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Our Schools Are The Breeding Ground Of Racism In South Africa

It's no longer individuals that are racist per se; it’s institutions like schools that perpetuate white supremacy in more surreptitious ways.

31/01/2017 04:58 SAST | Updated 31/01/2017 04:58 SAST
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Writer, photographer and activist, Will-Ed Zungu

I'm starting to think that South Africa is fucked. Well, I actually began thinking that around three years ago, when I finally became a teenager.

And I sense that a lot of young South Africans feel this way too, with good reason. I am proudly South African, sure, and if you gave me a map of the world I guess I could show you better or worse countries to be born in. But sometimes I just want to pack my bags and move to New York City. I'd do it too, if I hadn't promised myself that I would stay - to help change this oppressive education system and racist society that young Black South Africans like me are living in.

The problem is, we as South Africans are very, very good at calling out racists such as KwaZulu-Natal realtor Penny Sparrow who described black South Africans as "monkeys" who bring "huge dirt, trouble and discomfort to others" or judge Mabel Jansen who said that "rape was part of the culture of black men".

Yet we hate talking about big-picture racial issues and dealing with racists. Apartheid ended 22 years ago but its racism has stuck around and become institutionalised. It particularly manifests itself within schools, where children are uniquely exposed and vulnerable to the racial prejudices of friends and teachers. It's no longer individuals that are racist per se; it's the institutions that we live and work in that perpetuate white supremacy in more surreptitious ways.

Racism in South African schools can only be understood through its historical context. After the 1948 general election, the white supremacist National Party implemented a program called apartheid. Apartheid was a legal system of political, economic and social separation of the races intended to maintain and extend political and economic control of South Africa by the white minority who were less than 10% of the country's population. During the Apartheid era, people of colour were segregated according to race and were forced to move from their homes to racially segregated townships.

Therefore children of different races were forced to go to separate schools inside their own neighbourhoods. However, because of the Bantu Education Act, many black students were left suffering and uneducated. The National Party spent an average of $90 on education for each white child, and less than $10 for each black child. After the 1994 general election, The African Nation Congress lead by Nelson Mandela put a legislative end to apartheid and racial segregation in South Africa, allowing students of all races to attend the same schools. Although today many South African schools are diverse, the wheels of racism have kept turning.

Since racism in schools is so subtle, it is perpetuated almost unknowingly. This subtlety means many kids believe that because apartheid is over and schools are generally diverse, therefore racism no longer exists - that somehow we are living in a post-racial society. When in reality it is the systems at schools that cause black children to be treated and seen as subordinates to their white counterparts in these education institutions. When you're in a system where only white children excel academically and on the sports field, some questions need to be asked, because the system is evidently flawed. It's a self-perpetuating system that will only benefit the same people that it's been benefiting for past decades.

That's why unemployment in 2016 among black South Africans stands at 39% compared to only 8.3% among white South Africans. It is as if the tree was cut down, but the roots remain, continuing its ideological existence.

In 1990, my school was one of the first white schools to open its gates to students of colour before it was legal to do so. And yes, there's not a day that goes by that we aren't reminded about this "heroic act". Although, yes, this was a heroic act which deserves commendation, it is not something that automatically declares the school as not racist. We shouldn't confuse diversity with integration. Allowing people of colour into your school doesn't mean it isn't still segregated. It doesn't mean the new children and their parents have been actively, successfully integrated. It's like Burger King opening up their restaurants to vegans but still only selling Whoppers.

There's an absurd racial double standard in South Africa when it comes to pronunciation. When a black person who is not fluent in English stumbles on a word or point of grammar, they're considered unintelligent. When a white Afrikaans person mispronounces English words, they are applauded for "trying."

Schools have opened their doors but they have not changed their attitudes. South Africa has 11 official languages, but the majority of previously white primary and high schools, public or private, only offer English or Afrikaans as a first language. What about the other nine official languages? Why is a black child attending a private school not afforded the opportunity to learn in their native language? Why are we detached from our cultures because the school we attend only teaches in Afrikaans? This is a form of persistent segregation.

There's an absurd racial double standard in South Africa when it comes to pronunciation. When a black person who is not fluent in English stumbles on a word or point of grammar, they're considered unintelligent. When a white Afrikaans person mispronounces English words, they are applauded for "trying." As South Africans we see this all the time, particularly in political commentary. In January last year eNCA news anchor Andrew Barnes mocked education minister Angie Motshekga's pronunciation of English words on live air. Meanwhile there are tons of white Afrikaans members of parliament who don't even speak a word of English but yet nothing is said about them. If we view people as lesser based on language, then we are bound to treat them as lesser too.

