Hair today, gone tomorrow

So recently the South African Twitter-verse exploded around the hashtag #PretoriaGirlsHigh.

It’s been all over social media and by the time this goes to print, I imagine the conversation will have largely worked its course and so this is not so much about that moment and that instance or that beautiful but school-illegal hair.

It was very frustrating for me, as a white person even, to read so many typical white responses of misdirection/defensiveness and condescension from those who didn’t get it. Although let me disclaim that as a white male I can only “get it” to a certain extent myself. I cannot fully understand the pain, frustration and challenge to identity that this incident brings up for so many.

Beyond the hair

It is also important to realise that this was not an isolated incident, but rather a “this-far-and-no-further” moment after years of incidents as betrayed in this excellent article by matric student, Malaika Eyoh who starts the article with this line:

“In a school where stories of racism and injustice from black girls are usually met with silence from the staff, this time, our silence was met with police and dogs.”

Later on in the article Malaika added:

“Incidents like these occur on a weekly basis at Pretoria High School for Girls. White students lovingly refer to Girls High as ‘the most fair and just’ school that they know. They tell us racism doesn’t exist because they’ve never experienced it. Meanwhile, black girls live in fear and discomfort at existing in their skin in that same environment… the one that they trusted to keep them safe. It’s clearer now more than ever that black and white girls may sit in class together, but we don’t experience the school in the same way.

A call to white people

Local author and radio personality Eusebius McKaiser had some helpful tips for a caller on Cape Talk.

“I’m going to give you three rules of thumb for allies. Rule number 1: you do not know everything about black people and black people’s hair. Rule number 2: always – even if it’s a little hard – bite the tongue and show humility when someone else is talking about their lived experiences.Rule number 3: never ever think you’ve figured it all out about people who are fundamentally different to you.”

You can catch the whole conversation over here.

The Pretoria Girls High School hair incident is a fresh opportunity for white South Africans like myself to put those simple rules into practice. We so desperately need to be listening and learning more than trying to lead these conversations and we need to help other white people to do the same.

What has happened or is happening at this school is but a glimpse of what is taking place and needs to at various other places all around the country. We need to be wrestling with these concepts and trying to figure out where and how we need to get involved.

But in the meantime let’s be proud that there are some impressive young people like Zulaikha Patel and Malaika Maoh Eyoh who are leading the way, quite possibly towards all of our redemption.

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