‘White excellence and black failure’: The reproduction of racialised higher education in everyday talk
Donovan Robus and Catriona Macleod *
Department of Psychology Department of Psychology
P.O . Box
* Corresponding author at:
Tel: (043) 7047036
Fax: (043) 7047107
‘White excellence and black failure’: The reproduction of racialised higher education in everyday talk
Since democracy in 1994, much effort has been expended
on overcoming the institutionalized racism that characterized Apartheid. The transformation of higher education, particularly
with regard to the merging or incorporation of institutions, is such an
example. In this article, we analyze
discourses on race emerging in the talk of students and staff during the
incorporation of a historically white satellite campus (Rhodes University East
London) into a historically black university (University of Fort Hare). We argue, using Essed’s notion of everyday
racism, infused with insights from discursive psychology, that higher education
institutions are racialised through the intricate interweaving of macro-level
processes and discourses that recur in everyday talk and practices. In their talk, our participants persistently
assigned racialised identities to the institutions (Rhodes is white and
Keywords: higher education; race; racism.
One of the perpetual conundrums that faces the social sciences is how to understand the mundane everyday practices of individuals in relation to structural or macro-level issues. This has variously been referred to as the individual-society divide (Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn & Walkerdine, 1984), the agency-structure problem (Wight, 2003), and micro- versus macro-level analyses (Gordon, 1991). Discursive psychologists argue that discourse theory collapses the individual-society divide, with discourses simultaneously allowing spaces for certain types of selves or subject positionings while at the same time supporting institutions by validating particular practices and marginalising others (Parker, 1992). In this paper we provide a concrete example of how particular kinds of (racialised and differentiated) institutions are reproduced in the mundane talk of individuals and how this talk allows space for certain kinds of selves.
The institutions referred to here are universities which, along with all institutions, were racialised as deliberate acts of policy during Apartheid. In 1997, the Higher Education Act (Act 101 of 1997) was passed, the purpose of which was to provide a policy framework with which to redress the disparities that resulted from the segregation of Higher Education (South African Government Communication and Information System, 2001). In 2002, the then Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, announced plans for the restructuring of the Higher Education landscape, which included mergers of independent institutions and the incorporation of parts of some institutions into others.
In this article we report on individual and group interviews conducted with staff and students affected by the incorporation of the satellite campus of Rhodes University located in East London (henceforth RUEL), which was established in 1981, into the University of Fort Hare (UFH). In the nationwide restructuring, the RUEL-UFH incorporation is distinctive as it is the only historically white institution that was incorporated by a historically black institution, thereby affording a unique opportunity for researching issues of race in the change process.
In our analysis we employ Essed’s (1991, 2002) notion of everyday racism, which we extend with insights from discursive psychology. Essed introduced the concept of everyday racism in an attempt to connect structural and institutional forms of racism with the routine situations of everyday life (see later discussion). In this article we investigate how, in the wake of structural policy-level changes, the discursive practices of staff and students re-produce institutions as racialised and differentiated spaces. This differentiation is achieved through allocating a racial identity to institutions, a discourse of ‘white excellence/black failure’ (with ‘black failure’ being overcome by ‘white excellence’), and an appeal to Euro-American standards.
Before presenting our results, we trace a brief history of the entrenchment of and attempts to dismantle institutional racism in South African universities from the inception of the first university to the recent transformation of higher education. We discuss debates around the notion of institutional racism and attempts, through the notion of everyday racism and discursive psychology, to interweave the mundane practices of individuals with structural or institutional issues.
Race has played a pivotal role in South African Higher
Education since its inception in 1829 with the establishment of the South
African College in
In 1953, Prime
Minister H.F. Verwoerd passed the Bantu Education Act (Act No. 47 of 1953) and
in terms of this, control of black education was no longer in the hands of the
provincial governments but was placed in the hands of the central government.
In 1957, the Minister of Education, J.H. Viljoen, proposed that integration of
education at university level should end (
This had an
impact in terms of the two institutions featured in this research. In 1951, when
being a priority in the development of the Nationalist Higher Education system,
two more white universities were established in the 1960s (University of Port
Elizabeth and the Rand Afrikaans University).
