Teachers always know when something’s up. As you’ve probably already realised, things are about to get messy.
The protests held by Pretoria Girls’ High students on Friday mimicked those of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests in 2015. One of the aspects these high school and university students’ had in common were the calling into question, “who do our institutions serve?” Ms Leigh-Ann Naidoo in the edited collection of Students Must Rise claims that our institutions are represented by, and thus centred around, “white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied men”. If this is the case, how does this translate into our schools?

South Africa’s diverse range of schooling systems are ordered on a quintile scale: 5 being the top performing schools and 1 being the worst performing schools. Of our quintile 5 schools, public and private, different schools can boast varying degrees of “diversity,” which we all know is a euphemism for the amount of students’ of colour. In these cases, “diversity” usually refers to the student body and not the staff. Although, many of our quintile 5 schools are sorely lacking on the “diversity” scale. So what is this diversity? At Pretoria Girls’ High, like many other ex-model C schools (another euphemism for ‘ex-white’ schools) around the country, diversity exists at the intersection of many categories including race, class, gender and religion. In other words, it is very likely that you would find many students of colour who come from wealthy backgrounds and have had access to quality primary schooling. 

You are as likely to find a growing portion of white students qualifying for fee exemptions and being the minority race in their schools. These statistics will be the first thing out of mouths of school managements and governing bodies around the country when confronted with issues about race in their institutions. While demographics may have changed, what has been slower to transform are institutional methods, mindsets and norms.

What then are the issues that confront schools filled with born frees who tick all the boxes? How do students find words to describe “white culture?” Why is it that if I ask my students to define Black, Coloured, Indian or Muslim culture it is easy, but white culture? “I dunno ma’am, it’s just what is normal.” How do students voice discrepancies about who is punished for late-coming and why? Who took longer on their project without a computer at home? Who constantly cannot contribute to school fundraisers? Who speaks and who is silenced in class discussions?

If there are more Muslim than white students in a school why does the uniform shop sell a range of hockey kit but no scarf or pants? If most of our learners are second, third and fourth language English speakers why are our teachers not trained to adequately address this in their subjects, or reflect language nuances in their rubrics? If most students in a school do not have silky, smooth hair that is easily tied in a pony-tail each morning and stays like that throughout the day, how do they challenge a Code of Conduct that inherently sees that as the norm, and all else as “untidy?” As an increasing number of students of colour come to predominate in ex-white schools who can understand their struggles – if management is entirely white?

Ex-white schools who now encompass and educate a diverse (in an intersectional understanding of the word) range of students have a monumental task ahead of them. How do their leaders shift the centring of their institutions from the white, middle-class child to being centred around other races, religions and classes. A shift in an institution’s centering, is more than a celebration of different cultures on Heritage Day, a fee exemption and the hiring of staff members of colour. It will need a critical discussion around white privilege, white culture and so-called “standards” in the attempt to move beyond simply listening to the complaints of students towards hearing and understanding them. In a recent change to our Code of Conduct a 17-year-old student voiced, “Has anything really been accomplished today? I think they changed the Code out of fear of the bad press and not because they really understood our problem with it.”

This is a call to our leaders in education from a fellow white educator. Help us understand what it would look like to re-centre our schools representationally. Students’ issues need to be taken seriously; not seen as petty and dismissed as non-racist. Give them the language and the platforms to evaluate the nuances of these issues themselves; transformation in 2016 needs to be envisioned and re-imagined by the cohorts of 2016 themselves. Let us not repeat the mistakes of last year’s leaders in education: we need to hear our students, understand them and stand with them. 

Charissa Shay is a history teacher at an ex-white school in Johannesburg