I attended a private school in Zimbabwe, from primary through to secondary school. There, under the watchful eye of teachers and disciplinarians, my fellow classmate and I were groomed and moulded into exceptional young ladies capable of flying the school’s flag high long after we walked out of its gates. As one of the oldest schools in the country, the institution told us that we were the best, we were exceptional and, most importantly, that there was a certain standard that had to be maintained. Unfortunately, for the majority of young black girls in the student body, those rules came at the expense of our blackness. We could not wear our hair in an afro. Our hair, even when natural, had to be smoothed down, no kinkiness whatsoever. We could not speak our mother tongues, except during language classes. When I left high school, I was grateful for what I had learnt but I was also relieved to go. For me and for many black students, the private school education system in Zimbabwe can be a difficult and toxic space to be in.

It is an issue that has resurfaced over the past few days. One of Zimbabwe’s best-known private schools posted a picture on Twitter, under the heading “Extreme Reading Challenge”. In it, a young white boy was leaning against a tree, reading a book, in the middle of what seemed to be a battle scene staged by a group of young black boys. I cringed at the photo. It was so…colonial. Given the country’s history of colonisation and discrimination against the black majority, I wondered how no one involved in setting up and posting the photo stopped to think about the optics. I felt bad for the students because their teachers should have known better. But I was not surprised.

The black experience

The now-deleted photo has sparked conversations around the experiences of black students in the country’s private schools. Some are arguing that it is high time all the schools are called to order. Others do not see what the big deal is, especially given the economic situation. A few see nothing wrong with the photo and insist that it is not a racist incident. It made me stop and think about my own experiences. Before I attended the private school, for the first three years of my schooling, I went to a public school. The transition from public to private was difficult. I forced myself to change my accent in order to fit in with the other girls, adopting a twang that I secretly hated. It sounded nothing like me. I felt my mother tongue slip through my fingers as I had to speak more and more English. The 10-year-old me felt alienated in this new world, and I did not think I had the right to say anything. After all, I had made it into this privileged world. What right did I have to complain?

Peterhouse Boys – Extreme Reading 2019: The school said its members of staff encouraged their students to read in “unorthodox places”.

Zimbabwe is a country that prides itself on its education system. No matter how much the going got tough, we have always had our education. As the economy took a downturn, public school systems suffered from lack of access to resources and low salaries for teachers. Concerned parents who had the money ran to the private schools, shielded from the chaos by their suburban locations, pristine lawns and high walls. They were assured that not only would their children receive world-class education but they would become cultured, mannered and exceptionally well-rounded people. However, there has not been enough discussion on the culture of these schools.

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The question that has arisen from the photo incident has mainly been: “Do private schools in Zimbabwe encourage a culture of Eurocentrism and whiteness?” This is a complex and important question, one that has elicited strong responses from opposing camps. But maybe that is not the right question to ask. Perhaps the question should be: “Has the private schooling system done anything to dismantle its colonial legacy?”

Mine is just one experience of many that have come up in the past few days. There are stories of black students being more severely punished than their white counterparts. White students getting preferential treatment in team sports. Black hair being policed more heavily, and black prefects are the ones tasked with policing it. English being the default language and fining anyone who speaks something else – except if it is French, German or Latin, of course. Conversations about race and colonisation are either watered down or avoided completely in order to keep the peace. And, in my opinion, the most damaging aspect of all: encouraging an attitude where private school students see themselves as better than and superior to anyone who went to public school. It is a mentality that survives long after you have left high school. It is a mentality that tells you that you are better and less black than others because of your proximity and acceptance by whiteness. By speaking English with a particular accent and having a particular crest on your blazer, you set yourself apart. But in the process, you shed pieces of yourself in order to conform and survive in that system, until you cannot see how damaging that space can be for a young black teenager trying to find themselves. That, for me, is the real issue.

That photo reminded me of all the small racist subtleties I had to grin and bear during my high-school days. It reminded me of the instances where black students were made to feel small and insignificant because they did not fit a particular mould. It reminded me of the times when black students who dared to speak out were publicly humiliated and punished. The reality is that whiteness and elitism is very comfortable in private schools and has gone unquestioned for too long.