As a collective we owe South African schoolgirls an apology and spirited action. In 2016, girls who cannot vote or legally enter into agreements are showing us up for failing to protect them from white hegemony and assimilation.
The facial expressions I saw when the story of the Pretoria High School for Girls broke made me feel as though I was back in the clutches of a school system that looked at me as a thing to be silenced and kept in check.
I saw myself as I was at 15, where any description of my mind or body was prefaced with a measure of that which could not be contained.
Too loud. Too brash. Too boisterous. Too clever. Detention was a mainstay of my school “daze”: maybe it was my hair, maybe it was my laugh that carried or maybe it was the intrusive need to prove my intelligence and capabilities.
As I watched the conversation on Twitter this week, there were too many emotions warring for attention: pride intermingled with a profound sense of shame.
These children, who are nowhere near adulthood, could clearly understand that, just as their mothers and grandmothers before them, they are largely alone in the struggle against the subservience that patriarchy insists is a natural quality of black womanhood.
The anger I saw gave me pause, their resentment and defiance so evident. Their refusal to be limited communicated how we have failed them.
We ought to be ashamed that, in waking up from the stupor of oppression, we were lulled into a false sense of inclusivity. We let ourselves believe that the nightmare was behind us, while facilitating a continuation of that very oppression but in more “civil” terms.
We should take stock as adults and ask ourselves why we continue to make white supremacy comfortable.
What sort of society requires children to say “enough” and defy authority simply to be recognised as human? What sort of society makes little girls look at their hair, skin and tongues as disruptive and needing to be managed?
What sort of society allows children to see themselves as less than ideal, as nonwhite as opposed to being simply and beautifully black without qualification?
What kind of society does not teach its children that we are ourselves not the opposite or absence of whiteness?
Although at first glance the school hair policies read as reasonable and easy to follow, on careful interrogation their intention is clear.
What is clear is that, 22 years later, blackness is still a flaw to be fixed: from the kinks in our hair needing to be “relaxed” because our hair does not naturally fall down our backs or our speech being uncultured because we choose to congregate and speak in our languages to our bodies displaying evidence of unknown moral failing or a propensity for sexual impropriety.
The misinformed fears of lice, obscuring the visibility of other learners and abiding by the rules ring hollow.
To reduce the conversation to hair is a distraction and a form of gas lighting of gargantuan proportions.
Today it’s about hair. Tomorrow it’ll be something else. But the actual beast is right before our eyes despite all the pretence and fluff.
There is a system in place overseen by the white gaze to remind us we are not worthy of humanity and should feel privileged in our proximity to whiteness.
We are yet to deal with the ugliness that is racism in an honest and constructive way because our main concern, then as now, is to move on.
But how can we move on when that system ferociously continues to put the bodies of black children in harm’s way?
To those of you clutching your pearls and grinding your jaws over the sanctity of rules — understand this. When the rules are made to suppress children instead of guiding them positively, it is our duty as parents and guardians to stand and speak up.
How is it that 13-year-old girls are standing up to fight for their right to be seen not only as human, but not “other”?
What kind of society have we become to allow little girls to be confronted and threatened with arrest by armed security personnel and their dogs?
It is not for these children to assume the mantle to fight white supremacy in whatever form it mutates into.
They’re not witches to be burned at the stake to comfort us into thinking this is for the greater good of maintaining a veneer of racial harmony.
The onus is on us — we cannot expect children to perform what we were ill-equipped to understand or dismantle. South Africa, your rainbow nation project is coming apart at the seams. Have honest conversations with your children: they’re more aware than you think.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s social media editor.