Looking below racism. Renegotiating authority at school through challenging the policing of hairstyles, an inside view on a girls-led protest in Soweto.

Monday, 20 March, 2023 - 16:00

Presented by : 


The policing of Black girls' hairstyles at school has become increasingly publicly politicized and primarily analysed through the lenses of institutional racism, and a lesser extend its intersections with sexism and religious discrimination, in post-segregationist education systems (in the United States and South Africa in particular). While acknowledging that such dimensions often feed in the policing of learners's hairstyles, I argue that there is a need to look below explanations in terms of racism in order to understand the other issues at stake, especially in the case of conflicts that have led to collective mobilisations in low-income de facto racially segregated schools. Through focusing on a girls-led protest in a Sowetan high school that happened in August 2017; and based on observations of the mobilisation, class discussions and participation in staff and parental meetings in its aftermath while being a quasi-teacher at the school during my doctoral research, and a reflective interview with the main instigator of the protest conducted in 2021; I discuss how the contestation of the policing of learners' hairstyles was both ignited by and became an opportunity to challenge the lack of democracy at the school, the social conservatism of the parents, and the sexualisation of girls' bodies. The case study hence sheds light on the multifaceted ways in which power may be exerted through policing hairstyles at school, and on the subtle strategies of politicization and depoliticization, and of selective obedience to schooldress code restrictions, that may enable learners to partly reclaim it.

General seminar arrangements

  • The WISH seminar is hosted on-line every Monday afternoon at 16:00 - 17:00 SA during the teaching semester.
  • A printable version of the seminar schedule for the current year is available here.
  • For the details of the Zoom meetings, please sign up for email notices at https://wiser.wits.ac.za/mail.
  • Participants must read the paper prior to the seminar, which is typically available by the Friday preceding the seminar.
  • The WISH seminar archive is available here