admitting learners of all races despite apartheid norms — and to the Sunday Tribune journalist observing “an island of racial harmony in South Africa’s apartheid-torn society”, the term “colour blind” probably signalled a utopian future quite different to the South Africa in which it is used today.

While at a progressive school in 1981, “colour blind” referred to a relative lack of perceived racial barriers, at Stellenbosch University (and throughout South Africa) in 2015, it is used to deny these barriers’ continued existence and refuse to engage in breaking them down.

The release of Luister — a documentary film reflecting on pervasive institutional and cultural racism at Stellenbosch University — has been met with a thousands-strong backlash of militant “positivity” from Stellenbosch students.

“Remember, if you don’t have something nice to say, just don’t say it at all J” read the event page of September’s #whereisthelove protest, which aimed to “put an end to this destruction and negativity” engendered by marginalised students calling for a more linguistically, culturally and racially inclusive university.

The latest Pollyanna in this positivity parade is the #IAmStellenbosch movement, which this weekend published a photo campaign inviting students to “break down a stereotype”, and featured a significant number of white students proclaiming they were “colour blind”, “kleurblind” or “not a racist!”

IAmStellenbosch_1a

At a time when nationwide student protests are highlighting social and structural racism that has persisted at universities for decades after the abolishment of apartheid laws, claiming racial “colour blindness” is not a utopian political statement but a refusal to consider or acknowledge one’s own responsibility in addressing racism. It is now clear we each play a personal role in racism, which will not go away on its own no matter how politely we smile at one another. “Racism is not my problem!” the “colour blind” seem to say.

To (allegedly) ignore racial difference is also to refuse to acknowledge the different experiences and backgrounds others have due to their race: to hide behind “colour blindness” is to be adamantly ignorant of racial inequality.

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

Furthermore, congratulating “colour blindness” carries the sinister implication that colour — ie, any racial identity outside of the sanctity of whiteness within which the term “colour blind” is popularised — is something one must “see past”, as though it is inherently negative or unsightly, rather than something around which to build a proud and celebrated identity. In this way, “colour blindness” as an ideal attempts to speak over the myriad of marginalised racial identities people of colour are moving to reclaim and reinscribe.

#IAmStellenbosch and movements like it seek to silence consideration of race and racial inequality, all in the name of preserving a “positivity” that vilifies those who speak out against these movements for killing their “lekker vibes”.

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

#IAmStellenbosch itself aims to placate the student body by presenting a trivialised view of racism as a simple issue of misinformation, which can be swiftly cleared up with a generic photo campaign vaguely addressing stereotypes, while conflating the trifling variances of white identity (“I am 100% Afrikaans and we don’t farm”) with the urgent concerns of navigating a white space as a person of colour (“I feel like a complete OUTSIDER”, reads one black participant’s image).

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

Saving face with Facebook likes in the short term, faux-friendly “colour blindness” and the reductionist view of racism it engenders will achieve little in the long term but another 20 years of inadequate transformation. Stellenbosch is not the only institution for which this is true.

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  • #IAmStellenbosch: ‘I am colour-blind and I can see colour’
    • ProudlySA

      Great article. Thanks.

    • GoodWolf

      So… being colour blind is racist? Dear lord, please send us more wise people to pass opinion on judging perception. Oh hang on, that’s right – wise people don’t judge perception.
      When you choose to see something as separate, you choose to see differences; when you choose to see something as unified, you choose to see equality.

    • feanor

      Neither volume, nor violence implies value. Nor does the perceived experiences of the few justify the vilification of the many.

      You point to negative experiences of individuals as justification, yet patronisingly dismiss others with contrary views.

      The #iamstellenbosch campaign features hundreds of students of all races participating and sharing their views, yet they are blind to their own reality, according to you. They are all dismissive of the larger reality – one many of them are more subject to than you could ever be.

      You view #iamstellenbosch as a false and insufficient attempt to paint over chasms masquerading as cracks, but the reality is that it is there to show that the cracks may not be as large as the uninformed chorus would lead us to believe.

    • http://www.hlagamediagroup.co.za/ Makate Rapulana

      The cracks are large or else we would not be having this topic. Racism is a very grave issue in SA. Just saying you are colour blind would not fix decades of injustice. I agree with the writer on this one. The Open Stellenbosch is not about racism it is about removing the last vestiges of apartheid.

    • trixlaw

      Brilliant article. Well said. I think the colour blinders have spent the last 20 years pretending racism doesn’t exist. It’s time to look it in the face and deal with it – every single gripe.

    • Alfred States

      The problem with the idea of “colour blindness” is not that it is inherently “wrong”, but that it is “negatively-defined” … Today thousands of people are marching against corruption which is also not “wrong”, but is also “negatively-defined”. It is fine to be “against” something, but defining what you are against dose not necessarily define what you are FOR. The problem occurres at a cognitive level and is expressed in the language that is used to define it.
      If I keep saying to you: “don’t think of a blue car”……; “don’t think of a blue car”……; “don’t think of a blue car”……; “don’t think of a blue car”……; “don’t think of a blue car”……; “don’t think of a blue car”……
      then sooner or later you WILL think of a “blue car”, – even though I am asking you NOT to think of a blue car. – would you have thought of a blue car (however you represent that in your mind) if I had not brought it up?

    • feanor

      Public attention is generally not a good gauge of the importance of a subject – just ask the Kardasians.

