In this case study, two students enrolled at an institution in South Africa engaged in conflict with one another. One of the students, Mark, is a younger, White student and the other, Maria, is an older, Black student. Maria overheard Mark making a derogatory comment about her and outwardly confronted him in the middle of class. The professor noticed and took both students outside to attempt to resolve the situation. Once the professor was done with the students, it is stated that Mark’s father, an administrator at the institution, heard of the incident and was furious. He went to the dean, also a White male, and filed a complaint against Maria. Maria had to attend a disciplinary meeting where the dean ended up firing her. A year later, it is stated that the dean felt remorseful for his letting Maria go over the incident.
From this case, there is clear conflict between the White South African students and the Black South African students. This conflict is likely an outcome of societal influences as well as historical events. In South Africa, due to the apartheid, White men were at the top of their racial hierarchy, typically in the higher paying jobs, while the marginalized Black population were forced into unskilled labor roles because they were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy by society (Hannum et al., 2010). Although the institution Mark and Maria attend claims to value equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion, the impact of society under the apartheid still can heavily influence the environment at the institution. The societal context creates the perfect environment for Tajfel’s in-group/out-group concept to blossom (Hannum et al., 2010). For example, because of the racial hierarchy created in South Africa and the racial climate of the institution to already be predominantly White, the White students may think their racial group is “better” and therefore cause them to express bias through “prejudice, discrimination, ethnocentrisms, and negative stereotyping” (Hannum et al., 2010, p.77). Based on these principles, Mark’s derogatory comment was likely a result of him feeling pride and motivation within his social group and expressing his bias by negatively stereotyping and discriminating against Maria in the classroom.
Moving forward, as I continue to pursue roles as a student organization advisor, I will take this information to implement with my students. Currently, the organization I advise is predominantly White and I think a first step to avoid social conflicts is to have students reflect upon their social identities and identify which are more salient to them in the context of the organization. From there, a facilitated discussion amongst each other could help each student better understand themselves, their peers, and how each shows up in the space. Knowing who is in the space and how they feel seen in the space can be important information to help myself, as the advisor or leader, to implement more inclusive practices to make the space one where everyone feels welcome and a sense of belonging. I also believe that as a leader, it is my responsibility to notice, understand, and acknowledge when there may be any type of bias in the space and hold people accountable for them (including myself). Lastly, I try to foster an atmosphere where students know they can come to me with anything. The hope is that if there ever is a bias incident or someone feels excluded, they would come to me to help resolve the issue. In doing the above, I think the space and the organization could become more united across differences rather than separated because of them.
Hannum, K., McFeeters, B., & Booysen, L. (Eds.) (2010). Leading across differences: Casebook. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.