Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 10 June 2020

Racism in our schools is a continuum of our past

We must remember that most of the historically elite private schools were founded on Christian foundations, by rich white men who had no issue with being racist, homophobic or chauvinists. Tackling social justice through a lens of race, class and gender thus becomes very important.

As a father of two kids at a private school in Gauteng, a husband to an educator and having a father-in-law who has been a headmaster at a few private schools, I thought I’d weigh in on this question of racism in our schooling system.

I believe that as parents we have failed in preparing our children for these very complex questions on race, gender, identity and class politics. In fact, in some circumstances, I would argue some of us actively fuelled these matters, given our own racist beliefs. After all, we remain products of our racist past. We have to own up and we have to do more.

Given the preponderance of Western culture and US popular culture in particular, it is unfortunate that the murder of George Floyd and not our own Collins Khosa sparked the necessary outrage over racism in our schools. I make this point about preponderance because I do think that our younger generation, particularly in our private and Model-C schools, has appropriated the lexicon of the US without deeper thought analysis.

For example, when I look at some of the demands made by the students at Bishops (Diocesan College), I cannot but wonder why they talk of people of colour (POC), or “minorities”, when in fact, unlike the US situation where indeed the average African American person is indeed a minority in that country, we are the black majority in South Africa. And what that means is that we cannot play the continuous victim card, unlike our counterparts in the US, who remain on the back foot having to knock on the master’s door, when we, the black majority, are the master — get used to it, start claiming it. We have political power in this country and as such cannot talk about minorities, not even in the private school context.

As for the POC label, this again is appropriated without taking into consideration our own Struggle history in South Africa. Yes, it goes without saying that indeed the most oppressed and exploited grouping in SA was indeed the black African but this was not wholly at the expense of the so-called coloured and Indian peoples. No, the general BLACK population in SA, made up of African, coloured and Indian were the oppressed masses in this country. They were the slaves, the indentured labourers and the subhumans for the longest time in our history in this country; this is undeniable. Wanting to make any distinction between the severity of such oppression among these groups is missing the point altogether.

In seeking redress and equality one cannot call for a method that is divisive in nature.

In fact, the very reason the apartheid state wanted us to make such differentials is to subscribe to that old strategy of divide and rule. And so, by insisting as you do in your demands, to elevate this matter of “colourism”, you are but reinforcing such divide-and-rule tactics of the past. I know there are indeed those among the coloured and Indian communities that desperately want to cling to such classifications, but these are confused persons who cling to racist apartheid classifications that are derogatory whichever way you slice it.

I can only but assume the main reason they want to insist on othering is because deep down they actually think it means that they are better than the black person. After all, to be black is supposedly a bad thing throughout the world, as we observe. That’s why we must supposedly remind everyone that, “Black lives matter”. But I contend that this is an insufficient call to action. What matters more is white brutality and racism. We are black, so we need not remind ourselves that we matter.

We need to be more explicit about white privilege, racism and white supremacy. It matters not that I am black and I have a life. I already value that. I don’t need a white person to value that. What matters now is the actions of racists in offending and murdering that life. We must choke the air out of all the spaces that fuel racism. It does not matter at all how a woman dresses, it matters only what the rapist does. This same approach should also be used to fight white supremacy.

Let’s keep the focus on the actions of the perpetrators. Call it out, “soft” or hard racism. At the braai, in the workplace, in all our spaces and especially in our schools. Let’s make racism a matter that matters for us all. Racists do not believe our lives matter, there is no need to respect them with diplomatic niceties about black lives. “I can’t breathe” — must be changed to “You are choking me”.

As I read the demands of the Bishops matrics, I could not but help be reminded of what Mandela told us:

“Our struggle was against white supremacy, not against white people.”

And so, let’s put our collective knee on racism and snuff it out! But, let’s snuff it out in our South African context, it’s not OK when a white and black girl sing a song and use the word nigger, and the school hauls the white student before a disciplinary committee but not the black girl, as if to imply it’s OK if the black student uses such a derogatory word. A minority in the US may want to own that derogatory word given their specific history, but we don’t want it here, just like we don’t want to own the word “kaffir” given our history. Our Constitution simply prohibits the use of such derogatory slurs, period.

It’s not OK that as blacks we allow white friends to appropriate black culture in music and literature but then want to regulate what they can and cannot sing or read. Our SA Constitution is very explicit on these matters, racism is racism whether it comes from a white person or a black person. I just get the sense that a lot of what is going on from these schools on social media platforms, for example, is about wanting to discipline whites, wanting to regulate them, wanting them to know their place in society. It’s so very pejorative in nature. Is this really what our broader struggle should only be about?

