Confronting institutional biases and prejudices

guest column Alex Magaisa

As is evident from these passages, these problems are not location-specific. They are as true in Zimbabwe as they are in South Africa, India, Britain or Brazil.

Returning to the matter discussed in this article, the same argument might be applied to what happened. The school, teachers and students might not have been conscious of the fact that what they were doing would be regarded as racist. That is because the policies, procedures and culture at the school consider such conduct to be normal and they have conditioned them to believe that there is nothing untoward. The school’s pedagogical culture has not prepared both staff and students to read and understand history in a critical way. If it did, they would have easily spotted the folly and inappropriateness of such casual, false and insensitive representations of history.

But let me hasten to add the school is not alone in that predicament. Others that are similarly placed— not just in terms of race, but also class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc — can also draw lessons from this incident. The notion of institutional racism helps us understand why, in a country like Zimbabwe, a school which is now predominantly black might still be regarded as institutionally racist. It is the acts that matter, not the actors. If an organisation is institutionally racist, it doesn’t matter that the chief executive officer (CEO) or the head teacher is black. Likewise, an organisation can be institutionally sexist even though the CEO is a woman. Institutional racism is concerned with the racist nature of the acts, not with the race or colour of the actors. There are parallels in critical gender studies, where it is now well established that some females can be the most important agents of patriarchy. In other words, one doesn’t have to be a man to promote a patriarchal culture which prejudices other women.

The fact that there are people who defended the image does not necessarily make them racist. Those who authored the project are also not necessarily racist in their disposition. The racist consequences of their acts might have stemmed from the institutional culture of the organisation. As the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality has previously stated: “If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions.” In fact, the individuals at the school and the alumni could be considered victims of a culture of institutional racism. They too need help to overcome the burden. That’s why to adapt Paulo Freire description of the process of liberation, decolonisation may be cast as a process of humanisation in which both the colonised and the coloniser must be reborn. This did not happen sufficiently well in 1980 or afterwards. Rather, this process of “becoming Zimbabwe” — a nation — is an on-going process and as Raftopolous and Mlambo argue in Becoming Zimbabwe. This process cannot afford casual, simplistic and falsified representations of history in the nation’s sites of teaching and learning.

Becoming institutionalised

There is another concept, linked to the above but deserving separate treatment. It might help us explain and understand the behaviour of individuals who fail and/or refuse to see the existence of racism (or indeed, to extend the analysis, sexism, tribalism, elitism, etc) despite the abundance of evidence. It is the notion of becoming “institutionalised”, as drawn from its representation Frank Darabont legendary film, Shawshank Redemption.

Shawshank portrays a number of themes and one of them is how individuals can become institutionalised when they spend so much time in a specific situation. It is best illustrated by the story of Brooks, who after spending 50 years in prison was finally given parole. However, Brooks did not want to leave prison. When he got what should have been good news, he was heartbroken. He hatched a plan to stay in prison. He was restrained with a knife on a fellow prisoner’s throat. He thought if he killed an inmate, the authorities would keep him in jail. Heywood, the inmate who was attacked is furious. However, Red, the narrator and putative head of the group tries to explain and rationalise Brooks’ behaviour asking Heywood to be more understanding. He says: “The man has been in here 50 years, Heywood. Fifty years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothing! Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands … couldn’t even get a library card if he applied. You see what I’m saying?”

Brooks had been the prison librarian and he had become so used to his role and status that what ought to be prison had become his home.

“These walls are funny,” adds Red. “First, you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so used to them you depend on them. That’s institutionalised”.

Shawshank Redemption is a reminder of how long imprisonment can impact a person to the point that what should be an alien and hostile place becomes home. The impact can be so deep that one’s identity is intimately tied to the institution. It becomes the only life that one knows so that if they were given another and better option, they would actually reject it.

Indeed, when Brooks does eventually leave he does not last outside prison. He commits suicide by hanging. But he lives a poignant suicide note for his mates in prison, in which he expresses his frustrations. Part of it reads: “Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense any more. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay.”

