Children learn racism under the cloak of innocence
They quickly fall in step with a country that has not known innocence for centuries
There were a few things to take away from the letter by Laërskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen, who was suspended last week.
One was the realisation that the North West department of education bungled the situation by punishing the wrong teacher, Barkhuizen. Another takeaway was how innocent children were thrust in the middle of a situation and robbed of their wide-eyed excitement to learn.
The people responsible for this mess, according to her, were the “opportunists”, the people who decried an image of a Grade R classroom segregated by race.
People were upset by the photo, and were upset (rightly so) by the reason given for separating the children – the language barrier between Afrikaans-speaking pupils and “English-speaking” pupils. Having been taught in a similar classroom myself, it is not easy to manage one, but the solution was not to split pupils by race.
In the letter, we are led to believe that, without the commotion around the matter, the kids had before then been shielded from dirty politics. We’re led to believe that in the moment they were separated from each other, they were free from the grownups’ burdens.
Absent from this presupposition is how there are many instances when children are slowly indoctrinated to see a clump of black here, a clump of white there, meant to be kept apart. The decision to separate the pupils seems to have been one of those instances.
It is therefore impossible to think of a child who stays completely safe from hatred for very long in a town like Schweizer-Reneke.
The infamous photo was a snapshot of a moment just after grownup ideas had been foisted upon children.
And one can only fail to see how a child’s purity is lost if one thinks of racism as neutral.
But it’s not. Impressionable minds are taught to keep a certain type of person at a safe distance.
It’s also easy to see partly why it is so difficult to stamp out racism.
Its ideas are taught at an age when they are received passively so that when children reach the age of accountability, they struggle to see how they are responsible for ideas that seemingly fell out of the sky.
They would have, by that time, simply forgotten a teacher’s or parent’s passing remarks or a classroom arrangement like the one we saw in that photo.
Many children are led to believe their world view remains pure despite the many ways they are taught to dehumanise others. This belief forecloses the chance to self-reflect and question reflexive biases.
The teacher who wrote the letter can believe that many other things rob them of their innocence. It could be the inevitable matter of maturity. It could be those opportunists trying to exploit situations. It’s never racism and the parents and teachers who introduce them at such a vulnerable age.
In the process, black children who encounter such racism do not get to stay naïve for very long either. If anything, they helplessly absorb false notions of their inherent inferiority.
It’s not entirely surprising that one can look at that photo and see a wholesome arrangement just waiting to be poisoned by national outrage. The naivety, seen also in teachers, is the result of a tried and tested method of taking race at face value and hoping it sticks.
Those pupils will also carry these methods into subsequent generations and become adults who are flummoxed by the backlash to racist attitudes they believe to be harmless because they were learned under the veneer of innocence.
I came of age in an environment similar to Schweizer-Reneke, just a bit down south. Little has changed since the days of the numerous school racism scandals in the area that includes Vryburg, Stella, Reivilo and others.
Mere infants quickly fall in step with a country that has not known innocence in its centuries-long existence.
If anyone 25 years from now asks how “everything is about race” when apartheid ended more than 50 years ago, they must look back at this moment when a classroom was divided by race 25 years into our democracy.
And on and on it will go.