      An awareness of race, culture and our shared history is important, but the present preoccupation with race is dangerous. When you see those who disagree with you as evil racists, you are unlikely to rationally examine their views and arguments. This reactionary vilification of anyone who opposes you is a very bad way to move forward as a society.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      “Never trust anyone who says they don’t see colour. This means (,) to them (,) you are invisible” … so you colour code your friends?

      My children went to St Paulus in primary school. That was before 1981 and it was multiracial. It was much more than we could afford, but it was the only multiracial school we could find. Neither of my children see ‘colour’ – they see people. It is a little bit sad that you see the colour before you see the person

    • Fred van Leeuwen

      If born frees enjoy the benefits built up by parents and earlier generations it does not make them a racist. It may make them naive though.
      I am a white immigrant also envying the wealth that was built up by many white South Africans thanks to their historic privileges. Yet their children are not necessarily racist.

    • Willem De Jager

      The notion of racial ‘colour blindness’ is just as supremacist as the liberal white trend of ceremoniously ‘owning’ white privilege as a means of absolution (since I don’t see any practical form of restitution offered by those privileged types). It is especially supremacist when it seems to be totally indifferent to the linguistic imperialism of their monoglot Anglophone outrage.

      Nobody is expecting of them to consider the certain marginalisation of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch resulting form the banally emotive Open Stellenbosch and other smear campaigns because luckily for them the vast majority of everyone “obviously” prefers English as the medium of instruction… whose superiority to all other languages cannot be questioned, as if by divine decree. Lucky that.

      IMHO you should take your linguistic supremacy with you back to the institution currently known as Rhodes. Let those people from across the spectrum considering the compromises that will result in them accessing learning in their second languages, sort this one out. (Disclaimer – I cannot be certain of the author’s native or other languages but she certainly portrays the image of the white Anglophone monoglot who expects a badge for acknowledging her privilege).

    • zcla

      Why does everything have to be far left or far right. Why can’t someone just like music, fashion, language or even people from different cultures, race or religions without someone else thinking they have a hidden agenda. It’s this far left far right attitude that started the second world war, Uganda genocide, apartheid, and religious wars in Middle East and Africa. People are always going to disagree about something, if not race or language, it’s going to be about culture, or religion, or sex. And even when you have people of the same race, culture, religion and sex in the same room….they will still argue about something like sports. It’s about understanding (or at least trying to understand) that people are different. You don’t know theses people’s stories. So perhaps the problem isn’t what people wrote on those little white boards, but how people interpret it. Perhaps people are choosing to be colour blind, not because they are ignorant of the past, but because they don’t what the same future. A future fulled with excuses to hate someone because they are different in some or other way. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” -Nelson Mandela

    • Christien Scheepers

      So sick of apologizing for my white skin.

    • HughRobinson

      mmm methinks it is a case of damned if you do damned if you don’t. But then all thinking people already have come to understand .enough is NEVER enough. There is always some excuse to ask for more or another accusing finger point. In all the reality is that racist are trying to call the shots using another form of enforced exclusion.

    • Rory Short

      What is racism? As I see it, it is using a person’s race to define them instead of who and what they are as a living breathing individual. This way of relating to others is just plain wrong.

    • jnrb

      “Victimhood” is like a joker in a card game. It has a lot of value
      and you can play it anytime you want and normally it causes quite a
      stir amongst the other people. If you don’t like the vibe at Stellenbosch don’t go there.

    • http://www.hlagamediagroup.co.za/ Makate Rapulana

      If I am a victim who is the villian.. you?

    • Maggie Louw

      So why do you?

    • Pan Jandrum

      *sigh*

      Ive yet to hear of solutions to these problems.

      I mean Concrete solutions. Can anyone tell if a white person is ‘transformed’ just by looking at her/him? What does ‘transformed’ look like? How does one identify that a black person sitting next to you in a lecture is feeling marginalised? Must we assume all black people feel marginalised?

      I put these questions to some black music students from UCT who happened to be staying with me during a recent concert tour. They simply looked bemused. One commented that, as leader of their orchestra, she did sometimes feel a bit marginalised from her friends by her superior leadership position. Funny thing that. Apart from my niece, they were all black. They ignored further stupid questions from me and went back to discussing more serious and passionate issues, like how to achieve the dramatic volume Stravinsky required for the Rite of Spring without breaking any bows.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      Makate, what would fix decades of injustice?

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      Here is my take on “colour blind”.

      If you were a computer programmer, creating a program for something interactive, say, the interactive service information screen in a hotel. Would you write lines of code to analyze the skin colour of the user, and use this input to present a different experience?

      Now, trust me, if this interactive program is going to be successful, there may be decisions about what information to present; such as the desired language to display, perhaps certain services based on the user’s religion. There could be a host of variables that could change the program to make it more customised, more focused, more specific – more useful. But colour? It tells the program nothing about the individual.

      When we are subconsciously running through our thoughts and ideas, we should not have colour as part of our decision making. There are indeed elements that may change the way we act, or influence the things we say, but colour should not be one of those things.

      This does not make people invisible. It is not refusing to see colour: it is refusing to consider this as a variable.

    • Sinbad

      Exactly… the discussion of difference is reduced to the usual rhetoric of “colour” .
      Individualism is totally lost in the everyday social dialogue… especially with the topic of race.

    • Johnson

      You state that “Luister — a documentary film reflecting on pervasive institutional and cultural racism at Stellenbosch University” If you listen to these people it is more a reflection of the town and not the university. Most of these issues is outside the University’s jurisdiction.