The group of black high school girls in Pretoria who came together to protest their school’s code of conduct that instructs them to chemically straighten their hair have lifted the lid on the far-reaching effects of institutionalised racism that persists within our schools and within our curricula.
I can never say I understand how black women feel about their hair, I do not live that reality. I can only speak from what I’ve observed. When I was in high school, black boys were always told to keep their hair to a certain length or to shave it off completely. These “styles” were deemed “neater”.
After the Pretoria High School for Girls protest, I realise that another aspect of the narrative of institutionalised racism is the stifling of black expression in its natural, untainted form. The system in which black people exist aims to rob us of a self-actualised identity. The continual oppression of black people comes from many areas: economic disenfranchisement, cultural appropriation and erased histories.
Since the world functions on the disillusioned system that “white is right, black is whack”, we’re forced to make our black bodies less black, to conform aesthetically to whiteness. This is why natural hair is considered “dirty” and “unruly”. This is why young black girls are expected to straighten their hair – straight hair is less of a threat to whiteness.
Black people are also not entirely innocent in this whole system. We, within our own communities, attach this unfounded importance to hair that ultimately is seen as definitive of a human being. In our own black homes, we are told to cut our hair and, like how my aunt once told my female dreadlocked cousin, that “you would look better if you relaxed your hair”. Black people have been programmed by the white standards of colonialism and beauty to an extent that we unknowingly perpetuate those standards in our own homes. We have also been part of this problem, by not calling out a system that keeps telling us to hate ourselves and all the facets of our blackness.
One thing is for sure, hair is important in black culture. Early African civilisations used hair to show a person’s family background, tribe and social status. In the American civil rights movement, hair was used as symbol of rebellion and resistance. Some groups believed that hair was a conduit for spiritual interaction with God. Throughout history, black hair has evolved and morphed to be a representation of many things and even in 2016, it remains a topic of discussion for being one of the sure-fire ways blackness can be expressed.
But remember this, whatever style you choose, you are not your hair.
On Monday August 29, #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh was trending on social media while black learners at the school were protesting against what they described as cultural discrimination.
The learners highlighted their school rules which force them to wear their hair in ways that conforms to western standards and how they are prohibited from standing in groups or speaking their mother tongue languages during school hours.
The movement sparked a national conversation in which I think provided a good learning opportunity for all South Africans. First off, let me say definitively, it’s not about hair! The debate plays out through the dreadlocks and the cornrows but really, the conversation is about institutionalised racism. And more specifically about the institutionalised racism at some of this country’s most prestigious schools.
In other words it’s about the fact that black students are animalised in schools. When white teachers think that black hair is untidy, they refer to it as a “birds nest”. They are “behaving like hooligans”, when they are often, just being themselves, themselves in a way that is not white. They are told to “stop cackling” or “acting like monkeys” when they laugh too loudly and their “messy” schoolbags or desks are said to resemble a “pigsty”. I’ve experienced all of this and I am only one person. One black child. So there’s this consistent reference to black students and animal behaviour. This notion that your habits limit your acceptance into human society.
Then there’s the chatter about the code of conduct.
The code of conduct is fundamentally a set of rules that governs the school. It is the law. All laws only find relevance in the societies they exist in. When society evolves, so too should the law. Codes are written by ordinary people who seek to promote their own bias. How can we expect a law that was written without black students in mind to work to serve them?
The very problem that the learners are working to address is the idea of not seeing colour. It is necessary to see race so the structures that people of colour occupy can operate to equally benefit them. Ignorance to colour, “race blindness”, is not a noble gesture, it is to dismiss the diversity of people. Diversity is good, it also requires flexibility and that must be taught in institutions of learning.
Schools are the facilitators of such lessons but they should not simply distribute teachings as gospel. Paying for an education is not like buying loaves of bread. The factors that produce an education, such as teachers, rules and environment are as important as the education itself. Learners are not consumers but stakeholders in the chain of production.
It is up to the schools to look into their policies, change the rules and fix it. The stakeholders can’t be told to go elsewhere if they are unhappy, it’s their school too. Black students are not the inconvenient guests at the former model C school, they are partners, these codes of conduct should get it right.
