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CASBS Symposium Features Jonathan Jansen on Race, Intimacy, and Transforming Institutions

Apr 1 2017

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Event Coverage

“These two countries are fairly messed-up in the obsession with race – and in particular racial intimacy.”

So said current fellow Jonathan Jansen about the U.S. and South Africa on March 21, 2017, as the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) hosted the final installment in its 2016-17 symposium series. The Stanford Graduate School of Education co-sponsored the event.

Jansen offered his assertion early in his talk titled “Loving and Blacking,” a reference to two high-profile legal cases that led to contrasting outcomes. The first, and more known to Americans, is Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The second involved noted anthropologist John Blacking and Zureena Desai, prosecuted and convicted in 1969 under South Africa’s “Immorality Act.” The couple relocated to Ireland soon thereafter in order to get married.

Laws prohibiting interracial marriage were repealed only in the mid-1980s, relatively late in South Africa’s apartheid era. As Jansen went on to explain, the effects continue to reverberate today. What happens in the daily lives of young South Africans who choose intimate friends and lovers across races? Why is it so difficult to love across color lines?

Jansen approaches these delicate questions from a unique and authoritative perspective, recently completing his tenure as Rector and Vice Chancellor of University of the Free State (2009-16), and before that as Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria (2001-07). He is a towering figure in South African education and the racial politics accompanying it, and is known for a leadership approach based on compassion, humility, deep understanding, peaceful reconciliation, and unity during complex and difficult times. Though no stranger to controversy, he is widely credited with facilitating institutional culture shift and making enormous strides in transforming UFS – once racially divided – into a model of genuine integration, interracial community, and social responsibility in South Africa. (Jansen also serves, notably, as President of the South African Institute of Race Relations.)

The bulk of Jansen’s presentation and insights drew from two sources. One is a recent research paper – “Interracial loving and learning after apartheid: A story of history, hurt, and hope.” The second is a series of interviews that Jansen conducted and filmed with 10 undergraduate interracial couples telling their stories – excerpts of which Jansen played for symposium attendees (and are included within the symposium video viewable on this page). A third source is poignant and sometimes hilarious anecdotes drawn from Jansen’s own family life, recounted during the symposium. All are integral to his forthcoming book, Race, Romance, and Reprisal (Bookstorm, 2017) – one of three books Jansen has written while in residence at CASBS.

Central to Jansen’s talk was the concept and practice, in the context of interracial relations, of reprisal – what it means, its purposes and forms, how it works, its targets, where it comes from, and why it persists. In Jansen’s formulation, the objective of reprisal is not only retaliation, but also a restoration of a perceived natural order of things. Moreover, reprisal is not the random, spontaneous actions of racists or reactionaries acting in isolation; rather, it is “scripted” behavior or knowledge about “acceptable and non-acceptable” relationships that is taught and learned over time, on a broader societal scale, and in both formal and informal settings.

“I don’t accept that these are individual actions,” said Jansen. “You can imagine another planet in which you wouldn’t do that.”

So why does reprisal against interracial relationships persist, even among young people born at least two decades after the burial of the apartheid regime?

As a practical matter, on the surface the four racial identities defined in the apartheid era – African, colored (mixed), white, and Indian – remain in place in the administration of key aspects of post-apartheid life, including the census, job application processes, and university admissions, among others.

“Why?” said Jansen. “If you fought against this stuff, why do you keep it? Why do you keep reminding people?” It “drives me absolutely nuts…”

But penetrating much deeper, according to Jansen, are the social norms that now perform the pernicious work legislation no longer does. Racism and racial preferences, for so long implemented through a dense and rigid bureaucracy – comprised of a web of laws, regulations, surveillance activities, and punishments governing interracial contact in general and racial intimacy in particular – remain deeply embedded in the very fabric of South African culture and society.

That embeddedness still impacts the way people make choices. Racial separation continues post-apartheid even after laws were repealed – in neighborhoods, in the workforce and, perhaps most damagingly, in schools.

“It doesn’t help that even to this day only about 20 percent of [South African] schools are integrated,” said Jansen. “That’s going to be very difficult if you’re trying to bring people together.”

The undergraduate interracial couples featured in the video interviews (and couples like them), as Jansen elaborated, were able to “break out,” risking harassment and hate, due to a mix of factors relating to specific regions where one grew up, specific schools one attended, and specific “counter-cultural” homes and parents one benefited from.

But systemic, enduring change probably cannot occur at the glacial scale of one child or one couple at a time. Since both romance and reprisal are products of (nowadays mostly informal) institutions, according to Jansen, one cannot change norms about interracial relationships – and therefore race relations in general – without transforming the institutions themselves.

Jansen’s extensive “soft anthropological” surveys and deep experience among university students indicate that even the beginnings of systemic change in a racially conflicted society like South Africa will require many more “border-crossing” youth whose choices “begin to challenge and break down society’s expectations of what constitutes acceptable relationships.” They need much more encouragement and support.

“Those couples give us at least the possibility of what could happen if we did…value content of character above color of skin.”

View full video of Jonathan Jansen’s presentation followed by a Q&A session above or on the CASBS YouTube channel.

Related Events: 

CASBS Symposium: "Race and Intimacy on Divided University Campuses" with Jonathan Jansen