Was Varsity Newspaper’s article racist?

UCT's dating poll (source: News24)

UCT’s dating poll (source: News24)

It seems a graph in UCT’s student newspaper, Varsity Newspaper, has caused quite a bit of a stir after publishing a pie chart with the title, “UCT votes on most attractive race.” (Story on News24 and iol.)

With South Africa’s extreme sensitivity to racial issues it didn’t take long for people to start denouncing the paper. According to News24:

Some Twitter users, including human rights activist Zackie Achmat, voiced their disapproval. @ZackieAchmat referred to the chart as “racist nonsense”. Another user, @ednake89 tweeted “this is the kind of bullshit UCT’s Varsity newspaper publishes”.

Things are often decried as being racist in SA, though, so it’d be worth asking if this is truly racist and if the outrage is justified. For it to be racist it would have to say that one race is in fact superior to other races, or that there is some form of racial hierarchy. Just going by the graph this is a possible interpretation as it seems to say UCT students are saying Caucasians are more attractive. However the issue is not as simple as that.

The graph, and accompanying article, which we will get to next, are not saying that is how things should be but the current state of things. It is describing the results of a small opinion poll. So we need to ask whether the graph was saying “Caucasians are more attractive” or “The prevailing opinion is that Caucasians are more attractive.” The former would would be racist because it is advancing a racial hierarchy but the latter is describing the current state of affairs and is not racist. In this case it showing what people do believe, not what they should believe and is therefore not racist.

Furthermore the graph did not exist alone. It was attached to an article, Is Love Colour-blind?, and needs to be seen in relation to that. If you read the article you will see that it is not racist. While saying that Caucasians were seen as most attractive was “quite unsurprising” could be construed that way it is made up for by later phrases and finishing off with the hope of race not mattering in the future.

When you take into account the accompanying article and the fact that the graph showed what people thought rather than telling people what they should think it makes overreactions like this all the more ridiculous. From iol:

The organisation said it planned to lodge a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission later on Thursday, demanding an apology and retraction from the newspaper.

Varsity Newspaper has already issued an apology which retracts the graph’s title and includes the following important paragraph:

I am aware of the controversy surrounding the sensitivity of race and I understand that the right to freedom of expression has its limits when used unnecessarily to discriminate against others, slandering religion, race, sexuality. However, VARSITY feels that the writer was not abusing this right nor had the intention of issuing an attack on individual racial groups, but simply pinpointing a matter that is still affecting the lives of South Africans.

Instead of pointless threats to waste the Human Rights Commission’s time what we should be asking ourselves is why the graph came out that way. Why do people see Caucasians as more desirable? The article accompanying the graph gave some suggestions and perhaps if we understand those factors then we can move toward making race less of an issue. We can’t just yell at people for daring to show us what people feel as we need that information to move on. Ignoring a problem will do exactly nothing to solve it. We need to have these discussions.

A last point that might be of some interest. If there were 10/60 participants per race then each one had about 17% of the vote (rounding up). That means Caucasians are viewed as attractive by more than just their own race but so are Coloureds (with 19% of the vote).

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