By Shose Kessi
It is interesting how bodily and affective experiences are often weaved out of what is deemed “rational” theorising of current events and political talk. How can my mind operate separately from the rest of my being? Where does the separation occur? At the eyes? The nose? The mouth? The belly? The waist? Surely, that is irrational. Surely that is precisely what the work of so-called rational men concerned with scientific neutrality and objective benchmarks have brought to this world, by excluding particular bodies, experiences, and ways of being and thinking that would disrupt the logic of modern life. How can I, as a black woman in a predominantly white institution that was never meant for me think of rational solutions that I can’t see, smell, taste, speak, or feel?
One thing that is common in “rational” talk is that black people are always seen as the “problem”. When black pain is presented outside of a structural and historical analysis of the black condition, the result will be the portrayal of black bodies as helpless passive victims afflicted by disease, destitution, violence and corruption whose minds cannot think themselves out of. This in fact has largely been the case in mainstream media and in the discourses of international aid, charitable organisations, and many academic projects that trivialise and sanitise complex issues that affect black lives. We are often told that the problem is money and food rather than structural and cultural oppression and exploitation. In higher education discourses, similar ideas about black students and black staff as lacking in competencies are presented as given without an analysis of the institutional structures and cultures as well as the social, historical, and material contexts that continue to exclude and devalue the contribution of black scholarship.
The social movements sweeping across the higher education landscape in South Africa are however very different to these apolitical versions of black suffering. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) for example, the Black Academic Caucus, a group of over 80 black academics representing all faculties, is engaging in institution-wide conversations and actions to address the exclusion of black experiences and scholarship in the area of curriculum, research, staff recruitment and development, and institutional culture. The fundamental logic is that black scholarship prioritises the needs and aspirations of the majority of people in this country and continent. These initiatives are not separate from our social and historical context, in particular the material, symbolic and structural conditions brought about by colonisation and apartheid. On the contrary, these initiatives are a direct result of our affective and bodily experiences as black scholars and as black people in this country and continent. The fall of Rhodes was symbolic of the need to dismantle the racist masculinist culture of our institution (city, country and continent) and has led to many critical debates about dismantling whiteness and patriarchy in the lived experiences of black staff and students.
When black students protest at being silenced in classroom debates, at being taught with materials that exclude or devalue their bodies and cultures, at having to live through the rape culture of our residences, these painful experiences inform the learning, teaching, and cultural practices that need to change. When black staff protest at being denied promotion, at being rejected by ethics committees, or at being depicted as incompetent simply because of their race or so-called “black accents”, these experiences inform the teaching, research, and governance practices that need to change. In fact, all of these experiences tell us of the ways in which the dominant white male culture at UCT is perpetuated at the expense of black, women, and LGBTQ experiences and intellectual excellence. As an academic institution that is forging and inspiring the minds of future generations, challenging these dynamics is fundamental to creating a society that fosters inclusivity, dialogue, and wellbeing.
It is from the experiences of exclusion of black bodies in the institution that we become conscious of how the past invades our present and how to move forward. Black pain tells us about how oppressive power works and the intricate levels and dimensions at which it operates. Hence, black pain doesn’t close down dialogue as Achille Mbembe suggests but rather reframes or shifts the terms of engagement. Engaging with black pain develops a new level of consciousness where the affective experiences of exclusion are at the root of how critical reasoned argument can emerge and lead to decolonising and transformative practices.
The idea of logical reasoned argument outside of affect is nonsensical and serves to legitimise the idea that intellectual projects and academic freedom exist outside of historical structural analyses. It serves as a smokescreen that invisibilises whiteness or white feelings. I cannot count the number of times I have been in classrooms, meetings, and committees where the feelings of white students and staff dominate the space in suffocating ways that exclude and silence — under the guise of “logical reasoned argument”. The burden of black academics in these spaces is often one of appeasing and negotiation for fear of being dismissed and labelled as irrational, at best, or, at worst, for fear of the white blacklash that typically spirals out of control. Black pain and anger is pathologised and condemned whereas white people’s anger is cajoled, understood, and considered rational.
In fact, let us pause for a moment and speak about animal rights to appease our white colleagues in the midst of these turbulent transformative times. After all, we must remember our place. When I first arrived at UCT, I had to stay in a guest house because the staff housing that is usually provided to newcomers was said to be full. Yet, my white American male colleague who arrived at the same time was accommodated in a UCT house because he came with his two dogs. Of course, he got to keep his dogs and my children had to stay behind. These things are considered completely normal and rational over here. In fact, in a couple of weeks, the humanities faculty at UCT is holding a special faculty board to discuss cruelty to animals. I wonder if the dogs will be joining us in this logical reasonable debate.
Dr Shose Kessi is a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Cape Town and a member of the UCT Black Academic Caucus.