“Send me home” meant a return to the prison, itself a reaffirmation of how he had become so institutionalised that even when he was a free man, he did not believe he was free. He preferred to be in jail because that is the life he was used to.

Likewise, people who have spent a long time in institutionally racist organisations might find themselves defending those institutions and refusing to challenge them because in fact they really do not see anything wrong with them. Like Brooks, if someone showed them a different option, they would reject it, preferring to the only way of seeing the world they were conditioned to see. Just as Brooks did not see prison as a place of restriction, these individuals do not see institutionally racist organisations as a problem. They choose to see the brighter side. It is probable that there is a psychological term for it, but this is beyond my intellectual boundaries.

For Brooks, it was the experience of incarceration, but for us, it was the experience of colonialism and its legacy. It is important to understand why some refuse to leave its confines just as Brooks refused to leave Shawshank.

The colonial experience

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the celebrated Kenyan writer and intellectual gave us a wonderful book which should essential reading be on the reading lists of African schools and colleges, whatever degree or diploma path they have chosen. It’s called Decolonising the Mind. His main thesis centres on how language was an instrument of colonisation and that therefore the decolonisation process requires a revolution in the use of language. He challenges the dominance of colonial languages over the local ones. For his part, as part of that mission, he goes back to write his literature in Gikuyu, his mother tongue.

Ngugi reminds us that colonialism is not an event or merely a process, but a condition. You might declare independence, but you could still be still being afflicted by the colonial bug. He argues that apart from military conquest and political dictatorship, the most important area of colonial domination was the “mental universe of the colonised”. This was achieved through “the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship with the world”.

This helps us understand the process by which the incarceration of the colonial experience conditioned individuals to accept their fate. Since English was the epitome of achievement, celebrated and rewarded by the system, we were conditioned to believe that the ability to speak and write in English was the height of achievement and passport to higher opportunities.

This is why we are probably the only peoples in this world who laugh at one of our own when they cannot speak “proper English”. We have actually become the gatekeepers of the English language. The Japanese, Chinese, Polish can speak “crooked English” and we don’t mind, but if one of our own does the same, we condemn and laugh at them. What we do not realise is that we have also become “institutionalised” even though we do not know it.

Critical education

One problem is that the colonial system of education was functional, never critical. It was what Paulo Freire called the “banking system” of education in which “knowledge is bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing”. In such a system, the teacher deposits, while the students “patiently receive, memorise and repeat” knowledge. There is no critical engagement. In his book, Rhodesia: White Racism & Imperial Response, Martin Loney echoes the views of educationists who have argued that the colonial education system established for blacks was specifically designed to provide a pool of labour for the white settler economy. He refers to the 1903 Educational Ordinance which stated that the object of African education was that “pupils are taught industrial work, receive a sufficient knowledge of English and are trained in habits of discipline and cleanliness” This was a functional system designed to mould a worker who was supposed to be disciplined and efficient, with basic English-speaking skills. Ironically, more than a century later, and 40 years after independence, the pre-eminence of English is still evident in the education system. Critical education which opened up minds to alternative ways of knowing was discouraged. Loney describes the rejection of an application by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had US roots and sought entry into Rhodesia in 1903 to establish a mission. The application was opposed by the established churches with the then Anglican Bishop of Mashonaland arguing that the new church “would appear to have aroused in the minds of a considerable section of the natives of South Africa political and social aspirations … It advocates “higher” education, makes comparison between the political and social position of the American Negro and the African native”.

This was frowned upon. The new church’s mission was inconsistent with the work that was expected from the established missionaries. It is hardly surprising then, that decades of colonial education produced a culturally captured mindset. The negative images which portrayed Africans and their culture in negative light became internalised until some rejected their own culture and identity. These early experiences are brilliantly captured by Chinua Achebe in his novels, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. The mental anguish faced by the African in the middle of a collision between two cultures is examined with brilliant eloquence by Tsitsi Dangarembga in the all-time classic Nervous Conditions.

