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Virtual Café discussion addresses unconscious bias in society
Author: Corporate Communication/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Rozanne Engel]
Published: 06/08/2020

In recent months, amidst a global coronavirus pandemic, the persistence of structural racism and bias in all spheres of society came under the spotlight once again through the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In an effort to address some of the issues raised by this global movement, the Social Justice Café at Stellenbosch University (SU) recently held a virtual discussion on social justice and unconscious bias.

The keynote speaker during the discussion was Nene Molefi, CEO of Mandate Molefi HR Consultants and an internationally acclaimed thought leader in diversity and inclusion, value-driven leadership and transformation. The other panellists in the discussion included Fanelesibonge Ndebele, Co-curriculum Project Coordinator and senior LLB student at SU; Thembalethu Seyisi, a third-year LLB student at SU and a board member of the Cape Town based NPO, Salesian Life Choices; Daniele-B von Ziegler Smith, a student and writer for Matie Media at SU; and South African activist and high school learner Zulaikha Patel.

The Social Justice Café is an initiative created by Prof Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice in the Law Faculty of SU.

The aim of the cafés is to engage with young people on social justice issues and human rights-inspired democracy and action for inclusion, rooted in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and National Development goals, with a view to harnessing the youth dividend in ending poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

During the discussion, facilitated by Madonsela, the speakers shared personal anecdotes related to incidents of bias against them or that they have perpetrated against others. 

According to Molefi, everyone in society has a bias, and it is important to be aware of that bias so that it can be addressed and dealt with.

“Whenever we have conversations about unconscious bias, we must be aware that it cannot be used as an excuse for conscious bias. There should be inclusion and a call to action, which includes being constantly vigilant and using your leverage to amplify the voices of the excluded," says Molefi.

Smith agreed with Molefi's sentiments and added that “as a white privileged female" she too had to be open to “unlearning many things" in order to be a better ally to those who have been marginalised in society.

“In our quest for mindfulness, we need to be open to learning and, more importantly, unlearning. We should also speak out against friends or family who are racist, homophobic and prejudiced against others."

At just 13 years old, Patel introduced the world to the power of her conviction when she and other black schoolmates marched against Pretoria High School for Girls' anti-black hair policy.

Patel, now 17, reiterated the importance of having open discussions and addressing the “root cause of conscious and unconscious bias" that is still prevalent because of “our very recent racial past.

“The lack of conversations in privileged communities about their privilege and its impact is problematic. The only way to truly address the issues related to unconscious bias is by having constant open conversations about it," said Patel.

Both Ndebele and Seyisi agreed with Patel's sentiments of having open and honest conversations. According to Ndebele, there should be a “level of accountability that accompanies how we deal with unconscious bias" and that everyone needed to check themselves regularly so that their unconscious bias did not become oppressive to others.

The next Social Justice Café discussion will take place on Wednesday 2 September 2020.

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