Battling my own ignorance
I know that I’m coming late to the conversation that began when black pupils at Pretoria High School for Girls spoke out about the racist rules that dictated how they could ‘acceptably’ wear their hair. There several reasons for this silence.
The one that I believe is most important to share with you is that in the past few years I’ve come to understand that it just isn’t my place to have a loud, important opinion over another’s lived experience of race. I am the white, upper-middle class child of Irish immigrants. I went to nice, expensive private school and lived in a big house and did five years at varsity without taking out a single student loan. I have had a good life (mostly) and a big part of the reason why that is – as I have mentioned before – has to do with the colour of my family’s skin.
Black people do not need my thoughts on anything. I cannot ‘help’ by inserting my (laughably pretentious) opinions of what it is to live in a black skin in the modern world, or to try and tell others what they should feel and why. Quite simply, that is not my story. If I tried to own it, if I tried to convince myself or others that I have the right to tell it, I would be committing the same crime that this article post is trying to make visible. I would be claiming ownership of an experience, a way of living that I am becoming more aware of, but will never understand with the kind of comprehension that comes with living with it day after day after day. I would be saying implicitly that those who do have that comprehension are still somehow incapable of telling their own stories.
So instead I will simply share my own story, explain to you the one thought that comes to mind when I read the news. I will tell you what I have come to realise after the last few days, and hope that it at least helps you consider things a different way.
It was a single, simple thought, but still one I had never had before yesterday, and one I urge everyone who doesn’t ‘get’ why the issue of black hair is so discussed or politicised to consider.
Yesterday I was in my car when there was a brief news report on my favourite radio station regarding the protests against the policies at Pretoria Girls’ and other other institutions. As the bulletin ended and a song came on, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences with dress code policies in school.
I didn’t go to the Pretoria High School for Girls, but a private Christian school in west Joburg. We had pretty stringent rules and dress code policies too, and I got told off about my hair more than once. It was too obviously dyed, or not tied up with the ‘proper’ colour of hair band, or left loose even when it was 1 cm longer (GASP!) than the acceptable length of loose hair as decided by Principal BossyPants.
What I suspected then, and what I believe wholeheartedly now, is that these rules are stupid and pointless and were more about falling in line with bureaucratic whims than about improving anyone’s education. But that is not the single thought that I believe I need to share with you.
Instead, my epiphany was this:
When I thought back to all the lectures I received about my hair, something stood out – the issue was never about my hair itself, even though my mane is as peculiar and as stubbornly Irish as I am. Teacher’s lectures were always aimed at something I had done to my hair – dyed it, styled it, left it unrestrained…
Because in my case, my hair itself wasn’t the issue, the issue came in with what I did to it.
If this seems like a glaringly obvious point to you, just bear with me, because yesterday for the first time I considered that that is not what black girls are told their whole lives.
When teachers at Pretoria High, or any other school, tell black girls and young women that they have to “”do something” with their hair, that it needs to be braided to a certain thickness or relaxed or shortened or whatever in order to not be “a bird’s nest” what are they actually saying?
I believe that they are telling those kids the exact opposite of what I was told by people in authority. They are saying to their pupils that their hair, simply because it exists naturally in a way different to mine, is somehow unacceptable. That the way it grows it is inherently not neat enough, not clean enough, not good enough to be seen, so black girls need to ‘fix’ it in order to be tolerated. Hearing that now at 26 would crush me, but to a 13-year-old girl who is still figuring herself and the world out? I don’t need to have gone through that myself to say loudly that THAT should not be tolerated.
Do you think people are reading too much into the situation? Would you like to interrupt me in a loud voice to point out that for God’s sake it’s just hair, and it’s ridiculous to take silly school rules and make them into an arena for some sort of racism debate? Because an awful lot of recent history would disagree.
As a politics lecturer at university once told me, the personal is political. Human beings do not exist in a vacuum: the way we live, the values we have, the languages that we speak and even the clothes we wear are all as a result of what has come before. Is it really so hard to believe that this is true about a school’s dress code rules? The rules of a school that was previously all white, in a country where whiteness was seen as so important and valuable that there were literally laws against racial mixing? There are echoes of our awful history everywhere, in every facet of human life to one degree or another – our responsibility now is to try to see them for what they really are, and then change them.
To those who disagree with people who say this issue is important – don’t be so quick to disbelieve someone’s experiences because you haven’t had them yourself.
To all those who have been fighting battles that were invisible to me for years – I’m sorry, for all of it, and I will try and be better.”Whoever learned, until they had shivered in fear at their ignorance?”
And to the brave women at Pretoria HS and elsewhere – I am so proud of you. I have no right to walk beside you on this journey, but please know that I’m happy to stand somewhere out of your way but in solidarity.