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How Do We 'Celebrate' Our Diversity ?

How Do We 'Celebrate' Our Diversity ?

By Stanley Letsoko and Themba Missouw. Business Day


'Standards' are being used as exclusionary practices, write Stanley Letsoko and Themba Missouw

What is it exactly that we celebrate in SA when we say we celebrate diversity ? What does it mean to live in a diversified society, and what are the implications for individuals?

Celebrating diversity means an acknowledgement of racial, religious, gender, ethnic, philosophical and cultural differences. In SA this comes against the backdrop of past injustices in the form of an apartheid colonial mentality of "us" and "them". The "us" were colonisers originating from Europe and the "others" indigenous people with everything that they stand for, being caricatured and subjected to gross forms of misrecognition.

Although there are attempts to have an all-inclusive approach in SA, we are, however, still caught in the approach that has more to do with what is known as the "rituals of culture". This is a very unfortunate approach to diversity, as it owes its existence to what Nazir Carrim from the Wits School of Education refers to as "bad multiculturalism". The practitioners of bad multiculturalism have a tendency to reduce centuries'-old problems into one of the aspects that characterises diversity.

Any critical approach to diversity has to have a broad focus. What currently amounts to practical understanding of diversity in SA has been limited to the "rituals of culture", which have a tendency to reduce diversity to lifestyle, in the form of culture, and culture to music, dress and food. In SA, our version of diversity is culture.

This approach does not only impose the elements of what it deems to be the defining characteristics of a particular culture, but also has a tendency to caricature such cultures. The celebration of diversity with Indians, for example, usually involves stereotyping them into eating samoosas and wearing saris.

With Zulus this stereotyping translates into "traditional attire" or the "Zulu dance", "indlamu". Any occasion celebrating diversity is not over until the fat Indian lady, or Zulu lady, Xhosa lady or coloured lady sings or performs an ethnic dance.

In institutions of higher learning, if a person says he or she is Zulu or Xhosa, he or she is not only expected, on those days set aside for the celebration of diversity, to be dressed up in ethnic attire, but also to perform a traditional dance.

A celebration of diversity becomes an exotic event in which Orientals and other exotics are expected to do what they are known to do. Everything becomes a theatrical spectacle in which the activities of European ancestry are dominated by cheerful observations of the "others". The following day they hold the same old prejudices and misconceptions about these people.

This has nothing to do with us celebrating diversity. We celebrate diversity because the past apartheid regimes trivialised and dismissed these other cultures as savage and vulgar. The injustices of the past had nothing to do with lifestyle but the deliberate denial of life opportunities for the "others". The tendency to emphasise lifestyle when we celebrate diversity is a deliberate attempt not to want to do deal appropriately with the legacies of the past.

Celebrating diversity means allowing people to express themselves in their own way and giving them a form of recognition that is isomorphic with their self-perceptions and understanding of their own cultures. To use British cultural studies professor Stuart Hall's term, it means allowing expressions of "authentic forms of recognition to thrive among ourselves".

However, this is not where the story of our diversity should end. Any form of diversity should also embrace diversity in organisations, institutions, companies and our homes. This means a form of recognition that, although it is good to give recognition to the lifestyles of others, we must also give recognition to the fact that they were denied life opportunities by the draconian laws of apartheid. Institutionally and organisationally, it will mean making these people part of the institutions, organisations or companies that they have come to join.

Hall once made an interesting observation in what he referred to as "the paradox of blacks", in Britain. He was particularly amazed how blacks were coping in London against the background of numerous forms of disadvantages, including marginalisation, fragmentation, unemployment, criminalisation, educational underachievement, and psychological breakdowns.

These are problems faced by some of the previously disadvantaged in SA, especially in institutions of higher learning. This is also an important factor as it raises some of the issues most institutions of higher learning are grappling with in their attempts to be politically correct.

The main factor leading to such experiences is the obsession of these institutions with success in the form of MBA ratings and standards. The language of standards is at the core of those who oppose change — their exclusionary practices are usually camouflaged in talk about standards. The reality of the position of minorities in institutions that are predominantly white, male and middle-aged is that they either fit in or face the dire consequences.

Although minority groups struggle to gain entry, once accepted they are treated as if they are "affirmative MBA students", even though they have successfully gone through the selection criteria. Yet even the selection criteria are flawed as they are based on neo-apartheid psychometric tests that are culturally biased.

So previously disadvantaged groups have first to overcome a myriad of obstacles in the form of psychometric tests and the question of standards, and then they are still treated as affirmative action students even though the criteria used to assess them is the same.

Most of the much-talked about standards that came to be associated with certain institutions have a history that goes back to the heyday of apartheid. Standards were measured by the number of white students enrolled and the number of white teaching staff in such institutions as opposed to other groups.

Many institutions got where they are today through the social inequalities of the past, but in a country undergoing transformation, trying to stay at the top using a similar approach is a silly pipe dream.

Diversity should be our strength, not a liability. Yet there is a lot of resistance to diversifying coming from within SA. How do you explain the fact that 10 years after the advent of democracy some big and well-respected organisations are still battling with the issue? Educational institutions of higher learning, especially, should take the lead in such matters and make us believe that they are serious. They teach these concepts to their students, yet they lack in their implementation. They should stop complaining that they cannot find skilled people from other groups. If they cannot find them, they should train them.


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Gary Watkins

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