The events that occurred with the girls at Pretoria Girl’s High School over the right to wear their natural hair and the school rules being interpreted in a manner that placed natural hair outside its bounds struck a cord with me.
See, I have four lovely younger sisters and remember a time in primary school when someone was told that her hair was outside the school’s code of conduct, along with their regular complaints about someone touching one of their hair (usually a white male student in their often almost exclusively white “smart” class, which is an issue for another day). The two oldest of my younger sisters are university students currently, which gives them significant freedom to wear their hair as they wish. One has dreadlocks, while the other has kept her natural hair for two years, if not more now. The latter has found a variety of innovative ways to keep her hair – from the ‘fro to a bun and others.
It wasn’t just my sisters’ experiences, or the fact that if I had a daughter, this would be her reality, or the fact that if I type “untidy hair” or “messy hair” into Google Images, the first picture that pops up is that of a black woman’s unrelaxed, natural nappy hair while a search for “good hair” will churn out a Caucasian female’s long straight hair, the association that people make between someone who wears their hair naturally or in dreads and both uncleanliness as well as lacking credibility, or even the half-witted comments that emerged on social media around this issue. It was all of that, and my experience of growing up as a black male with hair. While I’ll admit from the get go that my struggle isn’t as intense as the struggle of my sisters, the young ladies at PGHS or men who wear their hair in afros or dreadlocks, there have been moments where my hair was an issue.
From a young age, my father taught me to keep my hair as short as possible. Under my parents, I shaved my head regularly from a very young age, eventually becoming proficient enough to shave my head by myself without patches at 15. I never explored hair cut styles until I became an adult, unlike some of my mates. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep me from having my hair being outside of the guidelines in the code of conduct according to some individuals’ interpretations, or even an insult by a certain substitute teacher in grade 7.
She called me Skaap Kop, which in Afrikaans means Sheep Head. Being the foreign kid with the accent that didn’t understand any language but English, I learnt very early that someone saying something in another language usually is an insult, or a joke on you that you’ll only find out later in life. She called me Skaap Kop and said it was because my hair was shaved to the scalp like a sheep that had been sheared and linked it to my inability to have some fluency in Afrikaans. Whenever she came in for another teacher, my name to her was Skaap Kop. Nobody told me what it meant beyond what she said the day she gave me the name. So for a decade, I was oblivious to the full extent of insult. She had essentially called me stupid, and pointed to my hair being shaven to the scalp as the reason.
Anyone who went to my primary school, or even attended high school with me can testify that I wasn’t stupid, but I was mischievous and at sometimes misbehaved. Definitely mischievous. I never did like staying in the rigid lines around me. Hence, her insult cuts so deep. She labeled me stupid, because of my hair and the fact that I wasn’t fluent in her language. Forget the fact that I could tell you how stars died, was well read on natural science, could recite Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be, or not to be.” and was by at times called a walking encyclopedia, or even the fact that whenever a teacher’s computer had a problem I was called out of class to sort it out. The fact that I couldn’t peak her language made me unintelligent. Oh the joys of our education system.
Please, don’t think for a second that I’m setting my grade 7 self is an exemplary standard or something to aspire to with my ability to speak English and all that. The point I’m trying to make is that despite my other capabilities and skills, she considered me dumb because I wasn’t able to speak her language with the fluency she expected.
I finished primary school and was never called Sheep Head again. But my hair would come up as an issue again on two fronts. My fellow students and some rigid teachers.
I was never a big kid. The fact that I was terrible at every sport I set out to try didn’t help me much, nor did the fact that my inability with sport led me not to try athletics, which I may have been some what decent in.
My relatively thin and taller than average pubescent frame made me victim of bullying, while my accent and quick tongue made me somewhat endearing to some of the older students. Still, that didn’t save me from the white guys who believed that rubbing a bald black males head does something for them in some way shape or form and my reports of it to a teacher was passed off as boys being boys.
Then there was a certain science teacher who had an issue the fact that my hair was shaven to the scalp. For her, it was too low and not permitted according to her interpretation of the code of conduct. My arguments that all the code of conduct stated was that my hair was to be kept short and clean got me nowhere and growing my hair was frowned upon by my parents.
Unfortunately some people will speak about how I’m making a fuss over nothing, that the ladies at PGHS should be in class because it’s not a fashion show for them to be parading their hair around, the code of conduct applies to everyone and blacks should stop asking for special treatment, that blacks always start drama over nothing and some would even dare say that if black people don’t like it or can’t follow the rules go to or create your own schools. It’s cute because when these very same people talk about BEE, Affirmative Action and land restitution being wrong, they aren’t making a fuss over nothing. When they’re talking about keeping Afrikaans as the medium of instruction and getting into fights to students who want transformation, they’re not being dramatic and God forgive us if you say anything when the topic of white genocide comes up and you say we should focus on solving crime before claiming it’s racial.
That’s privilege. That is privilege. You may be blind to it, but it’s there staring me in the face.
This is so much bigger than hair. The hair issue is merely the vehicle through which we are observing the bigger problem. The same way that the Valhalla Mosque showed us that Islamophobia is alive and well in this country, albeit only showing up when a mosque is to be built in a certain area, the issue of hair, the code of conduct and the lack of transformation that has occurred in schools 22 years into our ‘democracy’ point at the bigger problem of the fact that structural racism continues to exist, sometimes rearing its head incediously, while other times its pretty blatant. I mean, how can you have a group of teenagers being threatened with arrest by the police for peacefully protesting injustice in a democracy?
Look. We need to get to a point where a young non-white woman can be comfortable with their own image, as opposed to spending everything they have aspiring to whiteness. Don’t get it twisted, not aspiring to whiteness does not mean you shouldn’t want to be a pilot, PhD holder, CEO or even the Secretary General of the United Nations. No, not aspiring to whiteness means getting there and challenging the assumption that these things are not for non-white women. The very same goes for men.
Secondly, don’t get what I’m saying twisted and think I’m saying a black woman wearing a weave is wrong and un-African. I have no interest in dictating what a woman does with her hair or policing a woman’s body. If a woman wishes to wear a weave and she is comfortable with it, then by all means rock that weave Ms. The same applies to women who chose cut their hair and keep it low. None of these choices remove from her womanhood or blackness.
Thirdly. I feel that in the days to follow, the hair protests will spread around the country. Some will gain news coverage and others will go unnoticed by the media. In time, school Codes of Conduct will be reviewed in efforts by schools not to make headlines, while silently the students who led the protests will be victimized in ways that will keep the staff and school’s hands more or less clean when the student goes to report it. What needs to be put in place everywhere that stories of racism come up, be it over hair or language, is a means for students to report victimization and actually be taken seriously by whomever they are reporting to because power never forgets those who challenge it, nor is power forgiving towards them.
Lastly, I ask all political parties and the media not to make this hair issue and wider struggle for decolonization and fighting institutionalized racism at schools what they did with Fees Must Fall (FMF). FMF began with students coming together despite their different political allegiances to raise the issue of fees and the lack of financing for tertiary education. Soon, the media picked a person and made them the leader of FMF. Next political parties came in and laid claim to the movement as belonging to them, to the point that at one FMF meeting this year, a group was chased out of the meeting. Picking leaders for this movement and using it as an opportunity for political exposure divides the movement and eventually weakens it, eventually leaving it paralyzed and unable to function as it did originally.