Representation in Education

In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Khanya Mtshali

When I was presented with the option of studying a gender course in the final year of my Law degree, I leaped at the opportunity. In fact, I might have leaped, cartwheeled and pole vaulted at the chance not to study another course filled with the all-important, all-objective and all-logical writings of white men. I thought I could finally rectify the mistake my 18-year-old self made in choosing a degree to appease adult sensibilities. I could account for the times at which I’d felt pathetically smug when the mention of my degree solicited a ‘wow, that’s impressive!’ despite the fact that I found it to be hellishly bleak.

Though I was mature enough in my feminism to realise that the course was going to be as diverse as every episode of Seinfeld, Friends and Girls combined, it was reassuring to know that I was going to learn about social justice-y issues related to women and non-binary folk.

friends animated GIF

Yup, our favourite Friends particpated in white-washing and gentrification before Iggy Azalea and the hipsters did.

I need to stress that in no way did I expect to read anything centred upon my interaction with gender as a black woman. The twenty and some years I’ve spent on this earth have taught me that my experiences as a woman of colour are totally irrelevant. The only time I matter is when black men seek to use my voice to further the cause of anti-black racism without emphasising that my life also matters. I only matter to white women when they want quotes for articles, essays and blog posts in which they reinforce how diverse their feminism is. I am invisible to white men unless they want me for an “easy fuck” or to be the subject of their mockery and juvenile fascination with my funny and simultaneously worthless black body.

However, despite all my preconceptions, I did not expect the course to be as white as it has shown itself to be. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it. It is the better of the courses that I’ve done at this university. But it’s just that. The best out of a bad crop. The lesser of the other evils. What I find most frustrating is that my gender course is painfully aware of the faults in mainstream feminist discourse and the criminal justice system. There are readings in which this is plainly stated. I will find myself yaass-ing when reading a book that is totally dedicated to critiquing the exclusivity of White Feminism. I have experienced severe whiplash from the number of times I’ve nodded my head when a journal article comments on the criminal justice system’s apathy towards women of colour survivors of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and abuse.

giphyWhen academia calls out White Feminism.

Yet in most instances, these articles are written by white men and women who have lifted terms and language from prominent women of colour scholars without proper attribution. They have the privilege of appearing like good little academic allies for writing a line or two about the intersecting oppressions of women of colour. However, these observations always feel like an afterthought. An ill-considered yet effective means of increasing their academic chops by discussing something as exotic as accounting for the experiences of women who are not white. Props guys.

I am often left wondering why we do not study the works of the scholars who first discovered and wrote about these issues. Surely focusing upon the authors who first penned about these ideas is the best way at getting to grips with them? I might be wrong, but a first-hand and lived-in academic account of what it means to be a women of colour who is trans, queer or disabled in the criminal justice system must be the most worthwhile way of bringing our exclusion from every aspect of life to the fore?


I once saw Kimberlé Crenshaw (coiner of the term intersectionality) on my reading list and I pretty much did the nae nae on all the fourth floor desks in the library. However, that was just one piece.

Nowhere in my readings has there been anything from Angela Davis who wrote extensively on women, the criminal justice system and its inextricable links with racism and sexism. There has been nothing from the legendary Audre Lorde who was one of the first openly queer black women to write about sexuality and race and how both were not accounted for in mainstream feminism. I have yet to see a reference to Florynce Kennedy, a prominent lawyer, civil rights activist and pro-choice activist who wrote one of the first books on abortion called the Abortion Rap. They are not on the course despite their respective importances.

image1-bellFlorynce Kennedy and Gloria Steinem.

Then there are the contributions of the ‘African Victorian Feminist’ Adelaide Smith Casely Hayford who was able to articulate feminist and pan-Africanist goals for her native Sierra Leon. There is Charlotte Maxeke who fought against colonialism in South Africa and voiced the plight of black South African women through the establishment of the Bantu’s Women’s League in 1931. There are so many women of colour who have contributed to feminist discourse in academia. And, yet, they are ignored by our education system. 

Upon discussing some of these suggestions with people, I have been repeatedly told that the content and its authors are not relatable enough. That their work will only serve to isolate readers who cannot comprehend some of the struggles with which women of colour are faced. 

If you believe that, then I ask you how are your peers of colour meant to feel when their experiences and those who articulate them are underrepresented? What does it say about a university that produces curricula which only reflect the views of a hegemonic group at the expense of ignoring those of others?

Khanya Mtshali

Khanya Mtshali is an aspiring get-a-job-after-uni-ist because that’s the best she can do right now. However, when she isn’t shitting bricks about the future, she loves talking about her love for vegan chilli and Solange’s life on Instagreezy. Khanya also enjoys curling up with a good book and watching Come Dine With Me because it makes her feel like a grown-up. When she isn’t attempting to write stuff, she can be found working on a cure for her severe case of resting bitch face.

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