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Academia and teaching Morality Politics

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:

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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.

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

Jacques, great article. Can we please spend a minute acknowledging that people react to how a question is framed. Without eliding or conceding the point that our society is racialised, when people are asked to think in racial terms (a la the poll) how can we wish that that they wouldn’t?

Thanks, and yep. And to take it one meta-level further, one could say “but people shouldn’t conduct such surveys” – and this would just be a head-in-the-sand response, wouldn’t it?

Thanks for the clarification Jacques. A balanced response as usual. I often wonder about the issue of attraction based on character vs physical characteristics. From my own experience, people do look at appearance first, and modulate after encountering the character. So, for example, one might prefer – I don’t know – redheads, say, to blondes – would that be racist? Or superficial? Is it not perhaps the case that before we jump to conclusions about racism, that we look into the nature of aesthetics? I mean, we don’t all like the same kind of music, but given a few bouts with a particular type of music on some headphones, we might come to appreciate it. The same may apply to preferences of romantic partners…? Just hypothesising here that we don’t have all the info about aesthetics. A job, oddly enough, for philosophers?

In a world which didn’t have all sorts of inherited privileges and oppressions, there should surely be no problem with having and expressing preferences on whatever subjective criteria you preferred. The problem here is that it’s impossible to tell a subjective preference apart from one that is the result of a systemic prejudice.

Sure, you’re right, there is an element of preference by sociopolitical power. So I recall seeing an experiment when doing educational psych. that “black” children preferred to play with pink Barbies over brown ones.

What I’m saying is: is it fair to necessarily assume that the preferences are always say due to racist brainwashing? Is it really impossible to tell the two apart? Surely racism is a political belief rather than aesthetic one? It seems to me that the question is the extent to which aesthetics and personal identity are intertwined. I’m sure there’s lots of research on this which will show that they are. I guess I’m just worried that we make unfair assumptions about people based on their aesthetics. So, for example, if I am not fond of pasta, does that mean I dislike Italian people? That’s obviously a crude example, but one can take it further with more local examples. So, if I prefer ‘eurocentric’ music, say, does that mean my politics are now suspect?

I wrote about it and also think the controversy is completely overblown. The graph was given a very poor title but seen in context I don’t see how it can be taken as racist.

The poor quality of the poll seems, to me, to be a distraction. It’s not trying to be scientific and I doubt anyone goes to local papers or magazine opinion polls about things and starts complaining about how they aren’t statistically sound.

One other thing that occurred to me after I wrote my piece was that this probably wouldn’t have happened for any other subject. I can’t see an article with a poll about how many people have accepted a bribe being seen as encouraging corruption, or a poll about how many people believe in gay rights as being homophobic. It’s a problem when it’s considered racist just to report on how some people see race.

People choose partners for their own reasons. It’s obviously more than race. If you like Kwaito, mielie pap and going to shebeens then pick a township girl. Culture is far more important. As for the ‘survey’; the results are not altogether surprising. Pick up any fashion/beauty magazine and you will be unlikely to find any typical Xhosa faces on the cover. Society drives our young people to regard Western features as attractive.

Jacques it’s as if you were reading my mind!

1. The writer simply reported the views of her respondents. I can’t see how that can be offensive (racist or otherwise).
2. The respondents expressed their preferences – who they found most attractive. I could be being naive and short-sighted here, but what’s racist about that!? Say I say I prefer girls with big boobs. Does that offend Grace from “Will and Grace”? Why?

Overall, I do think as a society, perhaps the world over, but particularly in South Africa, we are too sensitive about any of the topics that actually merit and require an open discussion – Race, Religion, Politics, Gay Rights, etc. It’s really unfortunate because until we are able to openly discuss these issues without taking (often undue) offense, we will never truly understand each others views and hence form a collective view…

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