On that “most attractive race” thing in the UCT student newspaper

So, this peculiar thing appeared in the UCT student newspaper, Varsity, earlier in the week:

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 9.46.51 AM

A couple of people have asked whether I’d be writing about it. To one, I replied that it was “too silly”. Which it is. But even sillier than this is the news that the Young Communist League are apparently going to report Varsity to the Human Rights Commission (they are “shocked and disgusted“, you see).

For context, a couple of details: To repeat, this is a student newspaper, and it is not edited or subject to any pre-publication controls by any official agents of the University administration or staff. Second, it was published in the opinion pages, and third, it was an accompaniment to this article – in fact, it’s a graphical representation of the results of Qamran Tabo’s straw poll of 60 students.

Yes, 60 students. So, Varsity chose a stupid headline for the graphic, in that “UCT” haven’t voted on anything. Varsity no doubt chose the headline to attract attention, seeing as that is what headlines are for. But an attention-grabbing headline on such a sensitive topic should perhaps be chosen with more care.

As, of course, should be what you choose to publish in the first place, or how much you edit what’s been submitted. Presenting this as quasi-scientific was an error, as the editor concedes.  It’s not just the sample size, it’s also the peculiar way in which the sample was drawn. Tabo chose to survey 10 individuals from each of the following “racial groups”: “white, coloured (culturally), Indian, East Asian, biracial and African”. Now, Tabo doesn’t define how she knew who was who here, and whether they are all self-identified (as “culturally coloured” surely must be). Anyway – let’s leave it at that, agreeing that the pie-chart is a reflection of what these students reported, and nothing to do with UCT as a whole.

But even if it was about UCT as a whole, it’s still possible that – for whatever reason, but mostly for a reason Tabo cites (the preponderance of white people presented as attractive in popular media) – a larger group of people would report this same preference. And this would be a reflection of racism in popular culture, yes, where certain appearances are normalised as attractive, and others not. Furthermore, it’s a great shame that this is so prevalent, and so persuasive, that it’s probably the case that a large number of students (and others) have “fallen for it”, as it were.

It wouldn’t necessarily be racist to point this out, though. Saying “students report that they find race x more attractive than race y” (and please, throughout this blog post, assume the quotation marks around “race”) can simply be reporting a fact. The idea that humans might “rank” races on any characteristic is of course offensive, particularly in South Africa or anywhere (okay, everywhere then) where people have been oppressed as a result of their race. But the author knows this, and starts by reports the fact (for the 60 students) of these preferences, before going on to conclude:

Of course everyone has the right to choose who they want as a romantic partner, but it is interesting to observe how race, which is really just a collection of arbitrary physical features, acts as a barrier when it comes to who we choose to love.

Having been at UCT and in South Africa long enough, I have come to realise that we would have better luck creating a research wing at Med School dedicated to cloning white people to feed the demand than trying to understand the origins of some our supposed “preferences”. Hopefully one day, when the world’s entire population becomes creolised, characters will be the only deciding factor for who we want to date.

And that’s just right, surely? The author decries the fact that these students use an arbitrary characteristic, rather than someone’s character, to determine who they would like to date. There’s nothing racist about the conclusion, and it can’t be racist to report that people do have these (potentially racist) preferences. This really does seem a storm in a tea-cup, caused by little more than a poor headline and social media hysteria.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously argued with regard to the dos Santos and Tshidi cases, even real racist speech should perhaps not be reported to the HRC, and we certainly shouldn’t feed the pitchfork-wielding mobs of outraged folk on social media, because they’ll simply start feeling more entitled to bully us into silence the more they succeed in doing so. I confess I fell for it too, yesterday, when I described this as “embarrassing” for UCT on Twitter.

It is embarrassing, sure – but it’s also embarrassing that our knees jerk so quickly, and so violently, when anyone mentions the fact that people do still think in racial terms, regardless of the fact that we wish they wouldn’t. Outrage won’t make the problem go away, and neither will pretending that people don’t have attitudes we wish they didn’t.

[Edit]Related: I thought it was a mistake for UCT (the Vice-Chancellor, in fact) to apologise for the “blasphemous” Sax Appeal in 2009. They certainly shouldn’t apologise for this.[/edit]

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.