‘Authentic antiracism is rarely comfortable. Discomfort is key to my growth and thus desirable.’

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

On Monday 31 October some pupils from Fish Hoek High School were left angry and confused after being made to attend a two-and-a-half hour ‘diversity course’ on racism.

Doubtless more details will emerge in the coming weeks, but based on a statement by the Freedom Front Plus and articles in City Press and the Daily Maverick, the gist is as follows:

The diversity course was organized by the Western Cape Education Department after an incident earlier this year involving an Afrikaans teacher and the purported use of the ‘K-word’. The department investigated the matter and found the teacher not guilty of racism. Despite the verdict (and a letter from the Free Speech Union of South Africa warning them about the dangers of doing so) the department decided to go ahead with the mandatory diversity course.

The various reports, if correct, paint a disturbing picture of what transpired. The 800 pupils obliged to attend were not allowed to leave the hall and were warned that if they were caught recording the session their phones would be wiped clean. Added to this, teachers were barred from attending the course.

The FF Plus reported, based on information obtained by speaking to parents, that one pupil was allowed to leave after expressing a need to urgently use the bathroom. The pupil instead informed a teacher about what was happening in the hall. The teacher entered the hall and tried to stop proceedings but was ordered to leave by the three facilitators and six counsellors charged with running and overseeing the diversity course. All quite extraordinary by any measure. The description of the event as a ‘struggle session’ is apposite.

The full extent of what caused such upset among pupils is not clear but one such idea imparted by Asanda Ngoasheng, the principal facilitator of the diversity course, that seems to have caused some discomfort and anger is that only white people can be racist.

‘Racism requires power’

In one recording taken by a pupil who defied Ngoasheng’s instruction not to use their cellphone, Ngoasheng can be heard telling the pupils: ‘Black people can be mean, they can be cruel, they can be prejudiced, they can be nasty, but they can never be racist against white people … because racism requires power.’ This idea is a hallmark of an intellectual framework known as critical race theory, a framework that informs the work of most, if not all, of South Africa’s most influential diversity consultants.

To imagine that what happened on Monday at Fish Hoek High was a diversity training session gone wrong is to fundamentally misunderstand what anti-racist education informed by critical race theory is all about. It is to assume that anti-racist education is geared towards social cohesion by teaching people to be less racist, sexist and so on and to help them to coexist.

This is a mistake.

Anti-racist education is about being on the right side of history. The discomfort and anger experienced by those kids is an intended first step to becoming ‘anti-racist’. It is a feature, not a bug.

This is clear from what I have learned through investigating the anti-racism industry, and by looking at what leading exponents have to say about it. 

‘The work’

Since the death of George Floyd in May 2020, South Africa’s elite private and formerly whites-only schools have invested enormous amounts of time and money on external diversity consultants.

Visit many an elite school’s website today and you will most likely find a tab labelled ‘transformation’, ‘equity & belonging’, ‘diversity’ or combinations of the three. There you will find transformation programmes, anti-racist resources and freshly minted anti-discrimination policies – written almost always with advice from an external consultant, whether directly or indirectly. 

One role among many played by these specialists that deserves scrutiny is their facilitation of ‘racial literacy’, ‘anti-bias’ or ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ workshops.

Just to give you one example of how valued these workshops are, consider that between July and November 2020, St Stithians College planned 27 separate transformation activities. This included 12 workshops (facilitated by five external consultants) for different sections of the school community, some of which were ‘2-day racial literacy’ workshops for the prep schools. St Stithians is no outlier, either, and schools have continued forcing (most of the sessions are mandatory) their stakeholders to attend workshops to this day.

My first proper introduction to anti-racist education in South African schools, or ‘the work’ as it’s often called, was a webinar hosted in June 2020 by UCT’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship called Responding to Racism in Schools.

A charismatic social justice activist called Lovelyn Nwadeyi begins proceedings by explaining to the audience of about 500 teachers and school administrators that if we want to ‘dismantle the oppressive systems in our schools’ we first need to focus on accountability. Specifically, regarding ‘this industry of – I don’t know …‘ – and here she agitates both hands in what might seem a mocking gesture before settling on her preferred terms – ‘diversity specialists and transformation specialists’.

Failed at transformation

Her opinion is that up until now, those in her industry – ‘and it’s not even an industry ‘cause we’re not like formally constituted’ – have failed at transformation. They’ve presented really ‘flimsy material’ that has not gone to the ‘root of addressing power and the traditions and legacies that were built on exploitation’. She hastily adds that she doesn’t ‘mean that in a disrespectful way’ (perhaps because one of the co-panellists has been in the game for quite some time).

For Ms Nwadeyi, ‘authentic transformation’ is not about focusing on nice things like sharing stories as has too often been the case. Instead, it is about

‘… doing the deep intellectual work required to undo our wiring. Our wiring around supremacy. Our wiring around systems of oppression and domination. Our wiring around what is human and who is human and who deserves to be afforded certain rights and privileges in our society. That’s where the work is’.

She is animated. Her conviction is magnetic. She’ll stop there because she’s getting very excited.

‘Excited is what we have to be’ begins the next panellist in what I can only describe as a gentle voice. He agrees with his co-panellist and says yes, we’ve got to ‘re-hardwire both the schools, and also our brains’. He pauses. ‘Has to happen.’

If anyone is interested in what school transformation is about, I’d encourage them to listen to this webinar in its entirety. It’s on Youtube. There’s a lot more besides the use of words like ‘undo our wiring’ about ‘what is human and who is human’ to set you on edge.

