South African social media has been abuzz following a racist advert that was posted on Clicks website. The company’s advert portrayed two black women’s hair as ‘dry and damaged; and ‘frizzy and dull’, while the other images showed two white women’s hair as ‘fine and flat hair’ and ‘normal hair’. Black women’s hair has always been a controversial issue in South Africa. It is utterly disappointing that we are still discussing the issue of black women’s hair during Heritage Month where South Africans from all walks of life are supposed to be embracing who they are and learning about each other’s culture.
The othering of natural African hair can be traced to the advent of colonialism and later, Apartheid. The Apartheid government used hair to determine where a person could live or work. They would administer a “Pencil Test” by sliding a pencil into the hair of a person whose racial group was uncertain. How easily it came out determined whether a person has “passed” (classified as white) or “failed” (classified as Coloured or Black) the test. Some people were reclassified racially and then forced to live apart from their families. All these horrifying consequences were down to the othering of hair.
In modern times, the Apartheid and racist mentality concerning black women’s hair can be found in workplaces and schools. There are rules that police how black women should tie their hair. This is based on the biased belief that natural, kinky hair is dirty and unprofessional. This was highlighted in the story of Nontobeko Sibisi, an eNCA anchor, who was taken off air for wearing a doek in the workplace. Black women have worn their hair in headscarves for many years for religious, cultural reasons and even as a fashion statement but they were traditionally worn by older or married women. Despite this, her hair and attire were policed by her employer.
As recently as August 2016, Pretoria High for Girls came under fire following the demand from the school’s administration that black learners should straighten their hair in order for it to be considered neat according to the school’s code of conduct. Pupils at Pretoria Girls High School protested against the school’s code of conduct and in particular, the part in the code which deals with hairstyles. This code of conduct was ultimately suspended by the MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi.
Fast-forward four years later and black pupils from Pretoria High for Girls say nothing has changed since 2016. This indicates that the racist attitudes toward black women’s hair lie not with the code but rather with the teachers and management – the people that govern the school place. I believe that policies or codes of conduct that target or discriminate against black women’s hair are rooted in racist stereotypes.
The criticism of our hair is a criticism of our culture, our tradition. Our hair is who we are as black women; it is our crown. The discrimination against black women’s hair is always swept under the carpet when it arises. That is why today we have companies like Clicks who are allowed to label black women’s hair as damaged and ugly. Black hair is not the problem rather the racist stereotypes associated with black hair are the problem. It’s not dirty or dull; it is naturally curly and there is beauty in that.
In conclusion, I think black women should not allow the media to tell them what beautiful hair is. Black hair stereotypes should be confronted at all times which can be done by wearing black hair with pride. Schools and workplaces should come up with codes of conduct that accommodates everyone and refrain from telling black women how to wear their crown. Black hair matters to us and we should embrace it. It is our heritage.