The hair policy matter is something that always comes up time and time again as well — have you ever considered that even though you make these demands at these private schools, there is a certain decorum of hair and neatness at our public, predominantly black schools too? It’s not as if every black child is simply allowed to do whatever he/she pleases with regard to school uniform, hair, nails and so on.

In other words, what is distinctly absent from your demands is the class component to your demands. What I mean by this is that there is no due regard to the poor child in our public school system at all. And so you can see how you locate this struggle only within your private school domain, your class strata domain, which I assume you are very comfortable with, but the struggle is much larger than just your private school issues.

It reminds me of the 1980s when we black students were demanding free higher education because of our poverty levels in society, when our white counterparts at UCT made their most critical demand — more student parking. Our demands could not have been more divergent. Don’t fall into this trap.

You have to actively work towards finding each other in these circumstances, and yes, in time many of these issues will resolve themselves, if there’s a will. I’m reminded of when my father-in-law appointed the first black geography teacher at Kearsney College many years ago. Almost instantly he received a call from a parent, stating that her son could not understand this teacher because of the way he spoke the English language.

The headmaster reminded the parent that not only will a person with such an accent be the next chairperson of the school governing body, but that the said student will likely be working for someone with such an accent in the near future. The very same boy grew very fond of this particular teacher and spent many a time in the teacher’s home village in rural KZN, helping out with teaching underprivileged kids in that community. He grew to appreciate and admire his geography teacher and indeed embrace difference. We can also do this over time.

Evidently, the impact of the transformation and diversity training in our schools is not having the desired outcome and hence more needs to be done as demanded by the students at Bishops. We must remember, the majority of these schools are founded on Christian foundations, by rich white men who have no issue with being racist, homophobic or chauvinists. Tackling social justice through a lens of race, class and gender thus becomes very important.

We must, however, be aware of constitutionally ingrained demands, demands around the LGBTIQ+ communities for example, are allowed to flourish everywhere, not allowing it would be unconstitutional and the school can be challenged in a court of law. I get that what you are actually wanting to demand is a culture change in these schools and that I support fully. But, play the ball and not the player, don’t make this about narrow issues of wanting to discipline white students, managers and school administrators, because it shouldn’t be about that.

Controversial as this next point might be, I do want to also throw it into the mix, and this is that you must remember that you or your family have chosen to be part of these institutions and hence embracing its institutional culture. Don’t get me wrong, no culture can continue to be derogatory, racist or any other form of prejudice, but you knew of its specific culture when you applied to be a part of it.

I raise this because of my own experience at Cambridge University in the UK as a student there. I wanted to be part of and chose to be part of this prestigious institution and therefore had to contend with centuries of culture and practices that at times were so dated and indeed not very politically correct, but it required a certain level of sophistication in tackling some of them. I couldn’t simply waltz in there as a black student from a developing country such as South Africa and think they would conform to my needs and demands, saying it was non-negotiable.

Some of these schools are Methodist or Catholic in their traditions and yes, though no student of other faiths or religions must be discriminated against, they cannot simply demand that the school must now be a secular school. This I raise just by way of an example after reading some of the complaints from Hindu students with regard to food and religious beliefs. It would be fine to demand that kosher and halaal foods, with or without beef, must be made available at school, but not to necessarily demand that no pork products must be available to others because it is against your religious beliefs.

I guess I’m saying that more circumspect demands must be brought forward. 

It goes without saying that educators and managers must transform not only their actions, but also their mindsets. This is a difficult thing to do, but try we must. From the school’s perspective, we must find ways and means of how we use the curriculum to engender true non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy.

Through subjects like history, geography and languages that are historically situated, of course. This nonsense of teaching history in an ahistoric context is just a joke. No point in wanting to teach apartheid in this context as if we can discuss the pros and cons of this heinous crime against humanity — it was just wrong and unacceptable, full stop. The demand for more accommodation of the Xhosa language is great, but must also be weighed up against respecting the Afrikaans language, for example. These matters cut both ways, more often than not.

I am encouraged by the students taking a stand, raising their voices and making demands, but they cannot do it alone, parents. We must come to the party, even though we subscribe to the most ghastly of racist views and beliefs. And just like we try every day to cope in this cosmopolitan country of ours, so too must our kids, so let’s lend a helping hand and not make it their issue alone.

I’m proud of my twins for actively engaging in these questions of race, class, gender and identity and so, I suspect, you are too. The last thing we want is to raise politically ignorant kids, even though we as parents often say things like, “I’m not really interested in politics”. Now that would be a real shame.

Bertolt Brecht reminds us:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Let’s do our bit to help our kids understand tolerance, embrace difference, and to stand together as one nation. Unity in our diversity. Let’s teach them how to not be racists. DM

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