Want to write about black people? Make very sure of your facts
White academics have no right to question black people’s behaviour without self-awareness, humility and caution
The reason I did not emigrate, says a friend, is because in SA there is never a dull moment. On the face of it, an article titled “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” should be dull enough. Except this research, published in the South African Journal of Science, unleashed a political storm in the past week.
The “UCT (University of Cape Town) executive” said it “distances itself from the contents of the paper” by one of its own professors and charges the published piece as being “offensive to black students at UCT” and “black people in general.” I will come to this in a moment.
What happened next is something so chilling that it should send shivers down our democratic spines. The university executive placed a call to the editor of the scholarly journal to complain about the piece. Worse, the UCT Black Academic Caucus fired off a letter to a senior politician — the political head of higher education — with this injunction: “We strongly call upon you to withdraw this publication from the journal.” Yes, a politician must withdraw a published research paper from a scholarly journal. Not even apartheid’s apparatchiks would pull a stunt like that.
The paper itself is academically contentious for its principal claim — that black students do not study biological sciences, such as conservation biology, because they are materialist (want higher-paying jobs, such as those in accountancy), hold less positive attitudes towards wildlife (own fewer pets) and lack appropriate knowledge about evolution (that humans belong to the ape family).
The author is eager to emphasise that the study is exploratory in nature, based, as it was, on student assistants going around campus asking their peers one-line questions about red starlings and whether conservation biology was “colonial”. Here’s the problem — the reasons for student choices of certain disciplines and degrees is much more complex than can be derived from simple survey questions.
When you officiate and sit through 12 to 15 graduation ceremonies every year, you have a lot of time to think as student groups file across the stage by qualification. Why are there so few male students in early childhood education? Why are there so few black students in veterinary sciences? Why so many white, female students in occupational therapy? Why mainly black students from other African countries in science-based doctoral programmes? These are complex sociological questions that are best fathomed through sustained qualitative inquiry rather than short, opportunistic survey questions of random students on one campus.
Take something supposedly simple such as the almost exclusively white female students in preschool education at the last two universities where I worked (as dean and then vice-chancellor). The low enrolments of black female students in this field has to do with a long history of political exclusion, educational repression and economic exploitation.
Black families were contained within deprived settlements without the training and resources to build private preschool facilities for their children. The opportunity structure so visible to young white women, as children in these facilities and later as students at university, gave them an immediate sense of an occupational pathway that was not remotely available to black students.
That many of these female students chose such a career is often because of the security of broader family financial support and that of an earning husband, which made this average-paying job a comfortable second salary. Because the white student experienced meaningful preschool education from loving adults, this becomes an attractive and satisfying career option.
This is now the second controversial article in recent times by white academics on black people’s behaviours.
Now imagine applying this type of social and historical analysis to student choice in relation to a field such as wildlife conservation and a completely different set of results is likely to emerge, rather than one that attributes choices to shorthand provocations, such as “materialism” and “attitudes”, and erroneous knowledge about human evolution.
This is now the second controversial article in recent times by white academics on black people’s behaviours — the other being the 2019 Stellenbosch University study on the low education levels and unhealthy lifestyles of coloured women. There is a lesson that is not being learnt — that when white researchers embark on studies of black people’s behaviours it should be done with a healthy dose of self-awareness, intellectual humility and social caution.
Self-awareness, in that you are not innocent in relation to the conditions that constrain black people’s choices in the first place. Intellectual humility, in that you cannot, from where you stand, possibly grasp the range of experiences that explain black choices. And social caution, in that your very language can betray prejudices without your being able to see them.