For example, you’ll hear Ms Nwadeyi (the most sought-after and influential diversity consultant working in private schools today) refer to teachers who disagree with her idea of anti-racist education as ‘problem cases’ not worth wasting resources on; advocating racially segregated pupil workshops with a view, among other reasons, to protecting black pupils from the ‘psychic violence’ of having their white peers ask them about their experiences of racism; assert that ‘racism is in the very air that we breathe in South Africa’; and complain that when white people stand around a braai they have such ‘frivolous’ conversations. Some of this seemed at least ethically, if not legally problematic – and all of it quite debateable.

But there was one idea that caught my attention more than any other.

Sitting in discomfort

Responding to the question about how we dismantle oppression in our schools (oppression that is merely assumed) the man with the gentle voice, Mr Dylan Wray (an experienced diversity consultant and co-author of A School Where I Belong)explains that dismantling oppressive systems is about doing the hard work of being in uncomfortable conversations. The problem, however, is that ‘there is a reluctance to have discomfort’, but ‘unless there is discomfort then we’re not doing anything’.

What he means is that ‘(people) have to walk out the room going “that was helluva uncomfortable. I felt angry, I felt hurt, I felt guilt, I had all these emotions”. Because if you all walk out feeling like “yay, that was nice”, we haven’t done the work … which means it’s very hard to get people to day 2, day 3 (of diversity training workshops), because when people are feeling discomfort, they wanna go “well why would I do that again?”.’

Quite a conundrum, but one that can be solved by a brave leadership willing to say: ‘We’re gonna push through this in the long run, and especially when people feel uncomfortable.’

‘That’s our measure’, he says. ‘If we get people feeling uncomfortable, we’re there.’

That certainly doesn’t leave much latitude for the diversity of human emotions (no possibility of someone feeling inspired, hopeful or curious…?) But anyway, why might people in a diversity workshop be required to feel angry, guilty, hurt, and ‘helluva uncomfortable’? And how can eliciting these emotions possibly be used as a measure of success?

Ms Nwadeyi answers the question in an episode of the The Woven Experiences podcast from 25 June 2021.

White guilt

Responding to a question about white guilt, she says that she has ‘grace for white people who are navigating guilt and navigating shame’, and especially for white children ‘because they are born into that guilt, born into that shame’. But, as Ms Nwadeyi would remind those children, their guilt and shame ‘is actually a gift’ because sitting in this ‘discomfort’ will help them to ‘rebuild – to build – their humanity’.

In fact, she goes on to say, sitting in their guilt and shame will help white children to ‘almost reassess their capacity for empathy and to really expand their own muscle and their resilience for re-engaging parts of their humanity that was lost or numbed by systems like racism’. There are some deep, uncompromising assumptions there. One might logically see this all as debateable, but not in this worldview.

This bears repeating. Ms Nwadeyi is saying that if white children do not accept that they have been born into guilt and shame, there is no way for them to rebuild – or to ‘build’ – their humanity or re-engage the parts of their humanity that have been numbed by racism.

Ms Nwadeyi believes that if we want to live in a socially just society ‘… white people need to think very intentionally about what it might mean to build a healthy white racial identity’.

Whether racial identities of any stripe are healthy or not might also be a debatable point.  

The problem, as she explains to host Marissa Mönnig, is that white people haven’t done ‘the work’ to interrogate their own culture and ‘as a result, navigate society in quite dishonest ways about what that culture is’. ‘Consequently’, she says, white people ‘ignore the potential’ to turn their culture into one that is ‘dignified’ and ‘contribute[s] meaningfully to holistic humanity’.

Sites of oppression

In the education field, the work of transformation specialists like Ms Nwadeyi, Mr Wray and a host of others, is to help white children and teachers realise that the reason our schools are sites of oppression is because white people have not been willing to do the ‘deep, intellectual work’ to interrogate their implicit racism towards black people, or as Mr Wray refers to it in the UCT webinar, ‘the stuff that’s deep inside’.

Naturally, many people would baulk at the idea that there is something inherently wrong with a person based solely on how much melanin they were born with, or even on the nature of their heritage. After all, isn’t this precisely what was wrong with apartheid and the foundational assumption of the racism that the transformation industry abhors?

But, by the lights of ‘diversity’ training, unless white people realise that there is something wrong with them – signified by their skin-tone – they will not realise that there is something to interrogate in the first place. So, for diversity trainers, it is imperative that they tell white people that they are burdened with an inherent deficit of humanity. This will understandably cause consternation in white children which, as the thinking goes, is proof that they are guilty of the deficit in the first place … and so progress happens.

This might seem like intellectual abridgement and even rather like strong-arming. I’m sure that to transformation specialists it doesn’t count as bullying. As the saying goes, you’ve got break a few eggs to make an omelette, have to feed the yucky bits into the mincer to make a sausage, and tell white kids their racial identity is unhealthy, to be on the right side of history.

So where does this leave us?

What has been reported from Fish Hoek High School carries all the hallmarks of the professed outcomes of ‘the work’ being undertaken in South African schools. The discomfort – call it trauma if you wish – felt by many of the pupils at the institution is not an unintended or unfortunate consequence of anti-racist education, it is a feature of it. That may be hard for parents or teachers to deal with – the ‘problem cases’ as it were – so a little enforced discretion might be, well, justified to that end. Debate about the ideas being advanced would, by contrast, be problematic and thus not justified at all.

Of course, if this leaves society in a better place, with renewed humanity and positive racial identities and the whole knapsack of other benefits, then maybe a few tears and some shaken fragility is worth it.

I don’t think it will and I don’t think it is, but I’m open to being persuaded.

 [Image: https://asandangoasheng.com/about/]

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Caiden is interested in human well-being from a scientific perspective. He believes in humanism and classical liberalism. He holds a master's degree in philosophy from Edinburgh University.