Steyn scoops international book award

07 October 2002
AUTHOR and academic Melissa Steyn has scooped an International book award for her recent work that examines the conflicts expressed by ordinary white South Africans in casting off the old and reaching for the new.

Steyn is the Director of the Institute for Intercultural and Diversity Studies (iNCUDISA) at UCT.

She has won the Outstanding Book Award for Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to Be: White Identity in a Changing South Africa, awarded by the International and Intercultural Communication Division of the National Communication Association in the United States.

The book was "unanimously praised by the reviewers for its contribution to the field of intercultural communication, rigorous theoretical approach, insightful analysis and excellent writing". The prize will be presented at the NCA Convention in New Orleans in November. Steyn will be presenting two papers at this convention, and will receive the award in person.

Steyn says that she is very excited about the award. "This is truly my 'proudly South African' moment. It's such as sense of affirmation, especially as that book was so much more than just an academic exercise for me.

"The writing process mapped a painful personal journey. I continue to struggle through the multiple fences of white identity that my heritage constructed to define me. But bits of flesh remain caught in the barbs. A white skin is not skin that can be shed without losing some blood. I felt I was re-evaluating my entire inheritance as a white South African woman. The analysis had a kind of logic that took me with it. It changed me."

Steyn believes that any award like this establishes one as a serious voice in one's field. "Internationally, people are interested in how we are grappling with transformation. The processes of redefinition of social identities taking place in South Africa are important, not only in terms of our own historical process, but also because the dimensions of the changes are so big and the implications extend well beyond our borders.

"It was one thing having resolved the political conflict leading up to 1994 peacefully, but how do we now come to think about ourselves in fundamentally different ways that make us able to develop a society that is deeply democratic and socially just, so that our achievement is really sustainable? I would like to think my work can make a contribution to such questions, and to be part of socially engaged academic activity around questions of diversity generally," adds Steyn.

One of the papers Steyn will be presenting at the conference is a continuation of the work she's been doing on white privilege. The other is Unlikely Leaders: White, Afrikaans Women in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, which she says is really about women who rejected what was in effect mandatory whiteness, given how Afrikaans women were positioned in the society.

"These were extraordinary women who stepped out of pretty well all the boxes that their socialization had prepared for them, and risked so much for what they had come to believe in. I'm interested in the intersectionality of gender, 'race', culture, sexuality, and class in their lives. It's a wonderful experience interviewing them."

Steyn has a few other projects in the pipeline. She is hoping to develop the work on white, Afrikaner women into a book. "But that is longer term. At the moment, colleague Mikki van Zyl and I are still working on getting our edited book on sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa published.

"Actually, you know, living in a country in transition is so fascinating. No matter how much we research, write or document, we will never be able to capture the texture of the changes in its full complexity. I find that everywhere I look I see research questions," she concludes.

Internationally renowned academic Henry Giroux, in whose series the book has been published, comments, "This book exemplifies both what good scholarship should be and what it means to be a public intellectual."

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