Wits Vuvuzela, Good hair, no Becky, September 10, 2016
Wits Vuvuzela, It’s not just about hair, September 10, 2016
I LIKE MY BABY HEIR WITH BABY HAIR AND AFROS: WiSER associate professor, Hlonipha Mokoena discusses the complexities of natural black hair.
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.
We, alumni of Pretoria High School for Girls stand in solidarity with the bold and courageous learners of the school, who have spoken out about rank racial discrimination at our old school.
We are emboldened and inspired by their brave and principled stance in upholding the values the school was established on. These are encompassed in the mission statement of the founding headmistress, Ms Edith Aitken, who established the school with the honourable goal of educating young women so that we may leave our mark on the world, shape agendas and fight for equitable change when called upon. Many of the school’s alumni have answered this call over the years. Ms Aitken’s values are self-evident in many of the esteemed public figures, big and small, which spent their formative years at the school. Among these are educationists, public interest lawyers, the public health system’s doctors and nurses, and other professionals.
So, whilst many of us were familiar with some of the school’s more archaic practices in our day, it is with dismay that the country’s attention was drawn yesterday (Monday 29 August) to present-day racism, bullying and patently race-based shaming of black women’s bodies by staff at the school. Some accounts point to black staff members being demeaned as well, and so we level our dissatisfaction at the school’s poor track record with regard to transformation of the staff-body that is not commensurate to the changing body politic of the school.
We pledge our support to the crop of young women-leaders who have brought national attention to issues we are sorely aware are rampant not only at PHSG, but across the country’s Model C schools.
Girls, we are with you in spirit, minds and bodies, and we assure you that as Old Girls you have all of our support. We are here to share with you our experiences of the school and situation you find yourselves in, and are a call away should you seek any guidance, assistance and other practical services. Among us are lawyers, student activists, psychologists, doctors and members of the media. We are also academics at tertiary institutions, teachers and nurses. Call on us if you need to, but remember also: you have inspired us. There is much we’d like to learn from you, too.
Signed: (more names to follow)
1. Sibongile Hill (Class of 2002) – Medical Doctor 2.
Tidimalo Ngakane (Class of 2002) – Lawyer
3. Katy Hindle (Class of 2002) – Lawyer
4. Akhona Pearl Mehlo (Class 2002) – Lawyer
5. Janet Jobson (Class of 2002) – Civil Society
6. Angelique Terblanche (Class of 2002) – Manager
7. Letebele Tsebe (Class of 2004) – Scientist
8. Shanti Aboobaker (Class of 2004) – Journalist
9. Jocelyn Evans (Class of 2004) – Engineer
10. Nqobile Simelane (Class of 2004) – Economic Development Manager
11. Christine Emmett (Class of 2004) – Academic/Commonwealth scholar
12. Yonda Siwisa (Class of 2004) – Advertising Executive
13. Ncumisa Sakawuli (Class of 2004) – Banker
14. Anushka Singh Bhima (Class of 2004) – Lawyer
15. Linda Lesu (Class of 2004)
16. Tali Cassidy (Class of 2005) – Epidemiologist
17. Lindelwa Skenjana (Class of 2005) – Marketing
18. Nadia Ebrahim (Class of 2005) – Scientist and Teacher
19. Leila Ebrahim (Class of 2005) – Dentist
20. Diale Maepa (Class of 2007) – Medical Doctor
21. Lerissa Govender (Class of 2004) – Lawyer, Civil Society
22. Moipone Moloantoa (Class of 2004) – Advertising and Marketing
23. Carla Dennis (Class of 2002) – Actress