In addition to the University of Fort Hare, ‘tribal colleges’ (which
were later to become universities) were established for
In 1979, threats were made to implement a quota system to limit the number of black students enrolling at white universities. Although it was never implemented, the Minister of Education promised to keep an eye on the number of blacks entering white universities. In 1991, after a tumultuous period of protest in universities, and after the release of Nelson Mandela, the Universities Amendment Act, in which the first steps towards creating a single education system were taken, was passed (Nicholas, 1994).
2001, Cabinet approved the National Plan for Higher Education. The National Working Group (NWG), appointed
to act as an advisory committee to the Education Minister, proposed the
reduction of the number of Higher Education institutions from 36 to 21 through
mergers and incorporations. Pertinent to this research, it was suggested that
INSTITUTIONAL, INDIVIDUAL AND EVERYDAY RACISM
In the previous
section we detailed the institutional racism (using a narrow definition of institutional
racism in which an organization is racist as a deliberate act of policy) of
higher education in
Both the ‘institution’ and ‘institutional racism’ have proved to be difficult and slippery concepts in social science theory. In the 1960s African Americans began talking of institutional racism to overcome the then dominant understanding of prejudice being located in the cognitive errors of individuals. Institutional racism was referred to as internal colonialism and was used to mean practices within institutions that disadvantaged black people (Miles & Brown, 2003). The many uses of institutional racism since then has led to it being accused of meaning ‘all things to all accusers’ (Barker, 1999, p. 25). At one level, institutional racism has meant the imposition of rules and regulations that are discriminatory in effect, although perhaps not in intention. At a second level, it has meant the pervading atmosphere of an organisation (the so-called canteen culture). At a third, it has implied the deliberate implementation of racist policy. And at a fourth, it has been conceptualized as institutions reflecting the fundamental racist nature of the society within which they operate (Barker, 1999).
The notion of institutional racism has been criticized from two competing perspectives. On the one hand, with its emphasis on structure, the concept of institutional racism is said to open up the possibility for racist acts to be portrayed as residing somewhere other than in the practices and intentions of individuals. On the other hand, some accounts of institutional racism (e.g. the second one referred to above) are said to reduce to a form of methodological individualism (the tendency to see everything social as the result of the sum of individual actions), thereby failing to locate the structural sources of institutional racism (Wight, 2003). Taken together these criticisms speak to the individual-society or agent-structure divide. It is this precise problem that Essed’s (1991, 2002) notion of everyday racism tries to address.
Essed (1991, 2002) argues that the macro properties of racism as well as micro inequities that reproduce the macro need to be acknowledged. The interweaving of the constraining impact of entrenched ideas and practices on human agency and the constant re-construal of the social through everyday practices needs to be theorized. Essed locates this interweaving in everyday life, where, on the one hand, socialisation ensures that available knowledge is internalized and practices are managed according to (sub)cultural (including institutional) norms and expectations and, on the other hand, the system is constantly re-construed in everyday practices and individuals may resist pressure to conform to particular understandings. Everyday racism is thus seen as an active and cumulative process of daily, familiar and repetitive practices that reproduce racial domination in interpersonal and institutional encounters. It is viewed as ‘a complex of practices operative through heterogeneous (class and gender) relations’ that ‘activate underlying power relations’ and ‘become part of the reproduction of the system’ (Essed, 2002, p. 188).
In this article we utilize this notion of everyday racism but extend it with insights from discursive psychology. In their seminal text on discursive psychology, Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn and Walkerdine (1984) not only speak to the issue of the individual-society divide, but also provide a thorough critique of socialisation which Essed (1991, 2002) sees as key to the linking of micro- and macro-issues. Despite being a popular theory within psychology for explaining children’s integration into society, Henriques et al (1984) argue that the notion of socialisation is necessarily dualistic in conception. It is unable to theorize the content of information as anything other than something external to the individual, i.e. as existing outside in society. This information is then internalised through individually based cognitive mechanisms. In other words, socialisation theory does not provide an adequate account of the relation between the structure and agency.
