Wednesday, 21 October 2015

“Thank you for making race not feel like walking on eggs and for injecting humour” : teaching race at Stellenbosch

In this presentation Rob Pattman shared his approach to teaching race using a participatory pedagogy. One of the explicit goals that Rob set for the module was to engage with transformation more reflexively and coherently, against the backdrop of a predominantly white institution. He intentionally sought to critique the common tendency for transformation to be reduced to numbers and superficially ‘embracing diversity’. While recent student protests on institutional transformation attest to the importance of ensuring that institutions are representative of the broader society, focusing only on numbers can lead to the ‘fetishisation’ of race.

Rob Pattman
The strategy adopted was to invite students to become knowledge producers by making their own stories and lives as well as their own conceptualisations of race central topics in the module. In this sense he is able to encourage students to move beyond the black, coloured and indian student as ‘diverse other’ to compelling all students to be knowledge producers.  Using humour, provocation and asking seemingly naïve questions such as how would you describe race to an alien from another planet, he got students to problematize race and see the absurdity in the constructions of race. The notion of race as something that is constructed but also as something that produces us, resonates with us. This is useful because it provokes us to shift the focus from race as being something we have, to race as something we do (race as performativity). The performativity attached to race engenders in all participants in the module a sense of agency and more importantly it creates the space for those who experience racism to set the agenda.

Rob acknowledges that humour could result in trivialising and reproducing racial stereotypes if not dealt with sensitively. However, humour does help with engaging with ‘troubling topics’ and subverting categories which are normally reified and taken for granted.  The positive responses from students about the module are testimony to the value of the approach in extending and nuancing student understandings of race and racism. This enriched student understanding of, amongst other things, race as materiality; race as spatially differentiated (living and recreational spaces); race as a verb involving processes of identifications and dis-identification and race as troubling as well as something that should be troubled. By using movies such as Skin  and Luister as well as the stories of individuals such as Robertson and Wesley Rob skilfully illustrates the parallels between and intersectionality of race with gender, class, sexuality, age etc. in the social construction of student identifications and expressions of power and inequality.  

As all good presentations do, Rob’s approach to engaging with race left participants in the seminar with more questions. Questions relating to the theories that underpin this approach, the use of humour in productive ways, more details on learning tasks that encourage student to value their own experiences, create knowledge and to be agents of transformation were just some of them. We would like to invite other participants in the workshop and Rob to extend the dialogue.

Blog authors: Kibbie Naidoo and Vanessa Merckel


  1. I found this seminar to be really pertinent to the topic of "what is a socially just pedagogy?" What I wanted to ask Rob, is: a) what philosophy, or ethics would you say captures how and what you teach regarding race? and b) what research paradigm or methodology captures how you use research (really well, in my view) in teaching 'race'?

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