‘Most Attractive Race’ Poll in South African Student Newspaper Prompts Outrage, Apology

A cringeworthy poll appeared last week in a South African university newspaper sharing student perspectives on the ethnic groups they find most physically attractive.  If the poll is to be believed, whites won out.

The pie chart in the Varsity at the University of Cape Town displaying these results prompted intense criticism, charges of racism, and an apology from the paper’s editor-in-chief.  The apology came with a caveat that its intention was “simply pinpointing a matter that is still affecting the lives of South Africans.”

The chart was run with an op-ed headlined “Is Love Colour-Blind?”  For the piece, the writer Qamran Tabo sampled fellow students representing six ethnic categories to determine their takes on interracial dating.  She found “90s babies [expected] to be more open-minded about race” in a post-Apartheid South Africa are actually fairly limited in their views and idealize Caucasians.

As Tabo writes, “[T]he majority of students responded that they would be particular about which race they would date if they were to date someone of a different race, with less than a quarter stating that they would date someone from any race. . . . Quite unsurprisingly, Caucasians were chosen as the most attractive by most non-whites. . . . Dating a white person is perceived as being the ultimate status symbol for many people of colour.  I have heard many male students of colour stating that nothing says ‘I have arrived’ quite like having an Aryan nymph on your arm.”

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A number of things caused trouble, including: a sense among some that the article perpetuates the embedded, colonial-era racism it is seemingly criticizing; the use of the term “Coloured” for one of the racial groups; the poll’s “quasi-scientific” presentation style that doesn’t align with its straw poll reality; and the laughably tiny sample size (60 students) that is then held up as speaking for the entire university (23,000 students).

As a lecturer at the University of Cape Town confirms, “Yes, 60 students. So, Varsity chose a stupid headline for the graphic, in that ‘UCT’ haven’t voted on anything.  Varsity no doubt chose the headline to attract attention, seeing as that is what headlines are for.  But an attention-grabbing headline on such a sensitive topic should perhaps be chosen with more care.”

The extent of the outrage: an official complaint lodged with the South Africa Human Rights Commission by a campus political group, a branch of the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA).  As the group explained prior to filing the complaint, “The YCLSA is working toward a non-racial South Africa in which the deep wounds of the past are not easily forgotten.  Under the apartheid and colonial governments, white was deemed the most desirable of races and blacks were forced to use skin whitening creams that burned their faces in order to find employment and education. . . . In our complaint, we will demand a full apology and retraction from the newspaper for the racist survey it published.”

Varsity editor-in-chief Alexandra Nagel responded publicly to critics, stating, “I wish to issue an apology to those who have taken offense to the article. . . . The intention was to create a platform for UCT students to engage with a topic that is still prevalent in South Africa. . . . I emphasize that the ‘survey’ conducted by the writer was for her personal insight and not that of a definitive, scholarly analysis. It was intended as a social commentary on the society in which she resides.”

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