“I wish someone had told me” is a series of posts that feed into our inquisitive nature at CN&CO. Each week we hear from someone in our network about something interesting or surprising that’s recently happened or occurred to them – or lessons they learnt. These blogs are a way to pay it forward and form part of CN&CO’s belief that the world can be a better place – and we all have a responsibility to make it so. This week’s post is by Josie Dougall
School was an immensely happy and safe place for me. When I look back I remember friendship, laughter, teachers I adored, some I didn’t so much. I remember sports in the afternoons and rushing to the tea table to get the best chocolate biscuits first. I remember misty days and excited chatter as we froze our way excitedly down to the English block and straightening our girdles quickly when we saw a prefect.
What I don’t remember is blatant racism. I don’t remember how the History teacher approached Apartheid conversations. I don’t remember feeling marginalized ever. I don’t remember a teacher or fellow pupil being nasty to me because my hair was straight, or because my skin is pale. And that’s because they weren’t. And that’s because I am “white”. And I wasn’t in the minority. The majority of students “looked” like me, and my mum, and my sister and my aunts. I felt at home. People were nice to me.
When the stories across the country started breaking last week about racism experienced at some of South Africa’s most prestigious private schools, I thought, gosh… that’s awful. It never happened at St Anne’s. And then on Monday night I was looking at social media in bed and I saw a post from Buyi Makhoba Dlamini who was the form below me at school. Her post started “How do we protect our children from racism”. And there it was. Detailed evidence from dozens of girls past and present recounting stories of blatant racism. Both at the hands of fellow pupils and teachers.
I was absolutely shocked. My mind raced. I tried to remember if I ever saw this and chose to ignore and forget it? Was I just blissfully unaware? Was it so subtle that I didn’t pick up then? But I was 16/17 years old… How could I not have? How could this have happened and I just did nothing? My parents taught me better. My mother always stood up for the marginalized. She spoke to me of apartheid and how her father often hid families in the tennis house at the bottom of their Houghton property and lied to the police when they came knocking at the door. I even remember asking her once if she had been a Suffragette and when she told me that no… she actually hadn’t, that I for the first time ever felt disappointed in her. So the point is, that I WAS educated about right and wrong. I was aware of the injustices of black and Indian people in South Africa, and yet at school I didn’t notice? How is this possible? What did my mum perhaps not teach me about seeking out injustice and being brave enough to support those who are marginalized and criticized? How can I raise two daughters and a son to stand together with all races, all sexualities, all genders and be agents of equality and freedom. Perhaps if ONE white girl had stood up against the teacher that continually said how she missed Apartheid and wished it back, that things would have changed sooner?
My next thought was what can we do now… how can we help these 13 & 14 & 15 year old girls from being shamed by the very teachers they are supposed to look up too? How are these young girls who spoke up last week feeling now? How are they being supported through this today? And if George Floyd hadn’t died when would this have all come to light?
My biggest need is that this doesn’t stay a “black” problem. I will feel so ashamed if the young women I went to school with all those years ago don’t ALL stand together against this. Black and White and Indian and Asian together to make our school a better place for our daughters and sons and everyone in-between. And hopefully by fixing our old school, we will help other schools too. I am not naïve enough to think that we can “fix” racism. But i damn well want to stand very strongly against any teacher who is racist who doesn’t get fired. Or any student who is blatantly and continuously racist that doesn’t undergo some serious therapy and their parents involved in the process.
It is no longer okay that we pay lip service to these problems. We need a plan of attack. We need a series of interventions that make it impossible for racist teachers to continue to thrive and children to whom this racism is aimed to continue to be silenced.
Buyi and I are talking and we are gathering ideas from other girls who wish to stand with us and we are going to make a list of suggestions to our old school about what can be done to help them overcome this. To help them build a better future, to help them turn this from a PR nightmare into a story with viable solutions. How we can perhaps become the beacon of success amoungst the many independent private schools who are currently facing this challenge today.
We have to be better and do better.