Looking from the outside in - people, place and practice

Monday, February 13, 2012

Speak out against prejudice

This article was taken from here.

There we were, standing in front of Dagbreek residence presenting MOJO week to their first years.

Day 1: sex and sexuality. Up slides the infamous Die Matie photo of two men kissing and, as we have come to expect from every male residence, a collective gasp of shock and disgust echoed throughout the room. This is predictable and even acceptable, a vast majority of these boys are straight out of high school and I would expect have never been confronted with such an image. Let alone discuss it. And that is what MOJO week is about, discussing these issues on a neutral platform. We emphasized that we are not saying we are for or against gays, or that homophobia is right or  wrong. We are advocating that we talk about these things (amongst others), in order to prevent violent outbursts on campus and in South Africa. To promote conversation and understanding amongst each other. The boys listened to us and seemed generally to agree with the concept. Everything was going well.

Our presentation ended and before we leave the HK who was accompanying them for this session stood up, he thanked us for coming and then added a comment. Included in his commentary was the following statement:

 "Ek wil net se ek is teen gays".

My face dropped. A couple of the first years started clapping their hands. And the next thing I knew all of the boys were applauding and rejoicing this statement.

Two things bothered me about this.

At first I was appalled that a HK member, who has a tremendous amount of influence on the first years within their residence could make such a broad statement. He is not only excluding those members of that first year group who either are gay, or have gay family members or friends, but he is also fostering an acceptance of future bigotry and perhaps even hatred amongst his first years towards an innocent group of people, by way of his obviously tremendous influence as an exalted (by virtue of his post) example for these students.  As a law student I am all for freedom of expression, but there is a difference between the freedom in your personal capacity and the freedom you carry in your official capacity. As a HK member and Head of Mentors you have a huge influence on the way your first years see university and act during their time at university. The first years idolize their HK and would almost agree with every statement such a person says without even questioning it; or at the very least accept it as some sort of "wisdom".  To have, knowingly, such influence and yet have irresponsibly made a statement of this kind in that particular circumstance boggles my mind. If he was at a braai with his friends I would have had no issue with it, the statement would offend me, but he has the right to his opinion in his personal capacity.

Secondly I realized that there is no known route to report such instances. Luckily I know a lot of people that are involved in the university who have been able to give me advice on how to take this matter further. But the average student facing discrimination on campus has no idea who to report it to and how to deal with such a situation. The route that is available, as far as I am aware, seems  quite complex and time consuming for the student reporting it. So much so that the average student would prefer not to do anything about such a matter. Though this is unfortunate, there is still a route available to follow.

For us to develop as a society and university that we can call truly open, diverse and accepting we need to face these issues head on. I know of various instances that bordered on hate speech and violence with regards to issues such as race, sexuality and gender on this campus. But as Stellenbosch students we still maintain a hush-hush culture. We seem to sweep such issues under the rug as students. It is clear that university management would never tolerate such occurences, but how could we expect any ground-level change if we ourselves don't take action and fight against discrimination of all forms?

How can we expect to be contributing members of a South African society if we cannot face the issues of diversity within our university and resolve them? Are we going to continue living within certain groups with whom we feel uncomfortable because we think that we cannot relate to someone because he/she is black, or gay, or English, or coloured? We cannot integrate (or at least compassionately accept) our different cultures if each culture is being "othered" by another for being different or if cultures are openly discriminating against others. We need to get these issues out in the open. Start speaking out against them. Only then will we feel comfortable enough to approach different groups and start socializing with them and only then will stereotypes be broken and have this potential for underlying tension and hatred subside. Speak out!

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