An uprising of discontent in resistance of racism, inherited colonial cultural norms and the education of desirability and female sexuality found a voice in multiple schools around South Africa last week, starting with Pretoria Girls High School (PGHS).
At the forefront of the PGHS resistance was the institutional policing of the natural black hair of its scholars, an issue which was the focus of a presentation by associate professor, Hlonipha Mokoena at WiSER on September 5.
“The whole aspect of the world would be changed if Black girls had long hair”, a quote from Afrocentric anthropologist, Chiekh Anta Diop, which captures how the desirability of black women is policed by whiteness was the motivation for Mokoena’s topic.
Mokoena said that the expectation for the length of natural black hair is confounded by the concept of measurement. Mokoena explained that natural black hair is comprised of curls, and the coils of the curls vary from very tight to very loose which makes measuring the hair in its natural state very difficult. According to Mokoena, institutional policing of long natural black hair needs to be rethought because unless black natural hair is combed out, there is no telling its true length. She also critiqued the senselessness of the institutional regulations such as the length and width of braids and cornrows.
Black natural hair is not only questioned inside institutions like schools, said Mokoena. She argued that there are no safe spaces for black hair. On the street strangers touch black natural hair before asking if they may do so. People question a black person’s heritage due to the texture of their natural hair and even hairdressers refuse to do your natural black hair because of its texture. “Can I touch your hair? Where are you from? I cannot do anything with your hair unless I texturise it!” Mokoena said.
Mokoena stressed that black hair is “naturally dramatic”. “We don’t have anything to do with it, it’s dramatic, it doesn’t ‘flow’”, said Mokoena. She attributed the drama of natural black hair to the simple science of gravity and the fact that natural black hair defies it.
“People don’t know how much money is made in telling black women that they need straight hair”, said Mokoena as she presented the notion of “the professionalisation of hair”. Mokoena explained how hairdressers in the USA do not need to prove that they can style “black natural hair”, instead they focus on perfecting methods like relaxing, perming, and other black hair texture altering methods that are perfected.
“If black people are not trained to care for their hair, then who?” said Mokoena as she spoke of a “knowing” about black hair that is lacking. Mokoena highlighted that we all need to know how to care about black natural hair and dispel the myth that “it’s (hair care) supposed to hurt”.
Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE OF LIFE: Yes, this is my real hair, and no, you can’t touch it, March 2016.
Wits Vuvuzela, Slice of Life: How much longer?, August 2016.
Mail & Guardian, From slavery to colonialism and school rules: A history of myths about black hair, September 2016.