24. Thuli Zuma (Class of 2003)
25. Katie Miller Beyers (Class of 2002)
26. Olympia Shabangu (Class of 2002) – Lawyer
27. Pilani Bubu (Class of 2002) – Entrepreneur, Singer-Songwriter
28. Leila Badsha (Class of 2005) – Entrepreneur
29. Thabisile Tilo (Class of 2006) – Teacher
30. Danielle Kriel (Class of 2004) – Lawyer
31. Olympia Shabangu (Class of 2002) – Lawyer
32. Dina Lamb (Class of 2002)
33. Tessa Kerrich – Walker (Class of 2002) – Entrepreneur
34. Myna Pindeni (Class of 2004) – Women Empowerment Programmes Officer
35. Julia Eccles, (Class of 2003) – Advertising professional
36. Jenni Myburgh (Class of 2004) – Author and app founder
37. Erin Hommes (Class of 2004) – Activist and senior researcher
38. Jessica Schnehage (Class of 2004) – Entertainment consultant/Business Owner
39. Nuraan Muller (Class of 2000) – Director
40. Refilwe Tilo (Class of 2002) –
41. Chantelle Gilbert (Class of 2002) Restaurant owner/chef
42. Laura Ilunga (Class of 2003) – Pilot
43. Princess Magopane (class of 2002) Lawyer
44. Desré Khanyisa Barnard, 2003, Master’s student, ad hoc lecturer
45. Tshegofatso Phala, 2004, Pro Bono Attorney and Human rights activist
46. Lethabo Maboi (Class of 2003) Creative Director at Styled By Boogy
47. Sanja Bornman (Class of 2000) Lawyer
48. Dieketseng Boshielo (Mokake) (Class of 2002) – Entrepreneur, supply chain & logistics
49. Palesa Motau (Class of 2004) Stakeholder Manager
50. Zimkhitha Malgas (class of 2005) procurement/logistics coordinator
51. Trish Stewart (class of 2004) advertising
52. Jessica Schnehage – (Class of 2004) Entertainment Consultant / Business Owner
53. Leila Badsha (Class of 2005) Entrepreneur
54. Maropeng Ralenala, 2003, Clinical Psychologist
55. Renée Hlozek, 2001, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Toronto
56. Kopano Marumo, 2003, Writer
57. Nobantu Nhantsi (Class of 2004) – Community Programme Co-ordinator
58. Shiluba Mawela (Class of 2004) – Impact Investor
59. Dr Francoise L.Y Goga (Class of 2006) – Medical doctor
60. Marli Roode (Class of 2001) – Author and journalist
61. Kuraisha Patel (Class of 2010) – Lawyer
62. Meka Ravenhill (Class of 2002) – Partner/Owner of Ravenhill Productions SA
63. Caileigh Pentz (Class of 2005) Industrial Designer
64. Katie-Lynne Roebert (Class of 2004) Lecturer in Higher Education
65. Amy Schoeman (Class of 2002) – Product developer
66. Dr Francoise L.Y Goga (class of 2006)- medical doctor
67. Oreratile Mogoai (Class of 2006) Research Specialist
68. Karin Heijboer ( Class of 1998)
69. Estee Burger (Class 2002) Brand Manager – South African Breweries
70. Fikile Nkosi (Class of 1998) HR Consultant – Archway Consulting
71. Ingrid Cloete (Class of 2005) – Lawyer
72. Larissa Meckelburg nee Focke (Class of 2001) MA student at Freie Universität Berlin
73. Jana van den Munckhof (Class of 2002) – Minister
74. Sithabile Mokgokong (Class of 1998) – Interior Architect
75. Meg Hendry (Class of 1998) Reflexologist
76. Sarah Richmond (Class of 2002) – University Lecturer
77. Bridget Corrigan (Class of 2002) Conservation Manager
78. Jane-Anne Kokkinn (Class of 2003) Film Producer
79. Lusanda Shimange (Class of 1998) OBGYN
80. Makosha Maja, (Class of 2000) Head of Insight (M&C Saatchi Abel)
81. Pamela Ilunga (Class of 1999) HR Director
82. Lebogang Mahlare Chemical Engineer
83. Jade Perumal (class of 2005), Operations Manager
84. Sanja Bornman (Class of 2000) Gender Rights Lawyer at Lawyers For Human Rights.
85. Genevieve Cator (Class of 1984) Former staff member at PHSG and Publisher
“Is THAT your real hair?” “Can I touch your hair?” “You black girls are so lucky, you can change your hair all the time.”
On countless occasions, I’ve heard those words come out of peoples’ mouths when speaking about hair and it irks me to the core.
