Cultural managements

School safety must extend to cultural symbols,…

The genesis of the school year is a time of heightened and hybrid emotions for everyone in the education industry. On the one hand, there is the excitement and enthusiasm that comes with the potential and prospects that any new venture presents. On the other hand, especially for those entering a new learning environment for the first time, this new academic year can be a source of anxious anticipation.

As a new generation of students enter schools, it is at this time of year that claims about school dress codes or uniform policies and practices typically come into the spotlight. Local news media provide a record of reported incidents of discrimination against students based on apparent dress code violations. Reported “violations” of these policies include the wearing of headscarves by Muslims, dreadlocks by Rastafarians and openly anti-black hair rules that seek to impose colonial beauty standards on black students.

It’s hard to say how big these cases are given the high stakes of breaking school rules, including suspension with the possibility of expulsion. In 2016, the mother of a student involved in a uniform violation incident told the media how she begged her son to shave off his dreadlocks to go to school. The young man, publicly ashamed in front of his peers, refused and after a three-week suspension was finally allowed to return to school on the condition that he wear a bandana on his head. This paltry compromise is indicative of the demonization of diversity and the unavailability of dignity that takes place in some schools.

This occurs despite the fact that while schools and their governing bodies have the power to dictate day-to-day school management as well as policy development and implementation, the Ministry of Education (local and national) has continually called on schools to develop policies that uphold constitutional commitments to equality, equity and inclusion, particularly in areas related to religious and cultural practices.

In the historic case of Pillay vs MEC for Education KwaZulu-Natal, where a Hindu student was prohibited from wearing a nose ring at school, Chief Justice Pius Langa made the following comment when ruling in favor of the plaintiff:

“At the root is the idea that sometimes the community, whether it is the state, an employer or a school, must take positive action and possibly incur additional hardship or expense to allow everyone to participate and enjoy all their rights equally. This ensures that we do not relegate people to the margins of society because they do not or cannot conform to certain social norms.

Langa’s statement reminds us of the limited applicability of the law and that where the law is particularly opaque, it is incumbent upon us, the people, to do the hard work to ensure justice is delivered and dignity is protected. I am in no way suggesting that citizen or individual action replace the need for a profound systemic and institutional overhaul. Instead, I hope to convey that the kinds of paradigm shifts needed to produce a more just, safe, and inclusive society require us, as individuals, communities, and institutional agents, to do the hard work of dismantling systems of discrimination, exclusion and oppression that have been misrepresented as essential to the orderly and cohesive functioning of society.

Educators of all kinds, but especially school administrators and teachers, wield enormous power in determining whether the experience of the learning environment is positive or traumatic.

For students who, in the words of Judge Langa, “do not conform or cannot conform to certain social norms”, in this case on the basis of religion and culture, which are widely accepted as aspects deeply personal, sensitive and valuable aspects of human identity and engagement, but also in matters related to other forms of embodied experiences, including race and genre, the school’s response can at the very least leave an indelible mark on their self-esteem and confidence.

Other students who observe how diversity is viewed in their school’s formal structures and less formal classroom interactions are unwittingly exposed to important extracurricular lessons about managing diversity in multicultural and multi-religious settings.

We cannot afford to fail both groups of students and all those somewhere in between, for fear of betraying the values ​​on which our very fragile democracy depends. By cultivating a culture of caring and curiosity as a standard response to the presence of diversity in any environment, we are taking concrete steps to equip a cohort of citizens with the knowledge and belief to move beyond sloganeering and lip service and address issues of inclusion of a deep commitment to social justice.

This approach to diversity requires that the old binary thinking that inspires an “us versus them” paradigm be abandoned and that a collective view of diversity as a range of human orientations and experiences be nurtured and “normalized”.

The school is seen as a microcosm of society. The Schools Act speaks of the school as a safe space. Safety from interpersonal crime is a grim reality in South Africa and should always be a priority, but safety should also be a generative and expansive concept and practice that includes protection from the indignities of discrimination and exclusion. .

Unfortunately, school administrators and teachers, your students wearing the hijab, dreadlocks and blacks are most likely to be subjected to the kind of scrutiny and scrutiny that the school’s narrow dress code policy pervades for the rest of their life. In airport security, in the dust dormitories (and also countries!) characterized by racial, cultural and religious homogeneity and in a multitude of seemingly innocuous social and public spaces, these students will be brought to account for the way they present themselves in public.

The hard truth we have to face is that we have not yet made the world a safe enough space for expressions of diversity to be fully accepted, let alone appreciated.

With all educators, I hope that 2022 will be the first uninterrupted school year since 2020. Furthermore, I share the hope that the threat of Covid-19 will take a back seat so that we can again, and perhaps with more empathy and compassion, given our experiences over the past 22 months, is seen in the fullness of our humanity and its various expressions and representations.

The phrase “new normal” has been overused and clichéd, but in this case it seems worth invoking its universal appeal. In 2022, let’s all make radical accommodation, acceptance and appreciation of diversity the new normal. DM