Voices in Education

Talking About Race with South African Students
During a seven-week stay as a visiting professor in South Africa, I was invited to Alexandria High School by its principal, Mr. Matthews. Alexandria High School’s student population is 95 percent black or “coloured” and 5 percent white.* An irony for a country trying to rectify a race-dominated past is that the majority of black (80 percent of total population) and coloured students (9 percent of total population) attend schools only with members of those two races, but not with more than a tiny number of white students (or students of Indian background). Racial integration takes place almost entirely within schools serving wealthy and middle class families (there are almost no poor white people in South Africa).

Mr. Matthews asked me to teach two ninth-grade classes in “Life Orientation,” a catch-all subject involving health education, sex education, financial planning, and dealing with other everyday life issues. One class had about 34 coloured students and one white student. The other had about 34 Xhosa students (the ethnic group of almost all blacks in this part of the country) and one white student. This racial separation is due to the complicated language situation in South Africa. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, but because English is the lingua franca of the nation, as well as of international commerce, English is the main language of instruction. However, Afrikaans is the home language of coloured (as well as Afrikaners, who are white) and so coloured students sometimes choose Afrikaans as the language of instruction in certain classes. So the coloured class spoke to me, though an interpreter, in Afrikaans. In the Xhosa class, I was able to speak directly with the students in English.

In the coloured class, some of the conversation went like this:

Me: “Can you think of an example of prejudice?”
Student #1: “When you just hang out with learners from your group and ignore learners [students] from other groups.”
Me: “If you don't socialize with people from other groups, is that always because of prejudice?”
Student #2: “No. It’s usually just that you feel more comfortable with people from your group than another group.”
Me: “It might not be prejudice, but do you think it is OK if you stay within your own group and never socialize with people from another group?”
Student #3: “You could socialize with someone from another group if you knew you had something in common with them.”
Me: “That’s good, but how would you always know if you have something in common with someone from the other group if you are only relating to your group?”
Student #4: “Maybe you should try to talk with someone from that other group until you found something you agreed with them about and then you could relate to them.”

The Xhosa class also saw prejudice as based on ignorance of the other group.

Student #1: “You can get over a prejudice if you meet someone from the other group.”
Me: “Is that always enough to get over a prejudice?”
Student #2: “If you meet other members of the group [not just one] that will help.”

The students in this group also recognized that race and class are intertwined. The teacher asked them about getting to know people from different class backgrounds. One student’s answer seemed to focus on race, not class. When the teacher challenged him about this, he answered by saying he meant that people thought all blacks were poor. So the racial stereotype involved a class-based characteristic.

Student #3 chimed in to respond: “People think poor black people are stupid, lazy, and worthless.” So race involves class.

It seemed to me that these comments reflected two different stereotypes, both of which have a large impact on these students—that all black people are poor, and that poor black people are stupid and worthless.

Me: “Can you get over the class-based prejudice and stereotype by meeting someone of a different class the way you can with race?”
Student #4: “It isn’t enough to know someone from the group. You have to ask them about what skills they have and what they know, and then you wouldn’t just think they were a worthless person.” This comment is insightful, because it goes beyond just meeting someone or getting to know them.
Me: “I think [Student #4] is saying that you have to find out about the parts of the person that relate to your prejudice against them, and ask them about those particular things, and find out that the person does not have the characteristics you thought, and that will help you get over the prejudice and stereotype.”

I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of these students. At the same time, I had the impression that they were seldom asked to reflect on these topics, nor was there a strong ethos that each individual learner should try to get outside her or his comfort zone to connect with peers of other groups. So this might have been unaccustomed territory for them.

It is also interesting that the coloured students focused directly on processes that separate students, while the Xhosa students focused on an inferiority-based stereotype. Under the apartheid regime, blacks were definitively placed at the bottom of society and this might be why they seem more sensitive to inferiority issues. Those of coloured backgrounds were privileged relative to blacks, though they were definitely seen as inferior to whites in society and in the apartheid racial ideology. Both groups of students are seeing some of the daunting challenges of creating a new South African society in which people will mix across racial lines, and race will no longer be a barrier to opportunity.

* “Coloured” is a specifically South African racial designation, impossible to describe briefly, but generally referring to a specific, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, community with origins in racial mixing between Malays, indigenous peoples of South Africa (San and Khoi), imported black slaves, and whites in the Western Cape area.

About the Author: Lawrence Blum is the Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education and a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.  He is the author of High Schools, Race, and America’s Future What Students Can: Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community (Harvard Education Press, 2012).