OPINION: Black and Woman in Academia: Revelations on Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng debacle

The intricate interweaving of racism, sexism, classism, patriarchy, capitalism and misogyny within and beyond academia aids in black women’s disenfranchisement and literal death. By Mischka Lewis

Just nine months into the appointment of Professor Phakeng, a string of emails sent by two University of Cape Town (UCT) alumni question her credibility alleging that her qualifications are fake.

The emails were sent to an extensive list of 40 people, including the Vice Chancellor Dr. Max Price. Price in a statement to campus staff and students expressed that he is “saddened by this email thread.” Price further implored recipients (largely white and male) to distance themselves from the views held. However, the university refuses to identify those who are responsible for the malicious emails.

Furthermore, only one of the recipients by 11 October questioned the authors of the email. According to Professor Phakeng in a M&G interview, the deafening silence from the rest of the recipients means complacency. The story of Prof Phakeng comes a few months after the Dr Lwazi Lushaba debacle. In the interests of saving space and getting right into the core of the article, I shall dispense relaying the whole account of the mentioned debacle. However, it is worthy to note that ivory white institutions like UCT and Stellenbosch University (SU) have been sites of brutal bigotry from which even black academics are not insulated.

The cross pollination of anti-blackness pervasive in institutions is what Saidiya Hartman posits as the “afterlife of slavery.” This “afterlife” positions the present future as an extended legacy of slavery, a locus of binary oppositions structured in the political economy that historically divides its population into the master/servant class model. And this model, evident in the aforementioned situations, includes black educated with relative institutional power. I have been following the latest debacle surrounding Prof Phakeng closely especially since UCT has positioned itself as a harbinger of change post-#RhodesMustFall, a position I envied as SU was still lagging in acknowledging the demands of Open Stellenbosch. However, the recent spate revealed cosmetic changes that have occurred since 2015.

The narrative surrounding Professor Phakeng has been framed as a diversity problem, disrespect or among more conscious folk as racist. What is even more concerning is the silence that exist in unadulterated systemic and structural violence in the academic industrial complex towards black women in particular. The focus on race only in the common narrative of black academic experience hides the daunting challenge faced by black women as they navigate white supremacist patriarchal terrain of academia. Black women that have managed to enter the rarefied halls of academe find themselves in a particular situation.

Despite undeniable privilege, they are entrenched in byzantine patterns of race, gender and class hierarchy that confound popular narratives of the institution. These institutions are immersed in the daunting inequities and painful struggles that are taking place in a post-apartheid (apartheid) South Africa. Higher education institutions are regarded as a ticket to social advancement. However, bodies of literature have revealed that these institutions are not immune from the inequities that plague the rest of South African society.

Black people continue to be underrepresented in faculties. In a 2012 statistical profile out of 4034 professors inclusive of associate professors, only 43 were black women. In an article written by Open Stellenbosch, the movement states that in 2013 only 3.5% of all professors at the SU were black and 86% were white. Too often the narratives of black women’s experiences are swept under the rug, beneath those of black men.

While finer grained analyses are needed, particularly along the lines of race and gender identity, to include transgender and gender non-conforming distinctions, what we can gauge from the recent spate at UCT and the statistics is that blacks and black women are underrepresented employees in higher education institutions in general.

As Hortense Spillers argues, the colonial structure reimagined black life as mere flesh in order to increase the owner’s stock. Black women are not imagined as being educated, recognised as adding value to academia because in a capitalistic structure black women are wedded to ideas of domestic and public work. Therefore, it came as no surprise to me when a distinguished black woman professor was presumed incompetent.

The culture of academia 23 years into the supposed democracy remains remarkably flawed and is deeply invested in denial. Another committee to investigate diversity concerns might spring up like a mushroom after a rain of racist incidents come to fore or pressure from students and staff for the university to act on diversification. Being familiar with these in both my capacity as a student leader and member of the SRC, these concerns when the dust settles will only serve to create files of paper stored till the next incident occurs or noise occurs-UCT will remember this from Dr Lwazi Lushaba debacle.

The current structure of higher education institutions operates along oppressing racial and gender lines and that should give those of us who care about justice in real life a pause. Furthermore, issues impacting black lives beyond academia simultaneously influence experience within it. We cannot think for one moment that these variances are innocuous, unique or disconnected from larger structural issues of race, sex and class employment discrimination, inequitable access to resources and opportunities, low wages, education fees, etc.

An extended body of literature on how the university system relegates black women and how this impacts the institutional as well as the socio-political economy, as far as I can tell, is missing. What this confirms is deepened levels of black women’s systemic and simultaneous marginalization and invisibility within and beyond higher education. While this may seem unthinkable, this kind of racialized and gender based system was essential to slavery and remains essential to the maintenance of white supremacy.

Ultimately, oppressive praxis that maintains the status quo becomes a virtue in academe and elsewhere. It is with this that black women’s academic oppressions are real. The intricate interweaving of racism, sexism, classism, patriarchy, capitalism and misogyny within and beyond academia aids in black women’s disenfranchisement and literal death.

    Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng Debacle

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