I went to private and former “Group A” government, or as South Africans would say “model C” schools most of my life. For that, I am truly grateful and have always considered myself ‘privileged’. However, a 13 year old has prompted me to question this so called ‘privilege’ that I got from the so called ‘best’ schools in Zimbabwe, and arguably in Africa too.
Going to private school has opened so many doors for me and probably set me up to be a better professional than I would be if I had gone to public schools. We never had a shortage of teachers or resources and the education was more holistic. We did more. We explored more. We got to travel to different countries on school trips and that really opened my mind. Also, going to private school generally gave me an upper hand over my counterparts (be it on the social scene or to potential employers), since people have an inclination to believe that people who went to private school are somewhat superior to those who did not. One other thing I have also always loved about private school was that it taught me ‘not to see colour’, or at least that’s what I thought.
The story of Zulaikha, a 13 year old Pretoria Girls High student who led a protest demanding that black girls be allowed to wear their hair in its natural state at her school has prompted me to do some introspection. It has made me ask myself questions that I should have asked 10 years ago when I too was “Zulaikha”; a 13 year old black girl starting high school at a ‘prestigious’, predominantly white institution and sadly, I do not like the answers I am getting.
It took a 13 year old girl to make me realise the price that I, and many other ‘privilleged’ black children all over the world have had to pay for that ‘privillege’. I realised that though it manifests itself in different ways, it is principally the same. Whether one went to Harvard, Yale, Pretoria Girls, Arundel, Hillcrest or Peterhouse they have had, at some point, to sacrifice their blackness for access to white privillege.
Subconsciously, I too grew up being indoctrinated that black hair was “untidy and unprofessional” and that dreadlocks were “rebellious and demonic”. No school I have ever been to allowed dreadlocks, except for ‘religious’ reasons and black boys’ hair at my school had to either be very short and “neat” or not there at all, yet that of white boys could be significantly longer. I too was not allowed to speak my native language at school, except during Shona lessons and had friends who were Zimbabwean, living in Zimbabwe and had parents who grew up in Zimbabwe (the rural areas, even) but somehow spoke broken Shona. I too believed that the mark of an emancipated black person was the ability to speak polished English.
You see, private school does not stop you from seeing colour. It just conditions you to see one: white. The reason I had white friends, the reason I could “relate” to them has little to do with the fact that we all embraced our differences, but rather that I erased mine. Slowly but steadily, I had to pay for access white privilege using my blackness (on top of the exhorbitant fees; which are another story for another day). By the time I got to high school, white was right and black was whack.
We had a word for it: “gwashness”. I realise now that everything we considered “gwash” (uncool) in high school had one thing in common- blackness. Speaking english with a Shona accent was “gwash”. Bringing mahewu (a traditional African health drink) or maputi (an African snack) to school was “gwash”. You could carry rice or pasta to school but just bring sadza and you would be the laughing stock for the rest of your academic career.You would probably get a nickname like “jembi” or “sadza” or something. Kurukwa mabhanzi (an African hairstyle similar to Bantu knots) was “gwash”. Watching ZBC (the local channel) was “gwash”. It was “gwash” to love a song by Daiton Somanje or Joseph Garakara (sungura artists) , yet commonplace to know all lyrics to a Beyonce or Westlife song as soon as it came out. Even netball and soccer were “gwash” (because the white kids mostly played volleyball, hockey, cricket, rugby and tennis and most of the funding went there as a result). I remember the netball and soccer teams being jokingly reffered to as “housegirls” and “garden boys” (by other black kids) and we had a good laugh out of it. You see, black was poor, black was backward and black was uncivil. Black was “gwash”
All the “cool” things on the other hand, were either white, foreign or things that other black people of lesser social status could not afford to do or have. A typical “cool” black kid had long hair straightened with chemicals and got weaves during the holidays. The only Shona song they knew was the first stanza of the national anthem. The “cool kids” spoke polished English and played hockey or rugby. The “cool kids” didn’t go kumusha (rural areas) during the holidays and when they did, they made sure their friends never found out, unless it was to laugh at something the “gwash kumusha kids” said while trying to impress them with their “chopes” (broken English).
Like Zulaikha, I too am constantly asked to sacrifice my blackness for white privillege. Though I left private school six years ago, I say “am” because it follows you to the posh job that your private school qualification afforded you. It follows you to the posh suburb that that posh job allows you to live in and the posh friends that that posh lifestyle brings. Before you know you know it, you and your posh spouse have kids and raise them in the same way that private school raised you: to embrace whiteness and shun blackness in the name of “diversity”.
When I do have kids, I want them to get the best education that they possibly can. I want them to have the best opportunities that I can afford them, but not at the cost of their blackness. Not at the cost of their identity. Not in “independent” Africa. I do not blame my parents, for such system did not exist for our generation. They gave me the best they could with what was there and they really did try to ensure that our home life preserved our native language and culture. However, it is now my duty to ensure that going to private school and staying in touch with your blackness ceases to be the exception and becomes the norm in the next generation and it begins with making reforms in our elite schools and societies. It begins with changing the way middle and upper class black people see other black people and blackness in general. It begins with changing the way the schools they go to conditions them to see other black people and blackness in general.
To the current metaphoric “Zulaikha”s, I say we are sorry. You should not have to deal with all this, but we who came before you either saw it and chose to do nothing, or failed to see it at all. Worse still, we encouraged it. We are sorry for coming to these schools before you finding them as they were and leaving them as they were. Accepting them as they were. Praising them as they were.
Most importantly, to the actual Zulaikha and her friends I say thank you. Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for your consciousness. ‘Elite’ schools need more black kids like you