“I tell them (first year Political Science students), there is no possibility of friendship between you as a Black person and you as a White person.”
Lwazi Lushaba, Lecture on the Black Schema
Anyone following the decolonisation movement in South Africa will almost certainly have heard of the University of Cape Town political sciences lecturer, Dr. Lwazi Lushaba. A very knowledgeable and charismatic educator, it is not surprising that he is popular amongst fallists and other ‘decolonalists’. This combination of expertise and the ability to translate that knowledge in a manner accessible to first year students is very rare.
A lecture was recently posted online where Lushaba drew on the work of South African psychologist, Chubani Manganyi, in particular his 1973 work, Being-Black in the World. The lecture is fairly long and I can’t address all of it in a short article, but I would recommend readers view the lecture for themselves. However, I will be addressing a particular theme present in the talk, namely, the matter of the ‘Black Schema’.
Lushaba makes the argument that a person’s conceptualisation of themselves and in particular, their bodies, is drawn from two sources. First, a Personal Schema that one develops when younger and then a Sociological Schema as one ages. The Personal Schema is a representation of how we perceive ourselves, while the Sociological Schema is based on stereotypical notions of how we ought to be. It is imposed on the person from the outside. This Sociological Schema forms a type of ‘purity test’, in other words, it determines whether we are ‘good enough’. Lushaba goes on to argue that for black people, the Sociological Schema is highly prejudiced in such a way, that it negates whatever Personal Schema the person has.
In turn this creates a kind of existential crisis, where the black body is no longer considered good enough, as it cannot conform to the ‘white’ standards imposed by the Sociological Schema. On the other hand, white people do not suffer from this problem or conflict of representation as the Sociological Schema is being informed by ‘white’ standards. In other words, there is no conflict between their Personal and Sociological schemas, thus ensuring that whites cannot be inflicted by this schematic dissonance. Meanwhile, black people are alienated from their own bodies. In many ways, this is an echo of earlier work by Frantz Fanon.
This alienation causes black people to disconnect from their own bodies; their bodies are not ‘good enough’ as they are not ‘white enough’. An ‘existential vacuum’ is formed where they experience profound anxiety and despair over their bodies.
Whites, meanwhile, are spared this fundamental dissatisfaction with their bodies. Lushaba goes on to hypothesise that having a strong traditional culture on which to fall back on acts as a potent resource to protect oneself from the inevitable assault of the Black Schema.
What struck me about the lecture is that Lushaba provides no substantive evidence for the Black Schema theory. Manganyi too, provides limited evidence. This does make it somewhat difficult to assess the validity of the theory. However, there are alternative sources that can be examined.
If Manganyi’s theory is correct, then one can hypothesise that this clash of schemas will lead to a greater incidence of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – where the patient is harmed by recurring obsessions about faults with his or her body. However, the data on BDD does not support this idea in the slightest.
In fact, even in the United States, where the condition has been most widely studied, white people are more likely than African Americans to suffer from BDD. Likewise, allied disorders like bulimia and anorexia, where the sufferer has distorted body schemas leading to disrupted eating patterns, again, white people are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer from these disorders.
This clearly runs counter to Manganyi’s Black Schema theory. If anything, the data suggest that if a Sociological Schema of the body did exist, then it would be most incompatible with white people rather than black people.
Another issue, although Lushaba doesn’t mention this, is a case study that Manganyi cites. In it, he outlines a case where a woman develops depression as a consequence of divorce and subsequent stress of financial difficulties. Strangely, Manganyi is surprised at this as he states that ‘neurotic’ disorders are a problem of the wealthy. Again, population data doesn’t support this idea at all. In fact, wealth is a protective factor against depression. A combination of financial difficulties and social stressors (such as divorce, bereavement) are almost universally considered risk factors for depression. Seminal work by Richard Rahe, for instance, puts divorce second only to the death of a spouse as a major life stressor. Financial difficulties also rate highly. A Black Schema hasn’t caused this case of depression, but rather stressful life events; in this case, divorce.
Manganyi’s own case study, thus, in no way supports the Black Schema hypothesis.
