RaceSex & Gender

you can’t justify a teacher slapping a student

February 7, 2019
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“Teachers are the backbone of society” is one of those declarations that sounds like a cliché but is actually a truth that isn’t acknowledged widely because then we’d have to talk about paying them their worth. In South Africa, where students bring swords to school one week while disrespecting teachers another, teachers have to bear the brunt of dealing with other people’s children. However, that specific calling entails actually being able to deal with all the infuriating aspects of youth. Times Live reports that a white female teacher that slapped a Black female student at San Souci Girl’s High School in Cape Town, South Africa — it’s safe to say that she is not equipped to speak to let alone teach Black South African teenagers.


San Souci Girls High School already has a reputation for racism. In 2016, former and current students shared stories of the discriminatory practices. Current students complained about not being allowed to speak their language of Xhosa (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages) at break times without reprimand according to Eye Witness News. “I think it should be allowed for you to speak another language. A lot of the time it’s not allowed and you will go to detention or you’ll get a demerit because of the fact you speak a different language other than English,” commented one of the students. It’s a sad and sobering reality to see Black students being punished for practicing a facet of their African identity on African soil.

The 2016 controversy dominated over a week of the news cycle before the outrage dissipated. No proper plan for addressing the ingrained bias against Black students at the school was laid out or even declared. Such inaction reared its ugly head when the student in the video speaks her language when talking back to the teacher, pushing her to further escalate the situation before speaking in her own language of Afrikaans. Even in what has been established as an uncomfortable learning environment, Black students have come out in support for the teacher in question, declaring that the incident was not racially motivated and that the student in question is “troubled.” We’re all familiar with the often infamous power-plays that come from a “troubled” student and a teacher but none that I have witnessed and heard of have resulted in corporal punishment. That was outlawed last time I checked.

Times Live reports that the student (represented by her mother) and the teacher have opened cases of assault against each other. I’m not one to minimize the shove the teacher endured when the student was going for her phone but it is nothing compared to, nor does it justify a slap. Black girls worldwide have to navigate the scarlet letter of combativeness so it is understandable that this already frazzled white woman would think she was in her right to slap a student and then report the same student for assault. There are dynamics at play here we cannot ignore unless this specific teacher has a history of getting violent with students.

Black girls in South African high schools have been fighting racist school policies across the country — the most notable being the protest against anti-Black hair policies, held by Black students at Pretoria Girls High School in 2016. The disrespect inflicted on the Black female body in South Africa is institutionalized from the government and the courts, all the way down to the schooling level. When Black girls are given less grace to react while constantly being told that their hair and language are not good enough or “forbidden,” it reinforces a base-level assumption that the Black female body is not worthy of respect.

When we give situations like this the smallest bit of leeway by way of trying to reason with the teacher’s actions, we give people more space to infringe on the autonomy of Black girls. Where is our compassion for a student that is obviously acting out? The Jessicas and Tobys of the world are sent to therapy for their “troubles” while Black girls, dealing with the harm that comes from racism and sexism, are only seen as receptacles of violence. Which leaves us with the ultimate question: who do we reserve our compassion for? And who do we deny?