I understand, it’s different, it’s intriguing and you can’t help yourself. For many years your people have been fascinated by mine. They studied every inch of our bodies and still, decades later you don’t understand us and you’re still asking me silly questions.
“Go on to Youtube and watch the mini documentary You can touch my hair and if that doesn’t help you, call Jesus.”
The first thing we all need to understand is the concept of hair diversity. I read an article once that suggested the reason European and northern hemisphere ethnic groups have long, straight hair is because during the Ice Age, the Africans who had migrated north evolved and grew long, straight hair to protect their necks, and subsequently their main arteries.
Short, long, I will never touch it
Those who stayed had shorter, curlier hair to keep cool and didn’t need to protect the backs of their necks from the cold. I acknowledge these differences and that is why I will never ask to touch your hair.
Many black people today argue that imitating European standards of beauty and grooming is necessary for blacks to be accepted by white culture, especially by potential white masters and employers.
For decades black women have been overwhelmed with devices, creams, and tonics, claiming to be the “cure” for our kroes hare. Don’t we struggle enough?
See, every time you ask me silly questions about my hair and want to touch it, I imagine how Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman felt back in 1810, when she was exhibited in London. Ornamentilised, as people ogled her large buttocks and elongated labia, and of course, her hair.
In 2013, three black women, all with different hair styles, stood in New York with signs encouraging people to touch their hair. The social experiment was aimed at educating and exploring the widespread fascination with black hair. Take 30 minutes out of your time one day, go on to Youtube and watch the mini documentary You can touch my hair and if that doesn’t help you, call Jesus.
Yes, this is my hair
But unlike those women, no you can’t touch my hair to curb your curiosity!
Firstly, you can’t touch my hair because I am not an animal at a petting zoo. Secondly, my black ancestors may have been your ancestors’ property, and they had to smile while being touched in ways they didn’t want to, but I am not your property, so please keep your hands away from my hair.
And yes, this is my hair, I bought it didn’t I? No one asks you if that’s your face under all that make-up. I spent a generous amount of time and money maintaining my hair. My hair is a part of me, it always has been and will always be. I grew with it. We’ve had our highs and lows and we’re still rooted together.
If you’re trying to make conversation, converse, don’t ask if you can touch my hair. Respect me. You may think your reasons for doing so are great, I don’t’.
HOT SHOTS: Winners of the “Identity Through Hair” photographic competition, were announced last night at the John Moffat auditorium. From left: Junaid Sheik Hussein (public vote winner), Lanice Jegels (second place), Ntokozo Xaba (first place), Realeboga Lebogang Oagile (fifth place) and Lindiwe Gugushe (third place). Photo: Luke Matthews
This year’s tranformation photography competition celebrated diversity and “identity through hair” at Wits University. Winners were announced last night at an exhibition at the John Moffat Building showcasing the best of the photographs submitted by students.
The competition, run by the Wits Transformation Office, was described by Prof Tawana Kupe (Wits deputy vice-chancellor), as “an important occasion that happens every year.”
“A picture shows a thousand words about identity… Art expresses transformation, it also feeds into identities,” he said.
Ntokozo Xaba, 3rd year BSc Urban Regional Planning won the competition with her photograph of a young woman standing on a rooftop in Hillbrow, overlooking the city.
Xaba said because she lives in Hillbrow, she can’t afford the luxury of taking a walk outside for fresh air. “So, I go to the rooftop to unwind and get inspired.”
Lanice Jegels, 3rd year BA Psychology took second place. The subjects in her photograph, all women, were of different races, body shapes and had different hairstyles. “The world informs us on how to express identity … In South Africa we see identity as colour,” she said.
Marcel Kutumela took 3rd place, Lindiwe Gugushe took 4th place and Realeboga Oagile was placed 5th. Junaid Sheik Hussein, 2nd year BSc Civil Eng, won on the public vote via Facebook, for the second year in a row.
The theme, “identity through hair” was selected as people are discriminated against because of their different hair types. Instead, “we should use hair to celebrate diversity,” said Pura Mgolombane, manager of diversity, ethics & social justice at the Transformation Office.
Winning entries will be part of the new exhibition about hair and African art at the Wits Art Museum.