I come from an unusual situation where I never learned my home language, isiZulu, and grew up speaking only English. Somewhere along the way, I picked up what my friends call "a funny American accent." I don't know how but it probably comes from binge watching "Everybody Hates Chris" and "30 Rock". A few years down the line I still have this "funny American accent." White teachers and my white friends' parents at school always comment on how well I speak English. As I've grown older, I've come to dread these unconsciously patronising comments. "Wow, William, you speak such good English" - translation - "Wow, William, you speak such good English... for a black person."

I get that these non-compliments are usually well intended, but the implication is that black people don't speak "good English." This attitude is, unfortunately, deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. And it's not just white people, it's black people too. At school, black kids look down on me because of the way I speak and I'm called an "Oreo Cookie" (white on the inside, black on the outside). In reality, proper diction doesn't belong to the white race. But this linguistic discrimination is picked up and perpetuated at schools.

In August, the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh protest made international news. At Pretoria Girls High School, a group of 8th grade girls lead by 13 year old Zulaikha Patel protested over racial abuse by teachers and institutional racism in their school, which prohibits black girls from having cornrows, afros, dreadlocks, and any other African hairstyles that don't meet the school's white Eurocentric standard of "neatness." At the school, black girls were given brushes and told aggressively to "look at yourself in the mirror and neaten your hair." Girls were told not to speak in their mother tongue with their friends because teachers found it disturbing.

An overwhelming majority of South African schools, private and public, don't allow black boys and girls to have African hairstyles because of "neatness". Black girls' hair is a central component to their identity and culture, and for decades these schools have robbed them from it.

Teachers would say, "Stop making funny noises or you will have to sit in my office." In reaction to this, the Black girls mobilised and stood as one. The girls held hands and silently walked to the front of the school. Security guards patrolled and then processed to shut the gates and forcefully push the girls backwards. The girls persisted on walking to the front of the school and were met with by the schools governing body, extra security, and police threatening to arrest the girls. Pretoria Girls High School eventually suspended their racist policies against natural black hair, the racist teachers were removed from the school, and other schools were able to sit down and have a progressive dialogue about racial issues in their own schools.

An overwhelming majority of South African schools, private and public, don't allow black boys and girls to have African hairstyles because of "neatness". Black girls' hair is a central component to their identity and culture, and for decades these schools have robbed them from it. Black girls in schools are subjected to intense scrutiny by their peers and teachers.

At my school, I often hear white guys saying, "Black girls are ugly" or "the only black girl I'd date is Beyoncé." Black girls are shamed for their natural features. Black girls with big boobs, butts, and lips are considered fat by white classmates, but when white girls have those exact same features they are considered beautiful "#whitegirlsevolving." What do you think statements like these do to the emotional state and self-esteem of black girls at schools? Google "Why are Black women" and the top four searches are:

1. Why are Black women so angry?

2. Why are Black women so ugly?

3. Why are Black women single?

4. Why are Black women so mean?

If you're told from your school years that you are not enough, you eventually start to believe it. South African schools are sending a message that their standard of beauty does not include Black girls, and certainly not their natural hair. Fight against this, then you're labeled an "angry black woman." This is not just an issue of hair. This is racism.

Schools not only make black people hate their hair at an emotional level but at an institutional level.

Schools have led black South African children to be mocked and dehumanised because of our natural hair. At one school I used to attend, black boys weren't allowed to shave their hair bald because the school claimed white boys would want to do the same, and it would look untidy (I know, it made absolute no sense to me either). Schools not only make black people hate their hair at an emotional level but at an institutional level. As a junior in high school, I was the kid with a mini afro. People stared at me and asked to touch my hair. All I wanted was to be able to comb and gel my hair like the white boys. The institutionalisation of white supremacy even made me hate my own hair. I would constantly ask my mom to relax my hair. I'm thankful, in retrospect, that she refused. I have an afro now, and it's not just a styling choice, it's a political statement.

