American antiracism is social justice status quo in South Africa’s private schools

Caiden Lang | Jul 18, 2022
UCT professors Nicoli Natrass and Jeremy Seekings warn us how American antiracism, as opposed to South African non-racialism , dominates UCT's transformation and social justice agenda. The same applies in South Africa private schools.

On 14 June The Daily Maverick published an article titled ‘South African non-racialism or American antiracism? UCT muddles through muddied waters’ by UCT professors Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings.

The authors discuss the ideological difference between contemporary American antiracism and South African non-racialism and explain that the former has come to dominate the university’s transformation and social justice agenda.

The authors explain, with reference to the work of ‘the American guru of “antiracist training”’, Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility), that ‘American antiracism does not simply mean being anti or against racism’. Instead, it requires an ‘essentialist apartheid understanding of “race”’ and rejection of ‘colour-blindness’, leading the authors to conclude that ‘Contemporary American antiracism entails a rejection of non-racialism’.

Warnings

The Institute of Race Relations has over the past two years sounded warnings about this new and illiberal idea of social justice.

We have argued that antiracism has become the default position when it comes to matters of social justice in private schools. In investigating this we have read school anti-discrimination policies, codes of conduct, and antiracism statements adopted by schools and organisations like the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA); conducted numerous interviews with concerned principals, teachers, and parents; and engaged with reading material recommended by school antiracist consultants and transformation committees.

Despite this, we have been derided by some commentators for creating unnecessary panic about an apparently non-existent phenomenon. We have been accused of importing American right-wing talking points and been told by critics that we just don’t ‘get it’. At every turn we have countered the critics with reasoned arguments citing examples proving our case.

It was reassuring therefore, to read the article by Nattrass and Seekings who are among very few academics (Professor David Benatar is another) who have been willing to criticise antiracism and its grip on tertiary institutions in South Africa, particularly at UCT.

Features inherent to antiracism

The authors highlight a number of features inherent in antiracism which they see as undermining efforts to advance social justice – features that, the IRR has argued, are present to varying degrees in private schools countrywide.

Our primary concern with antiracism ideology is its rejection of non-racialism in favour of race consciousness.

Antiracist ideology, explain Nattrass and Seekings, ‘frames all disadvantages experienced by “black” people as the result of “systemic racism”, meaning the institutional and cultural promotion of “white supremacy”’.

Once this worldview is accepted, achieving social justice becomes a matter of ‘dismantling systems’ associated with ‘whiteness’. Not only is this empirically spurious but it results in a profound scepticism of anything associated with white people.

The idea plays out in schools in concerning ways including school policies asserting that ‘whiteness’ is synonymous with the oppression of black people, that white pupils need to feel guilty and apologise for their ‘white privilege’, and that white pupils be required to acknowledge that they are necessarily racist because they are white.

It is unsurprising given this focus on race that we have seen the adoption of what Nattrass and Seekings call ‘DiAngelo-style “affinity groups”’ in schools. These affinity groups are racially exclusive and serve different purposes depending on what colour skin you have.

Nattrass and Seekings discuss affinity groups for white people, formed ‘as part of a broader effort to “decentre whiteness”. We at the IRR are aware of affinity groups in schools reserved for black people, the purpose of which, as one school explains, is to create a space for students where they can be safe from the oppressive nature of white spaces.

Rejection of colour blindness

In a significant number of private schools, particularly those affiliated with ISASA, there is an outright rejection of Martin Luther King Jnr -style ‘colour-blindness’. In fact, some schools have even included expressions of colour-blindness on official lists containing examples of racist speech, effectively prohibiting constitutionally protected speech.

A second although no less pressing concern is the way in which antiracist advocates promote their race essentialist ideas.

Nattrass and Seekings describe how antiracism initiatives at UCT are being pushed ‘as a matter of ideological (or religious) conversion rather than critical engagement’. This too is the case in private schools where pupils and staff are regularly required to attend mandatory antiracist or so-called diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions where any criticism of antiracism is quickly stifled with unchecked moral certainty.

American antiracism, as the IRR along with Nattrass and Seekings have argued, leads to tribalism and the muffling of viewpoint diversity. The IRR believes that social justice depends on the affirmation of the constitutionally enshrined values of non-racialism and freedom of opinion. As such, we will continue to criticise antiracist ideology as and when it is foisted upon the youth of South Africa.

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