Discursive psychologists turn to language to theorise the connection between the individual and the social. Discourse, which has been described variably as ‘a system of statements which constructs an object’ (Parker, 1990a, p. 191), ‘a multi-faceted public process through which meanings are progressively and dynamically achieved’ (Davies & Harré, 1990, p. 47), and ‘[a] product and reflection of social, economic and political factors, and power relations’ (Widdicombe, 1995, p. 107), is viewed as the bridge between the agency and structure. Discourses are seen as constructive as they do not simply describe the social world, but are the mode through which the world of ‘reality’ emerges. They contain subjects and construct objects as well as knowledge and truth. As stated earlier, discourses construct and constrain certain types of selves while at the same time supporting and constraining certain kinds of institutions by validating particular practices and marginalising others (Parker, 1992). Discourse is thus seen as actively constituting both social and psychological processes (Wetherell & Potter, 1992).
Discursive psychology has become an increasingly popular model for investigating issues of racism in psychology (e.g. Durrheim & Dixon, 2000, 2002; Macleod & Durrheim, 2002; Painter & Baldwin, 2004). This article extends this discussion in making an overt connection between institutional and mundane practices.
The aim of this research was to explore discourses
around race, equity, disadvantage and transformation invoked by stakeholders in
the process of Higher Education transformation.
The research was conducted at
three sites: the East London campus of
and focus groups discussions took place when the incorporation had been
announced but had not yet taken place (October 2002 through to April
2003). The announcement that RUEL would
be incorporated into UFH was made on May 30th 2002 though the
official date of incorporation was left hanging. Ultimately UFH took full administrative
control of the
An interesting ethical point was debated in the Higher Degrees Committee concerning institutional permission for the research when the research proposal was considered. The Committee agreed in the end that, given the nature of the research and in the interests of academic freedom, the Vice Chancellors of the two universities should be written a letter outlining the purpose of the research and indicating that it was not intended as an evaluation of the incorporation process. However, their permission (which could be withheld) would not be sought. Neither of the Vice-Chancellors raised any concerns with regards to this.
Participation in the research was voluntary and participants were informed that they could withdraw at any time. They signed a consent form in which they indicated their understanding of the purpose of the research and issues of anonymity and confidentiality as well as their willingness to be audio-taped.
(including focus group members) were assigned codes to denote their race (B = black;
W = white; C = coloured), gender (F = female; M = male), position (S = student;
A = acadmic) and the campus (F =
It must be noted that we not saying, in presenting the data, that particular individuals are racist. Rather we are investigating how discourses of race are invoked in particular circumstances. These discourses may equally be invoked by black and white staff and students although their intentions may be different. For example, in invoking a ‘white excellence/black failure’ discourse, certain black people may be reflecting the internalization of racism that Fanon (1963) talks about. Others may be taking a critical distance and commenting, perhaps from a black consciousness perspective, on the manner in which this understanding plays itself out. Having said this, we have resisted attempting to categorise the statements of our participants into any one of these or other possibilities.
Using Parker’s (1990a, 1990b, 1992) method, the transcribed text (see appendix for transcription conventions used) was analysed in terms of what objects (for example, certain kinds of institutions) were being referred to, what systems of meaning are attached to these objects, who the subjects (students, academics) in this kind of talk are and what constraints there are regarding who and what is spoken about. Based on this, the discourses that emerged were considered in terms of what purposes they serve, what kinds of institutions they might support and what ideological effects they may have (Parker, 1990b).
turning to the analysis proper, however, a brief reflexive word on the authors
is in order, particularly in terms of the politics of race and location. This acknowledges, as Wilkinson (1986) puts
it, that ‘the knower is part of the matrix of what is known’ (p. 13). The first author is a white male, who was
conducting this research for his Masters dissertation through
The racialised positioning RUEL and UFH
South African higher education was created as a highly
racialised space through deliberate acts of policy during the Apartheid
Given the changing racial demographics at particularly historically white universities (except in most cases in the staff profile) it is noteworthy that it is not the student body that provides the ‘racial’ definition of the institution. And despite there being no legislative impediment to full integration, institutions continue to be defined in terms of race. Universities, in and of themselves, take on a racial identity.
CFSE: Ja, it’s the same thing with the whole
Rhodes/Fort Hare thing. Um, because
WMSE: But then
actually, what you’re saying is hypocritical, because you’re seeing
WFSE: But that is what
Because being a black institution, black academics teach at
I’m sorry, I hope that I’m not offending anyone but it is because
illustrate the positioning of Rhodes and
This manner of differentiating institutional identity along racial lines sets up difference as a number of binary opposites ‘in terms of temporal and spatial metaphors which fold into each other – for example, Modern/Backward, First World/Third World, the West/the Rest’ (Durrheim & Dixon, 2001, pp. 433-434). In particular the urban/rural dichotomy dovetailed with the black/white construction of the institutional identities of RUEL and UFH and was invoked by speakers on all three campuses.