The South African school syllabus also continues to discriminate against Black students. All we get in these government issued textbooks are falsified black history which normalise oppressions such as colonisation and slavery. And then goes on to praise Christopher Columbus as the "Founder of the New World" and Mahatma Gandhi as "The Father of the Nation". There is a growing tendency in schools to try and portray Gandhi as some sort of messiah who advanced the cause of black people in South Africa. In his struggles Gandhi had no interests of black people at heart. His sole agenda was to advance the interests of Indians while encouraging the oppression of black South Africans.

History is cruel when it comes to telling the stories of black people. Why do we still go around praising and quoting Ghandi? This just tells me that in the eyes of the syllabus makers black lives don't matter. South African schools along with the Department of Education should ensure that the syllabus that we are taught does not continue to perpetuate racism in schools.

Due to colonisation black people have created segregation within our own race. We tend to divide ourselves by skin complexion, nationality, tribe, language or class. I think one of the worst things about the institutionalised racism in South African schools is the competitiveness that it brings amongst black students. From grade to grade, school to school I've witnessed that black students embody this desire to compete and tear one another down. This is largely because to be accepted by peers in white South African schools you have to fit the mould of what is an "acceptable" black person. You know, not too black, but not too white either, the type that goes around portraying black stereotypes to entertain and get laughs out of white students.

I understand why we do. It's our need to be accepted after centuries of rejection. We all want a seat at the table. But instead of tearing each other down and fighting for the same seat, why don't we just simply add another chair to the table? Because this competitiveness amongst us will not imprint or preserve our culture and identity in South African schools.

I am not an activist. I get very cringey about how we throw that term around. When I hear that word, I think of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, and George Soros. And I think of young activists that have inspired me to stand up against racism: DeRay McKesson, Jessica Williams and Amandla Stenberg. Hashtag activism can only go so far; we need to actually do something to change inequalities in society.

To all my beautiful black people: I love your hair, I love your shape, I love your skin, don't ever let society tell you any different. Stand up for yourself, believe in yourself and join the fight.

And the effort to liberate black people, not only in schools across South Africa but also around the world, has to start with the youth. Our generation needs to express opinions and go against the corrupted system in which our schools participate.

My approach to resolving race relations in South African schools is to do it through starting a progressive dialogue. It's good that we call out racists, but that's only the first step. What's more important is how we deal with racists once we've called them out. Yes, racists need to stop being defended and start being held accountable for their actions, but we need to change our approach to dealing with racists. I've adopted Trevor Noah's approach of treating and seeing racism as disease and not as a choice.

Just like we do with people who suffer from alcoholism, we should educate and help racists in the same way and not just outcast them. Especially in schools, a lot of times kids can say racist things without being fully aware of what they are actually saying. That's why we educate them because it's a learning process. I don't think expelling and suspending racist teachers or students is the answer. Yes, it's a short term answer for the school. But when you get rid of those racist teachers or students from your school, they don't all of a sudden stop being racist. They just go to another school and be racist there.

I believe high school students with different opinions all over South Africa can educate one another on what is right and what is wrong through conversation. This agonizing process involves sitting down with the same people who have discriminated and oppressed you. This is nearly always difficult. I've been called "monkey" for demanding racial equality, a "faggot" for identifying as a feminist, a "white person hater." I've been accused of constantly playing the "Race Card" (which does not exist, by the way). Insults like these make it easy to become cynical about the possibility of change. But part of the fight is believing in everybody's capacity to rethink their racist views. We need to use conversation as a medium for change. We can't address what we don't talk about.

The South African Department of Education needs to closely monitor the activities within schools and understand that racism is systemic. Transformation is needed in the South African schooling system. The first step is for schools to get students to acknowledge their differences and not just ignore race and pretend it does not exist. By acknowledging our differences, teachers and learners can work through their own prejudices. Schools need to ensure that teachers are encouraging students to question inequalities in society, so together they can work towards institutional change to ensure a friendly equal learning environment.

Schools should have a zero tolerance for racist behaviour. Schools need to ask themselves, where can students go and complain about oppression? Who will be in charge of investigating these issues? And how will policies change to stop oppression in schools? The way I see it is that criticism should not only be pointed at society, but at the education system as a whole. Racism in South African schools becomes an addition or a by-product of racism around the country and the world, as people adopt and perpetuate the customs surrounding them.

To all my beautiful black people: I love your hair, I love your shape, I love your skin, don't ever let society tell you any different. Stand up for yourself, believe in yourself and join the fight.