High school learners made international headlines for protesting for the right to wear their hair naturally. The learners faced arrest and backlash from the school’s administration.

Students at Pretoria Girls High School protested in response to the school’s treatment of young Black womxn and their restrictions on Black hair, prompting the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. The protests garnered international attention, being documented by international media organisations such as Mic, Attn:, and The Huffington Post and gaining support from celebrities like Solange Knowles.

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Pupils at Pretoria Girls High School are fighting to wear their hair naturally. Image: Phill Magakoe/IOL.

 

The protests highlighted former Model-C schools and their treatment of Black students. Current students and alumni are telling of not only the racism experienced at these schools, but the misogyny, sexism, and perpetuation of rape culture. Focus was placed on schools’ denial of the importance of these issues in the name of tradition.

Human rights movements like feminism highlight the importance of listening when discussing – and indeed, dismantling – oppression. Denying or belittling the experiences of oppressed groups is not acceptable, and rightfully so – how can white people deny the existence of racism when it is executed and perpetuated without us realising? How can men deny the existence of misogyny when it is never directed at them? Privileged groups can live without noticing the extent of these issues, or that they exist at all.

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University of Pretoria and former Pretoria Girls High School students protest outside of Pretoria Girls High School. Image: Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick.

In the words of Louis C.K., “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.” As such, it is vital for privileged groups – in this case, white South Africans – to listen to marginalised groups’ stories of oppression. In short, it is time for us white people to sit down, shut up, and listen.

The students at the school have been forced by teachers and administrators to alter their natural hair. Many former Model-C schools deem African hair ‘untidy’, and stipulate that the students must use chemical relaxers to straighten their hair, which can cause extensive damage. The students are also being (in)directly told that the hair growing out of their scalp is untidy and unprofessional, and needs to be chemically altered in order to assimilate to Eurocentric standards.

This restricts the students’ expression of their identity. This is not a group of students protesting because they are lazy and don’t want to learn, or want to wear unnaturally dyed hair and facial piercings at school. This is a fight for Black womxn to be able to wear their hair naturally without persecution – a fight for Africans to be African in Africa.

Sparking conversations in other schools, students at Sans Souci Girls’ High School have spoken out about the racism they have experienced at school. The students receive demerits for speaking isiXhosa at school or in uniform in public and are banned from wearing their natural hair at school. Teachers have allegedly referred to the students as “baboons” and “hyenas”. Students protested after a failed meeting with the headmistress, blocking all three entrances to the school and bearing placards with messages including “I’m an African original”, “Murray [the school’s principal] is anti-black”, “Proud Xhosa” and “Our language is who we are”. Grade 11 protesters were locked out of the school.

In 2016, 22 years into South Africa’s democracy, we continue to fail these young womxn. To wear one’s hair naturally is a right, not a privilege, so #stopracismatPretoriaGirlsHigh.

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