‘It saddens me that these 13 year olds from Pretoria Girls High are put in a position where they have to be bold, to be fighters. These are children, and as much as it is right to applaud them for their courage, we need to take a stand to change the society in which we live, so that the right to wear your natural hair is not something that anyone has to fight for, much less a child’
I grew up a very shy and insecure child. Though I was intelligent and a very hard worker, I was always afraid to raise my hand in class, for fear of drawing attention to myself. I was also tall and skinny, which inevitably meant that I stood out. Puberty was not easy for me either, I was a late bloomer in all respects, and learning to love myself was not easy. Now in hindsight I know that this experience is not too much of a variant for most children, if it’s not being too skinny that gets you ostracized, it’s being too fat, or having acne, or any of the many variables. Throw into the struggles of being a teenage girl simply trying to find her identity, the issue of hair policy in schools, and how natural afro textured hair is deemed unacceptable in so many South African schools. The Pretoria Girls High incident highlighted something that has been happening for years in schools all across this country, in the name of ‘school policy’ and ‘looking neat’. This happens in all levels of society, mind you: in boardrooms, in the fashion industry, even in social circles, where black women in particular, are made to feel like their natural hair is inappropriate, too political, wild, messy; simply because it does not fit into Eurocentric and colonial ideals of what is beautiful and acceptable.
It saddens me that these 13 year olds from Pretoria Girls High are put in a position where they have to be bold, to be fighters. These are children, and as much as it is right to applaud them for their courage, we need to take a stand to change the society in which we live, so that the right to wear your natural hair is not something that anyone has to fight for, much less a child. We need to make sure this conversation goes beyond the hashtag, we need to bring this conversation into people’s faces on a daily basis, otherwise things will not change, to paraphrase Wendy Parkies (natural hair blogger and advocate). For as much as I agree that these rules stem from racist colonial mentality, a lot of what is deemed racist often times is simply ignorance. Education on black hair and identity needs to be something that is part of our daily conversation, as Marcus Garvey so aptly put it: ‘remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair
This Pretoria Girls High incident brings up so many issues, it is not just a hair issue, it is a black identity issue, it is a race issue; it is also a feminist issue. Black women’s bodies and sexuality have historically been picked at and politicized: Sara Baartman being put in a museum in Europe to display her buttocks; black and Creole women in the 1800s being forced to cover their hair, in what was called the ‘Tignon Laws’, as it was seen as too desirable to white men; black women being propagated as either hyper sexed or too manly, not feminine or desirable enough. It is just another way of trying to police women’s bodies. In an institution of learning, how does the issue of the girls’ hair become such a hindrance to their being able to take in information? What it says to this black girl is that ‘I am wrong, simply for being’ and ‘my very being makes people uncomfortable, therefore there is something wrong with me’
The upside of this issue coming to fore is that it’s challenging each of us to address our own ingrained colonial mentalities. I have had the conversation of race and black women’s hair so many times with non-black people, and I realize how easy it is to dismiss colonialism as something that is in the past, and has no effect on how the hairstyle choices black women make to this day, simply because it is not something they personally have had to face. However, the height of privilege is not even being aware that you benefit from it. It is only when stories like this surface, that those who are not affected by the prejudice can be faced with the reality of what still very much forms a big part of black existence. It is also an opportunity for us as black people to detangle our minds of all the wrong thought we have been fed all our lives, misguided thought that still makes some of us believe that for natural afro textured hair to be beautiful, one has to be mixed with another race; that natural hair doesn’t grow, or that straight hair that blows in the wind is more desirable.
The laws might have changed in 1994, but that did not suddenly erase the effects of colonialism, on a personal level, on a social level, and on an institutional level. Education is the only way to true freedom, and by education I’m not talking about the text book education that is taught in schools, which themselves are teeming with racial bias. I’m talking about television shows, radio programs, magazine articles that centre on every aspect of African and black identity, and what it means to be a black person in post-colonial Africa.