Bridge too far on hair divide

HAIR TO STAY Girls protesting against racism at the Pretoria High School for Girls. Picture: Twitter
HAIR TO STAY Girls protesting against racism at the Pretoria High School for Girls. Picture: Twitter

As part of the body, our hair – and how we style it – serves as an intimate form of self-expression.

A person’s hair is a public and visible part of personal identity. As such, a hairstyle can be a social, political or cultural statement.

Those intricate twists, knots, braids and Afros that many young and older black women wear, represent complex symbols of politics, culture, assumptions, emotions and fashion.

With hairstyles, we can publicly embrace our history or ignore it.

A hairstyle can serve as a medium of conformity or rebellion. Hair can be a tool to stereotype one another and it can also be a tool for expressing our individuality.

Certain styles can be interpreted as progressive and others regressive. Hair has the power to evoke certain emotions.

Are these narratives and emotions ever given an outlet in our schools?

The Pretoria High School for Girls’ policy states that hair must be tied in a ponytail.

Dreadlocks, cornrows and braids are allowed, provided that they are no thicker than 10mm. That is why the girls at the school said they had been requested to straighten their hair.

They’ve also reportedly been accused of conspiring when standing in groups and speaking their mother tongue.

During my visit to the school, I learnt that the hair narrative is dynamic, complex and has a language of its own.

What is happening at Pretoria High School for Girls is confirmation that cultural intolerance is rife in our society. Indeed, one of the greatest contributors to cultural intolerance is ignorance.

If people do not know much about another culture, they are inclined to enforce their stereotyped views without questioning their assumptions.

I am saddened by the fact that my email inbox is full of stories that reveal that what is happening at Pretoria High School for Girls is the tip of the iceberg, that prejudice related to hair is common in schools throughout our country.

This week I was again reminded that the concept of teaching learners about our country’s different cultures is nothing to be feared.

Our children should be taught the history of the many South African cultures in an unbiased and informative way.

Young people need a chance to live in a society where they can truly believe that all people and their cultures are created equal.

Let us refrain from teaching our children to believe that one culture is better than another, or that being a certain colour is something to be ashamed of.

For a truly democratic society to function and succeed, integration and assimilation requires cultural tolerance to a degree that accepts that being different is not a threat.

No one particular ethnic or cultural group can command superiority, if democracy is to work without conflict.

Human beings have styled and adorned their hair since the beginning of recorded history.

Though hairstyles have constantly changed, and those changes have often been seen as radical innovations, most styles have come and gone many times.

So, how are we going to bridge the hairstyle divide in our schools?

While an investigation on the allegations of hairstyle-related racism is under way at Pretoria High School for Girls, there is no doubt that the benefits of multicultural education go beyond the classroom.

We need it to obtain complete justice in our social system and to raise a crop of diverse movers and shakers who will hoist our nation to its highest potential.

At its most basic level, multiculturalism is about recognising diversity, and focusing on cultural pluralism, challenging racism and embracing difference.

The need for multiculturalism in education should be defended as a necessary element of multiculturalism in society at large.

Multiculturalism should be highlighted as a means of preparing all students to be contributing citizens in a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism must move beyond basic knowledge and appreciation of diversity and cultural difference to embody responsiveness to difference to facilitate real change.

This incorporates the emphases on pluralism and critical awareness, while focusing largely on structuring practices and systems in ways that truly, substantively support the development and learning of all learners.

Now, more than ever, is the time that steps should be taken to ensure that teachers and learners are well educated about the histories of the different South African cultures.

Our country is a great cultural melting pot. The time is right for teachers and school children to really understand what this melting pot contains.

Lesufi is the Gauteng MEC for education

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