The discomforting white space that is Rhodes

By Lesedi Ntuli

Most people would agree that attending university can have a substantial effect on one’s life because higher education, as we all know, equals better employment opportunities. But there are other factors in these institutions that affect our experiences, factors such as race.

When I applied to Rhodes University five years ago, I honestly did not know what to expect, but my parents knew what I was getting myself into. “You do know that that university was built on white success, right?” my parents would ask. “Ka nnete setso sa yunivesiti e ea hao se sweufetse.” (Truly speaking, the culture there is still very white.)

You see, my parents are the kind who have always been deeply invested in politics and strongly believe that the educational institutions in this country were built to cultivate “the white man’s” ideologies. Though I refused to admit it, they were right.

I was sitting in a lecture one day, when a group of white students behind me mocked and laughed at the accent of a black lecturer and then proceeded to question her competence. “How does she expect us to take her seriously when she speaks like that?” the white male asked. I turned and stared at them for a while so they could feel the discomfort I had felt when they uttered those words. I became furious because these were the exact same students who mocked black students when voicing their opinions in lectures and tutorials – the very spaces that are meant to foster critical thinking, regardless of accent types.

However, it is incidences like these that make me realise how white, elitist, and patriarchal the culture of this institution is. It is incidences like these that accurately reveal how black lecturers and students are the ones who always have to conform to institutional standards rather than developing standards that are suitable for the needs of a diverse campus culture and community.

So I would say my worst experience at Rhodes was waking up from the dream I thought this place was and realising how much I actually hated it here. It was realising that the curriculum and campus culture in general are tailored (and perhaps will always be) tailored to white students.

My worst experience was realising that even 20 years into a democracy, institutions like Rhodes (among many others) still exclude Black people’s experiences and perspectives.

Yet I cannot deny that there have been good times, but when you feel like you cannot breathe because of the suffocating whiteness of this institution, it is hard to think about all of that.

Nonetheless, I am grateful to have come across one of the most passionate and most knowledgeable humans, who was my Sociology tutor in my second year. It is difficult to articulate exactly what made her such an incredible person, but I would like to think it was a combination of how she unapologetically spoke about her Blackness, her love for the course and her strength to take everything that came her way in her stride.

She was one of those individuals who did everything they could to make sure that all her students achieved their full potential and was always willing to help someone in need. Because of her, the coursework burden became so much lighter that I started enjoying attending all my lectures.

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