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50 shades of brown: Lessons on racism at UCT

By Dr Shikoh Gitau

“Aunty don’t you mean beige?” the small voice interrupted. Her 12-year-old sister added: “You know if they were really white, they would be like this,” pointing at a blank sheet of paper. “And if we were black, we will be like that,” she said, pointing to the well-polished black ceramic glass vase sitting on the kitchen counter.

“Aunty you’re caramel”

“You are right,” I answered, not wanting to dash their idealism.

My two young nieces had just interrupted as I was trying to explain who Cecil John Rhodes was, and why the students at the University of Cape Town were demanding the removal of his statue from their campus. The only other time I had been this interested in Rhodes had been during the application process to the prestigious Oxford-Rhodes memorial scholarship. An internet search of “Rhodes memorial” led me to this very statue with the biography of the man — a champion of British colonialism in Africa — and that was how I ended up at UCT’s computer science programme. So as an alumna of the university, I have been following the Rhodes discussion with interest, and was really surprised at the effect it was having globally as UCT students demanded the removal of the statue as an unwelcome legacy of racist white rule

You see, I never really identified myself as black … until I went to South Africa for graduate school. It was the first time I was asked to “check” my race.

Growing up in Kenya, I knew of the huge droves of “mzungus” who came in as tourists. I knew of the “wahindi”, the large Indian community in Kenya, who lived in a different part of town but still interacted with us in the streets and at school. But no-one asked me to fill out paperwork to say I am black and even with the tribal dynamics of my country, no one asked me fill in my tribe.

Students protest near the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at University of Cape Town on March 20, 2015. (Gallo)

Students protest near the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at University of Cape Town on March 20, 2015. (Gallo)

In South Africa, however, filling in my race was a requirement for university entry, opening a bank account, getting an apartment lease and even joining the gym. As I settled into my new life, I discovered that race was a currency with its own economy and to thrive you had to buy into it.

After a few years in South Africa, I got acclimatised. Without question I would simply check on the “black” box, to get it out of the way of the important business of securing my gym membership. After five years, I was all but desensitised to the reality of racism.

Often the first reference to any particular individual was “the black girl”, “the coloured guy”, “the Asian woman” and on and on it went. It never occurred that my own vocabulary had changed and — even sadder — that I had subconsciously accepted the stereotypes that came with a given race. For instance, in Cape Town, where I lived, it was common knowledge that when you saw a coloured guy coming your way (coloured meaning mixed race like Trevor Noah) you crossed to the other side of the street. They were perceived as dangerous. It was considered okay for black girls (especially those from Johannesburg) to be disrespectful, arrogant and talk loudly without making much sense. And, yes, the maths and programming class was full of white boys. And all of this was acceptable.

The local races did not intermingle.

However, as “kwerekwere” (foreigners), we were allowed to have white friends. So I as a caramel girl had — in addition to my Kenyan community — an olive-skinned Italian, a tanned American, a beige-skinned German and mahogany-skinned Ugandan friend. I stayed in this close-knit circle of people with different shades and I was safe. I have to say, if I was still at UCT, I most likely would have been apathetic to the happenings around the Rhodes statue, save for the interruption to my daily walk to or from upper campus.

The bias in my own thinking was only brought to the fore when I was confronted with outright racism, long after I graduated from UCT and started working in a different part of the continent. As a senior member of a hiring committee who understood the role we were hiring for, I was given the task of going through a shortlist and doing the first round of interviews.

After the first round I had my three favourite candidates, with clear front runner. My leadership training and prior experience had instilled in me the value of choosing character and personality over book qualification. So it came as a surprise to me, when the (black) person I believed best suited the job was not considered. Instead the team reviewed the shortlist and picked a candidate who did not match the criteria. Their reason was that this person was better qualified although there was little to back that up. This person was also white.

It was then that someone pointed out to me the race card.

In my career, I had been used to being one of the few black persons in the various teams I had been part of. I numbed myself against racial altercations or actions in order to ensure that things get done. But, in this instance, there was a clear injustice being done. Indeed, the whole team would suffer if I did not confront it. This time I was heard and my position meant that the advice was heeded. My pick — the black candidate — got the job.

But how many other times does a qualified “brown” person (as my niece would call them) miss an opportunity just because their skin colour is 50 shades browner?

And, could it be, that the effects of my indifference to the man honoured by that statue were more far-reaching than I had realised?

For those of us sitting on the fence, the struggle over the Rhodes statue has been a great conversation starter for colleagues from across the globe with various skin tones, it has been a nudge to take a stand. While I am not about to go out carrying the “kill the white imperialist” placard, I believe it is important to take a firm stand against any form of discrimination, and removing statues honouring racists is a good place to start.

Dr Shikoh Gitau leads the Technology Innovations for Inclusive Growth initiative at the Africa Development Bank. A member of the Clinton Global Initiative on Women Leading Women in ICT, UN-Women, and a recipient of the Anita Borg Change Agent Award in 2013 she has more than 10 years experience in ICT4D technology design. She is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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