JOHANNESBURG—The policing of Black women’s hair strikes again. This time, black students at the Pretoria High School for Girls in Pretoria, South Africa allege that their school’s dress code is being enforced in a manner that discriminates against natural hairstyles.
The girls claim that they have been punished or threatened with punishment for wearing styles such as afros, bantu knots and locs, as well as for speaking their native tongue (aside from English and Afrikaans, South Africa has nine official native languages.)
In a protest at the school on Monday, students tearfully shared painful interactions with school officials—some even claiming that they were pressured to chemically straighten their hair.
“I have a natural afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a birds nest,” a Pretoria girl told an official from the Ministry of Education, according to South Africa’s News24.
Social media users all over the world have shown solidarity with the girls through the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. Some Black South African women even shared their experiences with discrimination in schools run by white officials.
The Pretoria students, who fall under the classification of “born-frees (people born after the end of the apartheid regime) are once again being reminded that racism in their country has endured, even as the world continues to uphold visions of South Africa as a racial success story.
Despite (or maybe inspite of) the fact that the African National Congress (often lauded as the “party of Mandela” and the “party of liberation”) has ruled virtually uninterrupted since 1994, racial inequities are blatant within South African society.
Last year, university students made international news during the #FeesMustFall campaign, which was initially manifested to protest a 10.5% hike in tuition at campuses all over the country, and quickly spread to covering issues of race, class and access. Black South Africans comprise the majority race within the “rainbow nation”, yet twenty-seven percent live in poverty, in comparison to seven percent of the minority white population.
But the frustration many are feeling towards this incident of racism in the classroom is and has always been particularly hurtful. Even in a country ruled by Black faces, young Black girls are flagrantly being told that the way in which they were created is “distracting” and “untidy”—a remarkably dangerous message for teenage girls to receive. Sometimes all it takes to subject a young girl to a lifetime of a lack of self-confidence is just one cruel remark about her appearance, and because the instructors at the Pretoria High School for Girls waded beyond mean remarks to vindictive actions, we may never actually know just how much damage has been done.
Though they may or may not realize it, they are blatantly reinforcing the notion of gate-keeping, in which whiteness is the standard for acceptability and anything that deviates from that norm is rejected.
If an afro is viewed as “distracting,” we must ask: to whom? If the presence of locs deems a student unworthy of the right to be educated, we must ask: why?
Image via Shaka Afro Sisulu/Twitter