On Monday August 29, #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh was trending on social media while black learners at the school were protesting against what they described as cultural discrimination.
The learners highlighted their school rules which force them to wear their hair in ways that conforms to western standards and how they are prohibited from standing in groups or speaking their mother tongue languages during school hours.
The movement sparked a national conversation in which I think provided a good learning opportunity for all South Africans. First off, let me say definitively, it’s not about hair! The debate plays out through the dreadlocks and the cornrows but really, the conversation is about institutionalised racism. And more specifically about the institutionalised racism at some of this country’s most prestigious schools.
In other words it’s about the fact that black students are animalised in schools. When white teachers think that black hair is untidy, they refer to it as a “birds nest”. They are “behaving like hooligans”, when they are often, just being themselves, themselves in a way that is not white. They are told to “stop cackling” or “acting like monkeys” when they laugh too loudly and their “messy” schoolbags or desks are said to resemble a “pigsty”. I’ve experienced all of this and I am only one person. One black child. So there’s this consistent reference to black students and animal behaviour. This notion that your habits limit your acceptance into human society.
Then there’s the chatter about the code of conduct.
The code of conduct is fundamentally a set of rules that governs the school. It is the law. All laws only find relevance in the societies they exist in. When society evolves, so too should the law. Codes are written by ordinary people who seek to promote their own bias. How can we expect a law that was written without black students in mind to work to serve them?
The very problem that the learners are working to address is the idea of not seeing colour. It is necessary to see race so the structures that people of colour occupy can operate to equally benefit them. Ignorance to colour, “race blindness”, is not a noble gesture, it is to dismiss the diversity of people. Diversity is good, it also requires flexibility and that must be taught in institutions of learning.
Schools are the facilitators of such lessons but they should not simply distribute teachings as gospel. Paying for an education is not like buying loaves of bread. The factors that produce an education, such as teachers, rules and environment are as important as the education itself. Learners are not consumers but stakeholders in the chain of production.
It is up to the schools to look into their policies, change the rules and fix it. The stakeholders can’t be told to go elsewhere if they are unhappy, it’s their school too. Black students are not the inconvenient guests at the former model C school, they are partners, these codes of conduct should get it right.
Wits Vuvuzela, Good hair, no Becky, September 10, 2016
Wits Vuvuzela, It’s not just about hair, September 10, 2016