BMAF: We are mainly a rural side than an urban side
so I believe that
WMAF: Given our situation with a
rural setting, we are much more isolated, being part of a HBU and all the
problems that go along with that, you know. And sort of seeing Rhodes East
London has….let’s call it a
BMAE: They [
WMAG: Fort Hare is not viable out in
Alice and that Fort Hare needed access to an urban place and obviously the
urban place is East London [ ] they were to be saved by being in East London. [
] Most of their black staff actually live in
In these quotes, black/white gets folded into
urban/rural, First World/
Competence, ‘white excellence/black failure’
The tension of white space as the desirable, urban centre and black space as the undesirable, rural periphery dovetails with a discourse of ‘white excellence/black failure’. We coined the phrase, ‘white excellence/black failure’ from one of our speakers:
BMAE: It’s [the proposed mergers and incorporations] Verwoerdian in the sense that it still recognizes white excellence and black failure and there are mergers that try to get the white institution to come to the rescue.
The speaker refers here to the notorious Bantu Education system instituted by Verwoerd, a system considered by academics on the left as ‘part of the overall, well-considered doctrine policy of systematically maintaining white hegemony over blacks’ (Mathonsi, 1988, p. 1). The speaker intimates that this hegemony is still in play as ‘white institutions’ are positioned as rescuing ‘black ones’. This discourse of ‘white excellence/black failure’ with ‘black failure’ being rescued through ‘white excellence’ is evidenced in Extracts 5 to 8 (‘East London can now reach out and improve life’; ‘they were to be saved by being in East London’).
The discourse was invoked specifically in the contexts of choice and fear. Choice emerged as a major factor reinforcing ‘white excellence’ as a desirable space.
BFSE: If we had
wanted to go to
BMAE: I don’t remember any white students going to a black university whereas black students have always taken a sort of pride in going to white universities. They will come out saying, I am at UCT, I am at Wits as opposed to UWC and all these places.
obviously very few white people are going to go to
WFAG: For the
past twenty years, no really self-respecting academic would have gone looking
for a job at
In Extract 10, a black student indicates
a refusal of the black institution.
Instead, as the academic in Extract 11 indicates, particularly black students
take pride in choosing a white university.
The reverse is not true, however.
White students do not choose to go to black universities (Extract 12),
in particular to undesirable rural spaces, such as
The incorporation of historically white RUEL into historically black UFH brought with it the implication of ‘black failure’ engulfing ‘white excellence’.
CFSE1: Why didn’t they make
CFSE2: How can they just throw away Rhodes East London like that?
CFSE1: Why did
they have to change something as good as Rhodes, the name Rhodes and change it
In this extract students are concerned about the good white institution being cast aside. Having the black incorporated into the white would, according to these students, be acceptable. But the reverse creates tension and fear, as indicated by the last sentence ‘What about all the students?’.
Most of the fears around black institutional failure centre around future prospects:
BMSF: When you go out to look for a job, you find that you are not recognized coming from this university [UFH] where we are not properly trained, not qualified and have no equipment.
BMAF: Maybe if there was a graduate from
These speakers position the racialised institution as defining the graduate that it produces, and the workplace (particularly potential employers) as operating on the assumption of black institutional failure. A tension was set up, however, in the talk of staff and students between the institutionally defined ‘white excellence/black failure’, and individual competence. This is discussed in the following section.
Overcoming ‘black failure’
While ‘white excellence/black failure’ was invoked persistently by participants, the possibility of overcoming ‘black failure’ was raised on a number of occasions. Various options are available. The first is individual labour, the second, undoing ‘blackness’, and the third rescue by white space. The first of these is evidenced in extracts below.
BMSE: I have never been in a white school in my
life. I started here [RUEL]. Most of them [
BMAE: I must admit,
In Extracts 17 and 18, a student and staff member respectively position themselves as having broken the individual ‘black failure’ mould by having ‘made it’ in a white institution. This positioning does nothing to undo the ‘white excellence/black failure’ discourse at an institutional level, however. It merely introduces the possibility for individual blacks, through intense individual labour, to overcome ‘black failure’ limitations.