All these books must be essential reading in the school and college curriculum because they give a more complete picture of the struggles that are part of building nations. Nations are not built through ignorance and superficial treatment of history. They are constructed on firm foundations of knowledge, respect, tolerance and deference.

Critical education gives students the courage to challenge what is presented to them by their teachers. A student with critical skills and a nuanced understanding of history would have challenged the performance portrayed in that image because it feeds into negative narratives that promote myths and symbols that have long been debunked. A student or teacher who has read the work of Ranger, Gatsheni-Ndlovu, Gerald Mazarire and other critical scholars of history would have questioned an exercise which reinforces negative symbolism.


Some may argue that too much is made of a single image. If there is a silver lining in the cloud, it is that it has generated an important debate. That may not have been the intention but it is a healthy path. Some have already used the opportunity to share their stories. I’m certain there are many more such stories – experiences within institutions where old legacies and practices are in need of reform. It is very difficult to confront institutional biases and prejudices because they are woven into the culture and identity of the institutions and they seem normal to their inhabitants. Those who practice such biases and prejudices may not even appreciate the impact of their acts because these things are normal to them. Those who are affected by such biases and prejudices may not resist because they have been bent and lost the will or courage to resist. Indeed, they probably see no other life besides one that they are used to and they would even defend it.

On social media, I drew from Game of Thrones, a popular television series, where a young man called Theon Greyjoy is taken into captivity by Ramsay Snow, a terribly cruel and sadistic man. Brutally tortured and dismembered, Theon is assigned a new, derogatory name by Ramsay. He calls him Reek and subjects him to torrid conditions. Theon is truly bent to the point of accepting his new name. When his sister, Yara comes and tries to rescue him from captivity, Theon bluntly refuses to take his chance to freedom. He won’t leave. “I’m Reek!” he protests when she calls him by his real name. The young man had been tortured not only into subservience but also into losing his identity. The theme is also important in explaining some behaviours in life, when people refuse to be rescued, preferring instead to not only remain in captivity but also to even defend those who would have placed them there. The legacy of colonialism was particularly invasive and devastating on the mind as Ngugi argued. Such legacies transcend generations. Some may argue that it is a matter of choice whether or not to enter institutionally racist spaces. Inherent in this is that if you choose to enter such spaces it’s because you do or must accept the racism. In other words, once you take the choice to enter racist spaces, you lose the right to challenge it. This is not sound. It justifies rather than challenges the existence of racist spaces. If it were sound reasoning, campaigns against domestic violence would be pointless since marriage is a choice. It would trivialise challenges by black footballers on the grounds that they made a choice to play in European leagues. The fact is that racism must be fought in whatever space it exists. Matters of race and class are too important to be dismissed on grounds of choice. There are many things that can be done but I think education is a critical part of the solutions:

Our education system must be more critical in its approach. It should not be about a teacher depositing knowledge in students, but a dynamic process in which students engage critically with what is presented in books and by teachers. They must be allowed the courage to critically examine narratives.

λCritical education is not only for students studying the arts and social sciences. It is also fundamental for students in the sciences and commercial pathways. A brief history of ideas and the world and more specifically, Africa and Zimbabwe will help broaden awareness.

λInstitutional biases are the residue that remains even after individuals declare that they are independent and unprejudiced. These vices include institutional racism, institutional sexism, institutional elitism, etc. It does not matter that the organisation has more women, if institutional sexism is not broken down, there will still be sexism. The same argument applies to racism.

λPublic and private organisations must consider diversity awareness policies and procedures to ensure that institutional biases are tackled at the root.

λPeople should be free and open to sharing their experiences. These narratives reveal more that is often hidden in the closet. They educate those who fail to appreciate the institutional biases and prejudices of their organisations – both public and private.

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