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Black South African schoolgirls protest ‘racist’ hair policy

#StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh highlights discrimination in a post-Apartheid school that goes deeper than superficial dress codes

Young black women in South Africa are protesting against local high schools’ allegedly discriminatory policy on natural hair, sparking a viral campaign on the issue of institutionalised racism.

According to Al Jazeera, students at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa began protesting last week when a 13-year-old black girl was told by a teacher that her hair was “unruly”. She was also disciplined for an essay she wrote about the consequences of white oppression and privilege on black women.

Multiple reports say this isn’t just an isolated issue at the school, with many young women sent home or reprimanded for having afros, cornrows, or in one case, “uncontrollable” hair. Students told the news network that teachers had on several occasions commented on black students’ hair, telling them to keep it “neat and tidy”.

Though not directly banning natural black hair, all of this apparently falls under the (formerly whites-only) school’s dress code of conduct. Some young women have even been suspended, according to local media reports.

The school’s code of conduct states that “hair must be brushed”, styles be “conservative”, and that cornrows, natural dreadlocks and braids had to be “a maximum of 10mm in diameter”.

A group of young black students attended a school assembly dressed in all black and hairwraps to protest the spate of incidents. Students told Al Jazeera that authorities were in attendance.

“It was odd. We’ve never had security at assembly before,” one student said.

The following day, attempts to hold a silent protest at a school fair were marred again by the presence of heavily armed security.

“It wasn’t as silent as we had hoped. We were met with high-risk security, people with handguns, AK47s, security dogs. This was an annual family event.”

Online support has come in the form of a petition, “Stop Racism at Pretoria Girls High”, with over 25,000 signatures so far. It asks for the school to stop the discrimination against black and Muslim students, and to delve further into an issue that, in a post-Apartheid school and country, goes deeper than hair.

"It is unacceptable that in a country in which Black people are a demographic majority, we still today continue to be expected to pander to whiteness and to have it enforced through school policy. Black children should be allowed to just be children, without being burdened with having to assert their humanity,” the petition reads.

Twitter has seen the #StopRacismatPretoriaGirlsHigh created in solidarity with the movement, with images of the schoolgirls peacefully protesting, and experiences of past and present students told.

“Let us continue to assert our Africanness in all spaces so that we can breathe & be truly, fully ourselves,”  the country’s Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa tweeted in support.

The head of regional education for the area announced the hair policies have been suspended pending investigation into discrimination.

A student at the school wrote in an opinion piece for the Daily Vox: “Incidents like these occur on a weekly basis at Pretoria High School for Girls. White students lovingly refer to Girls High as ‘the most fair and just’ school that they know. They tell us racism doesn’t exist because they’ve never experienced it.

“Meanwhile, black girls live in fear and discomfort at existing in their skin in that same environment… the one that they trusted to keep them safe. It’s clearer now more than ever that black and white girls may sit in class together, but we don’t experience the school in the same way.”