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Professor’s Fellowship Allows Renewed Focus on Sociology of Race in South Africa

May 3, 2018
Professor Whitney Pirtle

Professor Whitney Pirtle recently became the first researcher to win the prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship while employed at UC Merced — a grant that will help her finish writing a book and move her closer to gaining tenure.

“It’s a really big honor,” Pirtle said. “It comes at a great time in my career.”

Starting July 1, Pirtle will take a year off teaching to focus on her research into the racial limbo faced by the “coloured” people of South Africa as a way to explore the social construction of race, how racial constructions are maintained through sociopolitical transitions and how the concept of race comes to have meaning for people themselves.

From 1948 through the early 1990s, apartheid — a system of institutionalized segregation and racism — was the law of the land in South Africa. The system was based on white supremacy and the repression of native black Africans. In creating racial categories, the government also needed to consider people of mixed ancestry. They became known as “coloureds,” and held a slightly higher place in society than the native blacks by “virtue” of having at least some white blood.

“The White Nationalist Party legitimized these labels to segregate people, and they implemented laws that structured people’s lives,” Pirtle said. “But what does it mean to be ‘coloured’ today in South Africa?”

South Africa now has a black-majority democratic system that purports antiracism via ideals of racial harmony and equality for all, but Pirtle said that’s not entirely the case.

“’Coloureds’ report that they are still left out by the Black government,” she said. “They don’t feel like they have a clear place there. They feel left behind, or in limbo.”

As a researcher with the Sociology program in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts , Pirtle said she is interested in the how ‘coloureds’ see themselves and what reimaginings they have about their roles in South African society and hierarchy, but also about their own heritage.

“’Coloured’ resonates with some, but many don’t like the label because it doesn’t really have any historical meaning outside of a racist system,” she explained. “Some people are looking into their indigenous ‘Khoisan’ roots, while others are identifying more as black.”

"I am overjoyed that Whitney Pirtle's ground-breaking research was acknowledged by the Ford, and I can't wait to read her forthcoming book.”

Zulema Valdez
Sociology professor

Pirtle has already finished drafting several chapters of her book and plans to travel to South Africa for a month later this year to flesh out her findings so she can complete her manuscript.

Her fellow sociologists are excited for her.

“The sociology faculty are thrilled about Pirtle’s prestigious Ford fellowship,” Sociology Chair Professor Paul Almeida said. “This kind of recognition for research raises the national visibility of our department and the university.”

Pirtle’s fellow sociologist Professor Zulema Valdez won a Ford fellowship at a previous university, and said it was a great experience.

“As a first-generation college student and a woman of color, I did not have the insider knowledge or resources that other academics sometimes enjoy; the Ford Foundation fellowship helped me bridge that gap and as a consequence, was — and continues to be — integral to my success,” Valdez said. “Also, I am overjoyed that Whitney Pirtle's ground-breaking research was acknowledged by the Ford, and I can't wait to read her forthcoming book.”

The Ford Foundation , through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, has several fellowship programs. The aim is to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties to enrich students’ education.

This is the second time Pirtle has been a Ford winner, although the first time was for the dissertation award while she was finishing graduate school. She declined the fellowship to accept her assistant professor position at UC Merced.

“I had to choose between taking the job or the award,” she said. “I’m really excited to be able to take it now.”

Lorena Anderson

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