Please, don’t rename the child

2015-02-25 15:00

The racism at schools that has been reported recently is appalling.

Last week, we heard about a school in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga, where teachers interact with pupils, 90% of whom are black, using racial slurs as well as physical and emotional abuse.

A mother of one of the pupils received similar treatment – she was called “a baboon” when she phoned the school to address the issue.

Just last month, Curro Roodeplaat, a private school in Pretoria, was plunged into controversy when it emerged that it was splitting classes according to race.

In both of these cases, it was the parents who took action to protect the rights of their children, which is a lesson to pupils not to tolerate racism – which is important, because incidents of prejudice will likely take years to resolve in this country.

In an eNCA news report last week, the CEO of the SA Human Rights Commission, Kayum Ahmed, said a large portion of the 10?000 complaints the commission received every year were about racism.

But there’s another issue I wish teachers and parents would be vigilant about when it comes to black children attending former Model C and private schools.

The teachers, who tend to be white, often anglicise a child’s African name, which leads to the child being unable to even properly pronounce his or her own name.

I have three nieces, and the two I’ve watched enter formal education both eventually returned home with mangled versions of their original names. Gabisile’s simple and succinct name, meaning pride, was hacked down to Gabby by her teachers at crèche – for their convenience.

Over the years, I’ve listened to the schoolmates they’ve brought home to play introduce themselves using names that sound nothing like what their parents intended.

It leaves me in despair every time I hear it, and if I’m not too exasperated I dispense a lecture about the meaning of their name and how important it is that they say it right.

It’s natural for schoolgoing children to mimic their teachers, who they look up to and revere. Once they start school, they use their teachers as examples of what is acceptable.

Let’s also not forget that these children are attending schools where you thrive if you master the English language.

English will increasingly take on an elevated status in their lives, where having a “Model C accent” becomes a marker of your real and perceived success in the world, while a “black accent” can denote your future failures.

So, as I’ve witnessed in my own family, children take on the dual responsibility of pronouncing their name the proper way at home and another way at school. I have such empathy for the tough choices black parents have to make when it comes to educating their children.

The fact is, schooling options in many of their neighbourhoods are still so limited that having their child wake up early and travel hours to get to school is still the preferred solution.

So I suppose grappling with names can be the lesser of the evils, because this kind of “name-calling” is not a downright attack.

But it still erodes the child’s identity. It shows a disregard for who he or she is and an unwillingness to engage with where he or she comes from.

We need to call out teachers and schools for taking a lackadaisical approach to our children’s names. It’s so sad to see black kids lose the one simple thing that ties them to their heritage.

The reality is assimilation into Western culture is a process every young black person will have to go through, at university and in business. To succeed in life, black children’s reference points will have to be “white”.

They shouldn’t also have to sacrifice the basic marker of who they are, especially when they are going to spend much of their lives chafing against the prejudices and biases that will continue to dog this country.

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