This week the young women from Pretoria Girls High school rose to protest against discrimination. Soon after several other schools joined the havoc to weigh in on their own experiences. News flashes of racism at schools trended media platforms this week. Unfortunately, these protests have been met with a significant dissonance.
Below, I discuss school rules related to the idea of neatness. Many other issues have been alleged by learners that goes well beyond the discussion on hair. Some of these allegations were shocking and was met with justified outrage. However, this article is limited to the natural hair debate related to school learners.
Made the reductionist argument that this issue mars in comparison to the very many bigger more important issues facing South Africa. They state it to be a non-issue being raised by some ‘privileged’ children causing unnecessary noise.
Protest against institutions has once more become popular. In settings where the populace feel unheard and disregarded protest is a popular response. Discriminatory practice often ends in protest. The point of the comparison here is not to draw similarities between this and other recent protest actions. It is simply to highlight that protest creates the potential for national social discourse. It is through these broader discussions that we are able to reflect and redirect when necessary.
Have stated that they feel discriminated against by school policy. They claim that they are being requested and or coerced into chemically treating their otherwise volumes of hair. They feel school rules are discriminatory and does not account for their identity and reality.
What has gone wrong here and what can be done to get back to stability? Lets look at the various stakeholder positions. lets unpack the idea of neatness. And finally see where we go to from here.
The Role of the School in the Hair Debate:
The South African school system is founded on uniformity. We have varying but standardised school uniform and hair rules to ensure this goal. This is standard and expected by every single household with school children. Unlike the standardised clothes other aspects of the uniform such as hair, make-up and nails often creates opportunity for either adherence, dissonance or discipline.
If we are to evaluate school regulation and discipline, then a few conditions have to be filled. Is the order uniform? Does it apply to everyone? Is it fair? Can it accommodate special circumstances? How is it understood and implemented by those in power as well as those on the receiving end?
Neatness is a school rule that all learners are rightfully expected to adhere to. However, the making of neatness related to hair is not clear. All hair can be worn in a neat state and an untidy one. Generally school rules state that when hair touches the collar of a uniform it should be tied back. This is a fair and just rule if it is applied to all children equally. Let us now look at the practicality of this rule. If a learner has caucasian hair just above the collar, then their hair would lie down and still be well within the neat category if not tied up or braided. However, a learner with natural hair with the same length hair will look different. An afro does not lie down. It stands up. This rule becomes impractical when we consider the reality.
The vague definition of ‘neat’ creates potential for revolt. A simple one word: ‘neat’ requires further teasing out based on reality. Also, neat does not necessarily equate to appropriate. Take Bantu knots for instance. It is very neat, but is it appropriate for school? Where is the line between an acceptable school hairstyle and a fashion show?
Braids are an interesting conundrum. On the one end it is a time saving tool. It can be done once per month and save many hours of hair styling. It can be a practical go to hairdo for school. A straight back and a thin singles, either twisted or three strand braid set should be acceptable. The challenge to this situation is when braids become elaborate. Braid hairstyles are so varied and braid fibres come in a huge variety of colours and textures. Take for instance the example of box braids. Now imagine box braids at lower back length. Take for instance Marley hair made into dreads or red braids or blonde braids. At the point at which these variations come into play we are no longer talking about a hairstyle suitable for a school learner. They are hairstyles meant for exhibit and school is not a place to go show off the latest look.
Should girls be allowed to wear weaves? If they are then should there be restrictions on the kinds of weaves they are allowed to wear? Should they be allowed to wear weaves of a different colour to their own hair?
While it may be more clear cut to say no wigs allowed there are very valid situations where learners may want to wear a wig. For certain cultural and medical reasons a learner should be allowed to wear wig. If a girl lost her hair due to illness she should have this option.
This is an issue for all learners in school. Very often black learners complain that the dye rule is unequally applied at schools. White learners often get away with dyes and highlights without being cited for this action. In part this is because the colours they choose may actually blend easily with their own hair. So a girl with light brown hair may decide to get blonde highlights. The teachers often overlook this even when they are aware of it. However, black girls, due to the fact that their hair is mostly dark brown to black, are regularly in trouble when they do dye their hair. If a school has a no dye rule then the rule has to be equally applied to all students without exception.
School learners should never have to wonder whether or not being natural is an option. Healthy natural hair should be the norm not the exception. Learners should never be asked to process their hair to change the texture to fit into any standard outside of their own natural beauty. Schools are a place for uniformity but it is also where young people find their feet and individuality.
I have two beautiful daughters with very long naturally curly hair. Every week their hair is braided by hand or tied into a neat pony with a braid. Every week they ask me, “Mommy, when can we have loose hair?” My reply is always the same: “On civvies, during holidays and at university.” At age 7 and 9, they already have a desire to show off. School is not the place you go to be pretty. It is where you go to learn. I am unapologetic about this position.
Does having a boring set of natural hairdo infringe on the development of a child? No. Can a natural girl child still express her individuality and creativity outside of school? Yes. Is the requirement of the idea of ‘neat’ unacceptable? No.
The Real Problem:
The school, in this instance, was caught with their pants down. School policy is completely out of touch with reality. The screwed up implementation of policies around school rules has led to this chaos. When faced with a ‘black issue,’ often school management have no idea how to tackle it and so it is left to fester. When there is an attempt to tackle these ‘black issues,’ it is done without any consultation and stocktake by the relevant stakeholders. Policy requires buy-in and adherence from a the associated group it seeks to govern. Without buy in from the entire body of an institution regulation becomes a nightmare. Also, the manner of the administration of discipline has to be clear. In schools attitudes of authority figures often complicate discipline. Leading to a pushback.
The governing body, teachers, parents and students should have all been a part of resolving these issues before it became a PR frenzy.
School around the country need to look at their policies and where they are found to be out of line with reality they have to be adjusted accordingly. There is a need to discuss in detail what constitutes the idea of neatness. Rules need to be written to accommodate the learners that they serve. Teachers and other authority figures have to approach the implementation of rules with more regard for the young leaders they are leading. Parents have to be part of the conversations to inform on their expectations and experiences. Parents are ultimately the first and final point of reference for the appearance of their children. All stakeholders have to be aligned and in accord with the final outcomes of these discussions.
Children today live in an age of ultra connectivity. It is to be expected for them to push the boundary. Their expectations have shifted, their voices are stronger and they want to be heard. Never before has respect for children been this high. That is as it should be. However, first, it is our responsibility to ensure that our children accept fair and just authority. Second, to ensure that they are able to speak up when necessary. Finally, that we restore the integrity of their selves as worthy and loved.