UPDATE: Sept. 1 ― The school code of conduct discouraging students from wearing natural hairstyles has reportedly been suspended. A statement issued on Tuesday by the Guateng Department of Education (which oversees Pretoria High School For Girls) announced the ban had been lifted and, also, revealed that students will also no longer be discouraged from using their native languages.
Whenever there’s a debate about white people appropriating black hairstyles like locs, afros and cornrows, there are inevitably voices that chime in with:
“What’s the big deal? It’s just hair.”
Well, a recent protest in South Africa is illustrating the fact that, in some cases, black hair is not just hair. On Monday, students at the Pretoria High School for Girls rallied together to protest the racism and discrimination they claim to have endured over the school year from their white teachers.
The 200 pupils led by the Congress of South African Students were protesting a school policy that students claim bans them from wearing their hair in its natural state. The code states that “hair must be brushed” and styles must be “conservative.” The styles the students are allegedly not allowed to wear include bantu knots, large locs, box braids and afros (aka almost every go-to protective style for black girls).
At the protest, one student told the Provincial Head of Education, Panyaza Lesufi who visited the school, “I have a natural Afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a birds nest.”
According to South Africa’s News 24, students have also claimed that they are not allowed to speak their native South African languages, and that teachers have called them derogatory names like “monkey” in the classroom.
The actions of the teen students at Pretoria High School for Girls are not only admirable ― they serve as yet another reminder of why non-black people wearing black styles is so problematic. In 2016, black girls are still being told through policies and codes of conduct that their hair isn’t “acceptable” in natural form. On non-black women, black hairstyles are “cool” and trendy. On black women, they’re a problem. From Pretoria to Texas, young black girls and women in school, the workplace and the military have been discriminated against because of their natural hair and often have been forced to change it or they face expulsion or dismissal.
The efforts of these brave students have brought international attention to this issue, including a hashtag. #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh began trending on Twitter Tuesday, and a petition created by Koketso Moeti to end the rampant racism at the high school has already received over 25,000 of its original 30,000 signatures goal.