In the second instance, the labour required is to deny ‘blackness’:
In Extract 19, the academic draws on a black consciousness problematisation of the mimicry of ‘whiteness’. He indicates that black students may enter a white institution through being middle-class, a domain historically occupied and defined by whites. The statement unsettles the ‘white excellence/black failure’ juxtaposition by revealing its racialised nature, but fails to completely undo it.
Just as individuals may be positioned as overcoming ‘black failure’, so too may institutions. This is achieved through the institution graduating white students or moving into white space.
Sometimes people make racial distinctions.
Say a white student and a black student … a white student with a
BMAE: So I think it would be good to have a black university in an industrialized area.
WMAE: Oh, Fort Hare. They’ve been thrown a lifeline, in a sense. They’re going to move down here, probably lock, stock and barrel. They’ve been thrown a lifeline. Ja.
WMAG: But we have saved
In Extract 20, it is the individual
who is positioned as overcoming institutional ‘black failure’, not through
effort or excellence, but merely by being white. In Extracts 21, 22 and 23 the institution is
positioned as overcoming ‘black failure’ by moving into white industrialized
space. However, academics from Rhodes (
Internationalisation undergirding ‘white excellence/black failure’
In discussions around academic quality, numerous speakers drew on notions of international recognition. This echoes Fanon’s (1963) notion of the desire for the approval from the ‘mother country’, in this case the (particularly Euro-American) international community. The following extracts from the focus group discussions with white and coloured students illustrate this.
WFSE1: It’s [
WFSE2: I think Rhodes will bring up
CFSE1: It’s [
CFSE2: = Is a
The ‘international’ community is discursively invoked as a reference point in terms of the quality of a university certificate. The students in Extract 24 refer vaguely to the international community, and it is possible, but not probable, that they were including other African countries in their understanding of the international. However, the students in Extract 25 are more explicit. They are interested in ‘overseas’ (probably meaning Euro-American, rather than, say, South American or Asian) recognition. In addition to this, this ‘overseas’ community is constructed as a distant place where opportunities abound. Thus, these students re-produce the intellectual imperialism that casts Euro-American standards as the norm that must be lived up to in order to be allowed access to the resources and opportunities that the centre retains.
Ironically for these students, there is no body that certifies
universities as coming up to international standards. Hence, perhaps, their frustration in posing
the question regarding
Since as early as 1990, measures have been taken and legislation has been passed that were aimed at redressing the disparity created in higher education institutions by the institutional racism of Apartheid. Tertiary education has thus been an area that has faced substantial structural transformation. And yet, it remains a highly racialised environment.
To understand this we drew on Essed’s (1991, 2002) notion of everyday racism that interweaves the macro with the micro through an understanding of the simultaneous constraints placed on human agency by entrenched, institutionalized processes and policies, and the constant re-construal of the social and of institutions through everyday practices. Thus institutionally-based racism is perpetuated not only through the legacy of deliberate acts of policy; it will not be overcome only through legislative processes or structural adjustment. These macro processes are intricately imbricated in people’s everyday talk and practices which maintain, re-produce, or undermine institutional racism in complex ways. In this article, we saw how institutional spaces are persistently re-construed in terms of racialised identities which, together with discourses of ‘white excellence/black failure’ and international standards, set institutions up in differentiated terms.
Given the centrality of knowledge generation and competence to university endeavours, the discourse of ‘white excellence/black failure’ has far reaching implications. As indicated at the start of this paper, discourses allow spaces for certain kinds of selves and support particular kinds of institutions. Within the ‘white excellence/black failure’ discourse, in which ‘white excellence’ folds in on and is re-produced by the desirable urban, modern space, individuals and institutions have to do no more than be white to be accorded with competence. For blacks, however, the situation is more complex. Allowances are made for both the institution and the individual to overcome ‘black failure’. This advancement entails, for the institution, either its movement into white urban space or the inclusion of white students. For the individual, movement to a white institution together with personal labour and/or a foreswearing of black identity are necessary.
We would like to thank the participants of this research for their time and patience, and the reviewers for their useful comments.
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The following transcription conventions were used:
[ ]: text omitted.
.... : Pause.
=: Speaker cuts in on another speaker
[clarification]: this indicates what was probably meant by the speaker.