Lushaba argues that the Personal Schema is formed first, and then we come to clash with a Sociological Schema. This, in turn, leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance in the case of the black population.
Well known research from as far back as the 1940s has demonstrated that black children have a preference for light-skinned dolls. Now, you may think that this is a ‘gotcha’ moment – proof positive of the Sociological Schema that holds whites up as the standard of ‘purity’ and denigration of blacks.
The same evidence also supports two other important facts. First, the racial bias is only found in children aged four to five. Before this, their schemas are so badly constructed due to underdeveloped cognitive abilities, that they cannot even reliably identify their own race. A typical two year old will claim they most look like a white doll one day and a black doll the next. However, by the age of seven, virtually no such biased thinking exists. For instance, when asked which colour they would prefer, seven year olds tend to answer with their own skin colour. A recent study in 2016 found that only 15% of black seven-to-ten year olds preferred a white-coloured skin, and likewise, just 14% of white children wanted darker skin.
This suggests that rather than a Personal Schema forming first which is then supplanted by a Sociological Schema, the opposite happens. We are initially incapable of cognitively forming a coherent racial schema, we then internalise a racially-distorting schema, but by the age of seven, we are cognitively capable of in turn form our own unbiased Personal Schema – which the evidence suggests we do.
One critique that a reader might throw at me is that I make use of very reductive data sets; maybe the use thereof is ineffective at identifying more nuanced psychological phenomena. In other words, the form of evidence is inappropriate.
So, to remedy this issue, I shall explore the work of Eastern Cape clinical psychologist, Ntombizanele Yibe-Booi, who conducted an in-depth case study of a Xhosa traditional healer (Igqirha) by the name of Nomzi Hlathi. What is interesting about this study is that Nomzi appears to have developed what Western psychology would refer to as early-onset schizophrenia. Of course, as one would imagine, Nomzi’s account is framed in a very particular cultural vocabulary. Nomzi Hlathi is what might be described as a ‘Red’ Xhosa, in other words, someone who is very much bound up in a traditional Xhosa worldview. In fact, she has a ‘double dose’ of this – she is initially brought up very traditionally, but later has a second dose as she goes through the formal training of becoming an Igqirha.
On one hand, this worldview provides a very clear and meaningful framework which to she uses to interpret her experiences. However, what is quite striking about the case is that a) the course of the disorder is identical to that of Westernised patients, for instance, the symptoms are not only identical (even down to lack of self-care), but their course of emergence is the same. b) Importantly, the underlying social dynamics are the same; just as her Westernised counterparts, she is at various points in her childhood and adulthood stigmatised by the community because of her symptoms. Despite a shared cultural framework, they find her symptoms bizarre and attempt to isolate her. c) Her family also become very anxious and fearful around her, at one point; her grandmother beats her out of fear. d) Even the trigger of the disorder, namely parental divorce, is common to early-onset schizophrenia in the West.
Having a double dose of cultural capital doesn’t appear to provide any real buffer in terms of the onset, course and social dynamics of the disorder. Sure, it changes the vocabulary and terms of reference, but being immersed in a traditional culture doesn’t seem to provide a better or for that matter, a worse coping resource.
Again, this goes against the Black Schema hypothesis, as Lushaba posits that a traditional culture automatically provides additional resources to draw upon, thus protecting against harmful stressors.
The case of Nomzi Hlathi suggests it makes little difference in real terms.
Due to the supposed systematic nature of the Black Schema hypothesis, it would seem that epidemiological data would tie in closely and support it. Instead, it clearly demonstrates the opposite. Likewise, experimental work and case histories also confound the hypothesis.
While Lushaba provides a compelling narrative, the evidence is just too thin on the ground to buy into the hypothesis. If such a thing as the Black Schema exists in any way, it can’t be systematic.
Towards the end of the lecture, Dr. Lushaba added a sting in the tale. He argued that because of the existence of the Black Schema, whites and blacks cannot possibly be friends.
If the Black Schema hypothesis is false, surely that means we can all just be friends?