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Publication Details

Reference
Meth, Oliver (2008) Racial Identity Still Goes Deep in Education.  : -.

Summary
Race, discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes remain emotive words in numerous societies around the globe.

The education system in South Africa has undergone far-reaching changes since 1994. Beyond the structural changes initiated to conform to our Constitution, efforts have been made to introduce a value system totally at variance with the past but one that affirms internationally accepted standards. Central to this system of values are “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms…” (Section 1 (a) of the Constitution, 1996). The Constitution reinforces this commitment to equality and human dignity by spelling out an aversion to discrimination on the basis of race and gender. This is further elaborated upon in the Bill of Rights.

Despite the political changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1994, numerous socio-economic challenges remain. With education for example, although various policies have been unveiled and legislation enacted to speed up desegregation, the incidence of racial bitterness in many institutions attests to the intractable and continuing racialisation of education. Over the past few years, there have been many well-publicised outbursts.

It has to do with whose portraits and paintings appear in the corridors; it has to do with what collections dominate the library; it has to do with who gets honorary degrees (and who does not); it has to do with who dominates the school governing bodies, and who gets relegated to the status of observers; it has to do with whose liturgy is represented in the school assembly, and whose is excluded; it has to do with both the complexion and repertoire of the school or university choir; it has to do with who continues to gain access to institutional contracts, and who remains marginalized; it has to do with whose language dominates a public meeting or event, and whose is excluded; it has to do with the kinds of sporting codes a school allows on its grounds, and what is (for some ridiculous reason), excluded; it has to do with the kinds of public friendships that teachers and leaders of schools model, and that young people invariably witness; it has to do with the complexion of who works in the school's secretarial pool and the complexion of those who work cleaning the swimming pool; it has to do with the ways in which women are constructed in social relations on the school grounds or campus; it has to do with who sits together in the staff-room, and who sits somewhere else; it has to do with who gets called “Mr” and who, irrespective of age, is simply called “Klaas;” it has to do with the content of what appears on the emblem of the institution; it has to do with the content of school songs, the metaphors for talking about others; and it has to do with the ways in which schools or universities talk about the future.

With regard to the latter point, discourses about the future can have detrimental effects of institutional cultures and the sense an institution has about its role and relevance in a democracy. I recently sat in at a speech evening at a local secondary school in Wentworth, and to my surprise, one of the learners was called on to read from the Bible and open in prayer. He read a passage about defeat from the book of Lamentations (the name says it all) and pleaded with God to recognise the deep misery and pain that education was going through. Carrying such self-defeating and negative discourses about education through schools and classrooms can only construct an institutional culture in which the final victim is hope.

It is in this domain where the assault on the cultural senses of incoming black students conveys powerful messages of who the institution is for. Symbols matter, as the scholar observed in relation to institutional transformation.

The real test of whether South African institutions have achieved inclusive institutional cultures might well be the extent to which black and white students “feel at home” within universities.

It would be naive however to believe that such constructions of power within education do not find a corresponding resonance and reinforcing substance from what happens in the broader society. Among families, political parties, religious organisations, sporting associations and in business communities, essentialist views of racial identity retain a deep meaning within everyday life. This constitutes a major obstacle to resolving the fiction about essential racial identities that lie at the root of what is brought into school. Such notions of firm and inflexible apartheid categories are continually reinforced through bureaucracy.

Race, discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes remain emotive words in numerous societies around the globe.

The education system in South Africa has undergone far-reaching changes since 1994. Beyond the structural changes initiated to conform to our Constitution, efforts have been made to introduce a value system totally at variance with the past but one that affirms internationally accepted standards. Central to this system of values are “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms…” (Section 1 (a) of the Constitution, 1996). The Constitution reinforces this commitment to equality and human dignity by spelling out an aversion to discrimination on the basis of race and gender. This is further elaborated upon in the Bill of Rights.

Despite the political changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1994, numerous socio-economic challenges remain. With education for example, although various policies have been unveiled and legislation enacted to speed up desegregation, the incidence of racial bitterness in many institutions attests to the intractable and continuing racialisation of education. Over the past few years, there have been many well-publicised outbursts.

It has to do with whose portraits and paintings appear in the corridors; it has to do with what collections dominate the library; it has to do with who gets honorary degrees (and who does not); it has to do with who dominates the school governing bodies, and who gets relegated to the status of observers; it has to do with whose liturgy is represented in the school assembly, and whose is excluded; it has to do with both the complexion and repertoire of the school or university choir; it has to do with who continues to gain access to institutional contracts, and who remains marginalized; it has to do with whose language dominates a public meeting or event, and whose is excluded; it has to do with the kinds of sporting codes a school allows on its grounds, and what is (for some ridiculous reason), excluded; it has to do with the kinds of public friendships that teachers and leaders of schools model, and that young people invariably witness; it has to do with the complexion of who works in the school's secretarial pool and the complexion of those who work cleaning the swimming pool; it has to do with the ways in which women are constructed in social relations on the school grounds or campus; it has to do with who sits together in the staff-room, and who sits somewhere else; it has to do with who gets called “Mr” and who, irrespective of age, is simply called “Klaas;” it has to do with the content of what appears on the emblem of the institution; it has to do with the content of school songs, the metaphors for talking about others; and it has to do with the ways in which schools or universities talk about the future.

With regard to the latter point, discourses about the future can have detrimental effects of institutional cultures and the sense an institution has about its role and relevance in a democracy. I recently sat in at a speech evening at a local secondary school in Wentworth, and to my surprise, one of the learners was called on to read from the Bible and open in prayer. He read a passage about defeat from the book of Lamentations (the name says it all) and pleaded with God to recognise the deep misery and pain that education was going through. Carrying such self-defeating and negative discourses about education through schools and classrooms can only construct an institutional culture in which the final victim is hope.

It is in this domain where the assault on the cultural senses of incoming black students conveys powerful messages of who the institution is for. Symbols matter, as the scholar observed in relation to institutional transformation.

The real test of whether South African institutions have achieved inclusive institutional cultures might well be the extent to which black and white students “feel at home” within universities.

It would be naive however to believe that such constructions of power within education do not find a corresponding resonance and reinforcing substance from what happens in the broader society. Among families, political parties, religious organisations, sporting associations and in business communities, essentialist views of racial identity retain a deep meaning within everyday life. This constitutes a major obstacle to resolving the fiction about essential racial identities that lie at the root of what is brought into school. Such notions of firm and inflexible apartheid categories are continually reinforced through bureaucracy.

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