By Tanielle van der Schyff
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 5 of VARSITY News.
“I think that there was a shock value in the idea of coloured women being scientific subjects.”
A controversial study at Stellenbosch University has done more than raise a few eyebrows. Some see it as yet another slap in the already-scarred face of ‘colouredness’ in this country. Others see it as a perfectly acceptable piece of academic research.
The study was conducted as follows: Sixty women aged between 18 and 64 were split into four age groups and two education groups. Cognitive function was measured, and it was found that age, low education levels and an unhealthy lifestyle influenced low cognitive function in coloured women.
What passes for research at Stellenbosch Univ, complete with colonial tropes about the size of our heads! When racism is embedded in your worldview, epistemology, and academic structure, this is the outcome! How do you look your “coloured” colleagues and students in the eye? pic.twitter.com/uugerYv5VI
— Barbara Boswell (@BobbiBoswell) April 18, 2019
At first, upon hearing about the study, it seemed highly problematic and fundamentally racist. This is because the core of the study seemed to be that coloured women are cognitively impaired on racial grounds. Of course, this idea is highly offensive to women of colour as it perpetuates a colonial idea of an intellectual hierarchy amongst races. This struck a nerve for many, as people began drawing parallels between this study and pseudoscientific racism. Pseudoscientific racism is what was, historically, grounds for discrimination based on skin colour. It was science that was falsely applied to conclude the superiority of the white race and, respectively, the inferiority of the black or mixed races.
I think that there was a shock value in the idea of coloured women being scientific subjects. Race is understood to be a social construct, yet the study used it as an actual scientific variable. While different groups of people are often studied (e.g. men, women, children, those with mental health issues etc.), I believe that the sensitivity of race may have led to coloured women feeling somewhat dehumanised, simply because race and cognitive functioning do not correlate in any way.
That said, I have come to understand that the study does not aim to subtly undermine coloured women through scientific proof that we are less cognitively functional. The study itself merely concludes that age, low education levels and an unhealthy lifestyle correlate to low cognitive functioning, which I would say seems self-explanatory. The aim was to address the question of why it is that coloured women have higher levels of cognitive-affecting medical conditions such as obesity, hypertension and cholesterol. Insofar as the study goes, I do not think that it would reap helpful results as age, low education and an unhealthy lifestyle are factors that are bound to affect the cognitive function of any racial group. That said, I believe that race was used as a variable in the study due to the fact that race is relevant when comparing cognitive function. This is not because skin colour determines high cognitive function, but because cognitive function is determined by socio-economic variables which, in South Africa, correlates with race.
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