It was 1998 and my nine-year old self was late for a phys-ed swimming class. I vividly remember walking into the swimming pool gates and being firmly reprimanded by the teacher who was furious at me. He then proceeded to call me a “kaffir” in front of the whole class. I had never heard the word before and had no idea of its meaning, however I could deduce that it wasn’t a term of endearment. When I returned home from school, I asked my parents what it meant and all hell broke loose over the next few months until the teacher was out of a job shortly after.
Last week, I was horrified to learn that a Muslim woman was forced to remove her burkini on a beach in the south of France. In my dismay, I never for a second took the time to reflect and draw similar parallels to how black children are whitewashed and forced lose parts of their identities every day in former Model C and private schools across South Africa.
The pool incident was probably my first ever encounter with racism – and it was at school. It certainly wasn’t my last one there either. What was different about it was its overtness which made it easy to challenge. The rest would be far more insidious and sometimes impossible to take on. We were made to not speak our home languages with each other and had to wear our hair in ways it didn’t grow naturally.
With the exception of all-girls schools, I have attended the whole spectrum of former Model C and private schools. All-boys and co-education public schools for primary school and an elite private all-boys Anglican boarding school for senior education. Although all were supposedly “multiracial”, the one thing they all had in common is that I suffered racism in some way, shape or form at all of them. This experience is not unique to me and the schools I went to.
What is happening at Pretoria High School for Girls is unacceptable and should be dealt with gravely. It is all but new however. It also isn’t isolated to PHSG and we should be very careful not to vilify the school but rather deal with the larger issue in its entirety.
What we cannot forget about these schools is that they were never intended for black people. They are ghosts of our twisted colonial and apartheid past and have traditions that served the ideals of those oppressors.
South Africa’s oldest schools were started as mission schools in the nineteenth century. The rest followed well into apartheid. They were designed to promote white supremacy and patriarchy because that was the agenda of the day. That is why they were only reserved for white people and had an obsession with separating boys and girls from each other. It is also why their definitions of neatness and appropriate languages are not inclusive of the black majority.
Dating back to this period, the general rule for how girls may wear their hair is usually “neat”, out of the face and tied in a pony. For boys, hair must be kept short at the back and the sides “to reflect pride in school uniform”.
Anyone who knows anything about black hair knows that it coils from the root and is hard to put in a ponytail. It also grows upwards and doesn’t fall downwards naturally.
Many young girls have to put chemical products in their hair and flat iron it to confirm to these rules. Wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head is seen as as “untidy” and often described with phrases like “birdsnest”, “gemorse” or “worm-like”. Therefore they have to go out of their way to make it look like their white counterparts whose hair, by virtue of how it grows naturally, is defined as “neat”.
Girls are also not allowed to shave their hair is it is seen as rebellious and “unlady-like”. In African culture on the other hand, a bald woman is seen as perfectly normal.
If the agenda of the day is to dismantle racism and misogyny; our schools ought to reflect that. They currently do not.
How whiteness defines neatness should not be imposed on our children as the standard. It is high time that we as society rally for these definitions to be changed to be inclusive of how the black majority aesthetically defines its own neatness.
Admitting black children to these school is not enough if they continue to perpetuate western standards that make our children feel inferior. No school should ever prohibit an African child from speaking their mother tongue at school. If white people, who are the vast minority, feel excluded by our languages, then they ought to learn them like we do with theirs.
I think where the confusion happens is our wanting to go to these schools and agreeing to be instructed in English and Afrikaans while at them. The assumption is probably that we aspire to whiteness and would like to be white. This is not the case.
I will still send my children to these schools even though much of my adulthood has been spent unlearning all the internalised prejudice that I learnt at these schools. It will definitely not be because I want them to regard being white as aspirational. Rather, it will be due to the fact that they are the best resourced and the most likely to have them achieve in life.
I will still want my children to embrace their African heritage and be allowed to proudly celebrate it. I will still speak to them in isiXhosa like my parents did with me. I will still want them embrace the way their skin produces more melanin than their white counterparts. I will still want them to know that their hair is perfectly fine the way it grows out of their hair and is not inferior to anyone else’s. I will in no way want my future daughters and sons to be self-hating white supremacists and misogynists trapped in black skins.
Children shouldn’t have to trade off their identity for a good education.
Hair is just the tip of the iceberg here; it is part of a bigger, more broken system where schools do not adequately reflect the inclusive agenda of the day and it is that which needs to be addressed urgently.