Black students are still a long, long way from being free at places like Pretoria Girls High

MALAIKA EYOH, a grade 12 student at Pretoria High School for Girls, points out that while the media attention following protests at the school has forced scrutiny on school policies, we are still a long, long way from creating institutions in which black children are free to just be.

In the aftermath of the spring fair demonstration at Pretoria High School for Girls, we’ve watched the entire South African schooling system being turned on its head (one that evidently has a whole lot of afro-textured hair). The #stopracismatpretoriagirlshigh protest garnered the attention of media outlets all over the world, but more importantly, it stirred students all over South Africa to challenge issues of race relations at their schools. Lawson Brown High School, Pro Arte and Parktown Girls were all challenged by their students to update policies on black hair and take their staff to task on how to relate to the diverse population within their classrooms. While this is taking place, we at Pretoria Girls High have been working alongside the MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, and various other representatives to make our schooling environment a stable and truly multicultural place.

You’d think that girls working to create a harmonious schooling environment for other girls would be met with nothing but positive feedback. But the reaction has been mixed. Students (predominantly white ones) have started the #HellNoDuToitWontGo. The screenshot (penned by a particularly upset grade 8 student) making its way around social media reads “our school is a great school I would like to point out the fact that white people are starting to become tired of this…So please leave this racism issue. The Apartheid years are over, don’t bring it up please. DON’T BE RACIST.” A similar post goes on to describe that having natural hair is similar to white students having pony tails on top of their heads, and this is the issue. “If we can’t, then you can’t either” is all the misleading statement boils down to. While initially a bit funny to read, the post struck a nerve. Why are white people tired? And what are they tired of? If talking about the lived experiences of black children at the hands of teachers who share your skin tone make you want to take a nap then we need to focus our attention on our fellow pupils too. We need to know why the experiences of girls you sit in class with, high five in the corridors and share popcorn with are a nuisance to you instead of a call to arms. We need to know why you don’t care so bad that you had to start a hashtag to deflect from the real issues and turn the attention back to yourselves. In the US, White Lives Matter has been listed as a hate group. At Girls High, the implied All Hair Matters is proving itself a competitor.

Another popular opinion, both among students and people online, is “you knew the rules when you got there, if you don’t like it then leave.” It’s amazing that the online comments from adults are almost identical to the ones of kids in class time. It’s another statement that is based on defensiveness instead of attempting to understand what people are saying. We did know the rules. We knew they weren’t for us. We spoke up now because we were scared to before. People change all the time and the institutions, especially the public ones, that serve us have to adapt and change as well. What was okay for black girls in 1992 is not okay for black girls in 2016. You don’t change a situation by packing your school bags and leaving. You change them by staying in the classroom and working everyday with the people around you to make the environment a place where everyone feels safe.

The last bit of uncomfortable commentary we’ve received is that we need to focus on “unity and not diversity” and that we need to stop tearing up the rainbow nation. These last days, more than ever, have proven to me that multiculturalism in our country is a myth. We stand together to sing the anthem and then walk our separate ways when issues like this come our way, regardless of whether we were born in 1951 or 2001. Erasing diversity in favour of unity is like taking the ink out of coloured pens and expecting the picture you draw to be beautiful, when in fact it’s just going to be a white page. All that statement really means is that for us to be together, we all need to assimilate and that’s not fair. There is beauty in our differences. As soon as we truly realise that and find ways of making those differences a part of our school lives in a meaningful way, things can start to change. There’s no black in the rainbow, and we need to start looking at other names for our country.

Despite the ways we like to imagine ourselves, our country needs a lot of work.

There’s a quote by Angela Davis that’s popular all over woke black Twitter. Davis said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” I used to have this quote saved on my phone but I ignored it until this week, when I looked at my screen and suddenly it seemed like that quote encapsulated everything I’ve been wanting to say.

For us, students, the media attention this week has been incessant. Girls have been fielding phone calls and Whatsapp messages from journalists across the world and on Instagram the positive responses from other young girls strongly outweigh the unwanted greetings from unwanted boys. While the media has latched onto the issue of natural hair, our needs span past that.

Yes, the hair issue is a manifestation of the racist ideals of our educators but we need to discuss issues like language, traditional dress and appreciation of black culture with just as much enthusiasm. We need African language departments to be funded in the same way that the Afrikaans and English departments are. One woman tasked with acting as the entire Sepedi Department is shameful. We need for teachers to try and engage with students who talk amongst themselves in vernac instead of assuming that they’re conspiring or saying something disrespectful. We need for educators to treat African traditional wear with the same respect as they do jeans and t-shirts. We need for black-dominated extra murals like basketball and soccer to receive the same recognition and support that hockey and swimming do. We need for words like “neat and tidy” to be suspended as we try and help each other understand that “neat” is not a blanket term that can be used for all races. What works for Sarah’s hair won’t work for mine. For the longest time, what was appropriate was viewed through a white lens. One that desperately needs cleaning.

At this point, the only people that need to be conducting the discussion on what “neat and tidy” is for young black women is other black women. We’ll be soliciting the opinion of white people when we need it – and it won’t be any time soon.

When the media attention cools down, the students will still be here. Those of us no longer enrolled at PHSG will have moved on to other institutions where we’ll carry this same fight with us. When we enter universities next year, the workplace and take on the world as women outside of our green dresses it is important that we remember what we started and where we’re going. The conversation doesn’t end with us.

Featured image: SASCO Branch Tukkies on Facebook.