Attitudes around race, especially stereotypes we hold about ‘other’ races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, classes etc. are more real than we care to admit.
Whenever we come face to face with these ‘others’, we find ourselves unwittingly behaving towards them with pre-conceived ideas lurking in our minds. I guess it’s only human.
I was recently in South Africa where I was a Visiting Student and keen participant at a summer school. It was a two-week programme scheduled to offer participants from around the world the opportunity to take a course focused on Africa and African issues.
The airport shuttle provided transportation to our Halls of Residence, located at the lower campus of University of Cape Town. I arrived at the entrance to the building at same time as a fellow participant from Malawi.
We made our way to the reception where we were welcomed and handed our keys and all else. As we waited in the lobby I couldn’t help but notice small groups of people huddled together, chattering away like old school mates at a reunion.
Then I noticed something else: the blacks, the whites and other people of colour were segregated in groups of the same ethnicity and none of them paid any attention to the other.
During the days that followed, the groups formed alliances and cliques divided along geographical lines. At breakfast and dinner Americans, Brits, Australians and other Europeans sat together while Black Africans sat alone.
The other people of colour migrated between groups, though it often seemed to be a struggle. On occasions some integration occurred at mealtimes, thought this was rare.
During the classroom sessions there was much more intercultural dialogue taking place. My interest in these behaviours stem from a natural curiosity in how racial attitudes and behaviours play out in everyday contexts among the supposedly educated.
Austin is a white postgraduate student from Europe who attended the summer school. We didn’t sit together at mealtimes, nor did we sit together during classroom sessions.
Ours was a silent battle to outsmart each other. The first time we talked in any depth was on the first day during registration. We discovered we were on the same course and I was really looking forward to intellectual exchanges with him
However, my hopes were dashed when I met him again at the canteen the next morning and he didn’t say hello to me. I let that pass but I finally wrapped my head around it when at the end of the first day of class, it was obvious he had chosen to see me as a rival.
He was always ready to portray how smarter and more knowledgeable he perceived himself to be. There were many other instances of stereotyping based on prejudices each participant brought with them to Cape Town.
For me and many of my fellow Black African brothers and sisters who chose to stick together to the end, it now seems somewhat cowardly to have avoided mixing with people of different ethnicities from other countries.
At the same time, it was also small-minded of the white participants to behave as though they are superior to Blacks and other people of colour.
The tours held were meant to bring us together to harvest ideas, mingle and inspire each other in more meaningful ways but it didn’t work out that way.
Cultural democracy could play a significant role in creating and promoting more inclusive academic and educational settings. However, on the closing dinner night, there became a reason to have hope for the future.
One of the administrative team members approached me to say that they had consulted on who would give a valedictory speech on behalf of the 100 or so participants from around 50 countries, and my name was the first that came to mind.
I felt privileged to be selected as the last person to take the microphone after all the principal officers from London and South Africa had spoken – and I chose to make an attempt at breaking the divisions I witnessed over the fortnight.
I told the audience about how important it I felt it had been that the summer school brought together such a diverse gathering of people and the need for greater inter-cultural understanding and respect. I made a conscious effort to reference all groups, and many people actually approached me afterwards to say how grateful they were that I didn’t forget anyone.
That evening I made more friends than I did during the two weeks of the summer school. It didn’t seem to matter that I was the only Nigerian there…momentarily, at least, cultural democracy prevailed as everyone united to celebrate the end of the course.