What do South African students learn when we teach breed?


“Everyone says you shouldn’t base your college entry on your skin color, they should base it on your grades,” Amy says. “People keep saying it, but they don’t stand up for it, you know what I mean? “

She looks at me somewhat exasperated as we sit in her ninth grade history class, the afternoon sun streaming through the tall sash windows. We discuss college admissions – a hot topic at this academically competitive Cape Town school – and inevitably the question of race arises: “The whole world is basing everything on race, but in reality it doesn’t. is that a pigment.

We have heard this reasoning time and time again in our conversations with young South Africans. This is one of the many misconceptions that arise from the way the breed is approached in the history curriculum. After spending hundreds of hours teaching history and watching history being taught in South Africa, it’s time to reflect on what students are actually learning from the way we teach them about breed, and why .

How the South African History Curriculum Teaches the Intricities of Race

In South Africa, history is where most of the conversation about the breed takes place. The policy statements for the ninth grade story state that teachers spend two hours teaching the definition of racism as an introduction to apartheid. However, surprisingly given the subject matter, the approach to teaching racism draws much more from the natural sciences than from the humanities. In particular, teachers are encouraged to cover two points: “Human evolution and our common ancestry” and “The myth of race”.

This natural science-based approach to teaching breed is also reflected in the presentation of breed in history textbooks. The Oxford University Press textbook, for example, deals with the development of hominids over about four million years, accompanied by a picture showing the evolution of human beings. He talks about the cradle of humanity in Africa and how the first modern humans spread from Africa to the rest of the world. Vivlia’s manual similarly describes how “hominids eventually evolved into humans” and displays a map showing where different hominid fossils were found.

The purpose of this crash course in evolution is to show students that there are no genetic differences between people of different races. Race – according to the programs – is therefore a “myth”, which the Oxford University Press textbook defines as “a belief that is not based on facts”. However, the term “historic construction” is never used. Race as a concept is simply described as non-factual, and people who talk about race or who are racist are therefore irrational. Students find themselves without a framework for how ideas like race have developed over time and why such ideas may still have meaning in the present.

What are the students learning?

This approach of focusing on race through an evolutionary scientific lens in a history textbook, and concluding that it is a myth without explaining how such a myth was constructed, presents several challenges in the classroom. .

The first challenge, commonly seen in predominantly “white” schools and exemplified by Amy’s comment, is the idea that since race “does not exist” any mention of race must be at best irrational and at best. worst racist. The idea that race was a myth therefore served a color blind program which proved to be very comfortable for white students, and which largely exempted them from researching the deeper structural causes of racial inequality in South Africa.

The second challenge is when the theories of evolution collide with the religious beliefs of students. Meaningful conversations about race in history lessons are easily sidetracked as students attempt to dismiss evolutionary theories in favor of creationism. This becomes especially difficult given that Vivlia’s widely used manual quotes “The third chimpanzee” by Jared Diamond have students use the claim that people were apes as evidence.

From a religious standpoint, this is extremely inflammatory, and class discussions can quickly escalate into a discussion of the merits of the theory of evolution. When paired with the absolute terms in which human evolution is described, the section on race begins to seem both unnecessary and unnecessary. Evolution – a controversial theory for many – is used to justify anti-racism – which is a very uncontroversial idea among ninth graders.

A third misconception, which students from all walks of life voiced, was the confusion over the pervasiveness of racial terminology in South African society. Since race is a myth, students believed that any mention of race (including affirmative action) must be racist and anti-scientific. Students got angry when someone identified themselves as black or white, or that universities might be “racist” by granting easier access to black students.

The latter misconception is perhaps the most disturbing, as the students conclude that blacks are less evolutionarily advanced than whites. Our feeling is that this is not something teachers communicate, but students interpret from textbooks. For example, textbooks say hominids are native to Africa – and therefore were “African” – and the images show darker-skinned hominids evolving into lighter-skinned “modern humans”. There is a confusion between white, modern and human, as opposed to black, pre-modern and hominid.

Towards a historical understanding of the breed

It is clear why history programs have chosen to discuss race in this way. In a country with such a damaging legacy of racism, there is a legitimate need and desire to communicate in the clearest possible terms that racism is irrational and wrong. The natural science framework is often used to communicate something as a “fact”. However, as the examples above show, this scientific explanation is not always clear to students.

The theory of evolution can help students understand that race is not “real” in a biological sense, but it does not help them make sense of the highly racialized society in which they live. Basically, it does not answer questions that students ask themselves, such as “Why, of all races, did white people come out on top?” Or even more heartbreaking: “Why do whites hate us?

In order to answer these questions, a historical understanding of the breed is needed, rather than just a scientific understanding. Likewise, we need to stop describing race as a ‘myth’ – as if it were a story with no clear origins – and start describing race as a construct, which is and has been constructed in different ways. over time by people with power to act. While a scientific explanation can be helpful in explaining that race is a construct, we need a historical explanation to teach students how and why race was constructed.

The good news is that there are many resources available for teaching a historical approach to constructing the concept of race. Such an approach is based on a From Boisian intellectual tradition which includes the construction of racial identities as a justification for the slavery of Africans. Like Facing history and ourselves describes it: “Despite the fact that the Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality inspired revolutions in the United States and France, the practice of slavery persisted throughout the United States and the empires. Europeans. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American and European scientists attempted to explain this contradiction through the study of “race science,” which advanced the idea that humanity is divided into separate and unequal races. If it could be scientifically proven that Europeans were biologically superior to those in other countries, especially Africa, then Europeans could justify slavery and other imperialist practices.

In this approach, students learn that race, although it has no scientific basis, was invented for the political purpose of maintaining power and economic superiority.

This historical approach to the breed is also covered in a new transatlantic slavery history textbook that was released this year. In a section on how slavery and abolition shaped European ideas about race, the manual explains whether racial prejudice caused slavery or whether slavery caused racial prejudice.

Perhaps one of the most useful resources for teachers is a Guardian Robert Baird’s article from April of this year. The article titled “The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous ideaArgues that white superiority was invented to justify African slavery. Previously, such slavery was justified by the fact that these Africans were not Christians, however, when missionaries began to convert African slaves to Christianity, a new justification was required. People who previously would not have identified as white began to do so to legitimize their domination.

However, all of these examples deal with breed building in Europe and the Americas. There is a glaring lack of educational resources that deal with the historical construction of the breed in the South African context. Yet the creation of these educational resources will be essential if young people are to develop an understanding of the role of race in the past and present. With the potential of a new South African history curriculum under discussion, there is work to be done.


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