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Black hair hierarchy is a metaphor for life

It’s not just about hair – it’s about racism. An orphanage manager narrates the difficulty of raising confident young black and coloured girls an a world that constantly tells them ‘white is right’.

I am the manager of an emergency placement centre, or orphanage, in Mitchells Plain – a largely coloured location situated about 30 km from the Cape Town’s CBD. Every child in our care has a story of unimaginable pain and suffering. We do what we can to provide the necessary interventions and solutions that can help them to slowly change the way their story ends.

We receive calls almost daily where we are told horror stories and asked to provide a place for a child that has been abandoned, abused or neglected. I don’t think I will ever get used to these phone calls, no matter how many I take. When the social worker tells me “It’s a girl” my heart always drops a little further: three little words that are a clear indicator of the sexual, emotional, psychological and racial stereotyping that lies ahead.

The greatest challenge I have is convincing the young black and coloured girls who are brought to my orphanage that they are beautiful, that they deserve to be part of a story that has positivity and potential. Shit must be pretty messed up if you have to work hard to persuade a little girl that she is beautiful. The information a little girl has comes from the people around her, the structures she lives in, the media, the words and ideas that she is exposed to. If she is not comfortable in her skin, her body, her hair – it is our fault.  We have failed her.

Here, eurocentric beauty norms play such a role in how my girls determine beauty and femininity. As long as we allow these ideas to remain so entrenched in our systems they become normal. This eight-year-old girl will continue to believe that her natural hair is not normal, that it needs to be changed to fit the standard of beauty set by some white person on TV.

I see her seek comfort in reading fairy tales of a white princess with long flowing gold hair cascading down her back. This princess with the happily-ever-after is so far removed from her reality. She calls the Barbie Doll she plays with “Beautiful Tina”. This doll is skinny and white with flawless skin, not dark and bruised like she is today.  It is this definition of beauty that makes it so hard to convince the little black girl in my care that she is in fact beautiful. The devaluing of African physical features, including hair, skin and features, is the reason little Thandeka thinks she is not beautiful. She exists in a culture where Blackness exists as the antithesis of beauty.

Read: South Africa: Education authorities to launch an inquiry into racial discrimination at Pretoria Girls High

It is racism disguised as fairytales, movies, jokes, children’s animations, toys, and school rules. I am not a writer or a journalist. I don’t have the words to describe how this affects the way many of these little girls see themselves. The only way I can do this is to show you.

Watch this video (turn up your volume because it is very soft).

 

This is Nati, a little girl aged 8. This is not the first time she has been visibly upset because of her hair not being long enough, soft enough or smooth enough. On this particular day she was teased at school and called a “pitte kop”. She came home and insisted on having her hair chemically treated/relaxed so that it would be softer, smoother and flatter.

We began explaining to her how the chemicals would damage her hair, and she became inconsolable.  All she wanted was hair “like on the TV”.  She told us that this was more “girly” that she didn’t want to look like a boy. It devastated me. Here, eurocentric beauty norms play such a role in how my girls determine beauty and femininity. As long as we allow these ideas to remain so entrenched in our systems they become normal.

This eight-year-old girl will continue to believe that her natural hair is not normal, that it needs to be changed to fit the standard of beauty set by some white person on TV. Why should she conform to standards designed to accommodate girls who do not share her hair type and bone structure that she can never attain?

I have heard girls say:

“But you can’t be a princess, you are not white.”

“But all businesswomen are white.”

“Look at your hair, you need to relax it.”

“When I am bigger I want straight hair.”

This is what happens when young girls draw upon the images in the media to determine their definition of beauty. Even though there are a few exceptions, our media is white, our school codes of conduct are white, our storybooks are white, our priorities are white, our structures are white. Nearly everything is white and male. The root of the problem, is not the roots of a young girl’s hair.  The root of the problem is institutionalised racism. The root of the problem is where gender and race intersect. The saddest part is that some of us do not even realise this.

When I heard about the “alleged” racism at Pretoria Girls High School, I was not surprised. What upset me the most was how the cataract of white privilege obscured some people’s vision so badly they were unable to see how this was racist, how this is not just about Black hair.

We are so caught up in trying to get our hair looking like someone else’s that we are oblivious to the power play that is at work. It’s even putting us against each other. I chatted to some of the older girls from the community centre and discovered a hair hierarchy that is worse that I anticipated. Guess what type of hair  is at the top of the Hair Hierarchy? Here is the list of hair types and their descriptions of them.

Wet and Go:

“Like a White Person. You don’t need a hair dryer.”

“This is the Perfect Hair Type. It’s what all of us want.”

Straight / Stale:

“It takes effort. But at least you know your hair is capable of being sleek, straight and shiny.”

“It takes me about two hours a day, but I will never leave the house until I have sorted my hair out. Mense (people) must not know its natural state.”

“I don’t know anyone without a hair straightener. It’s like the first thing you buy when you have money.”

Frizzy Hair

“That’s hair that is curly, but not kroes. It’s like soft curls.”

“Ja, but it has to be soft wavy curls. With volume.”

“White people have curly hair, we have frizzy hair. If I go outside and it’s too hot or even if it’s raining, then my hair minces. But until it minces, I have curly hair.”

Kroes Kop

“Haha now we get to the hair no one wants.”

“We have it, like some coloureds have it, but no one wants it. That’s why my hair straightener is my life.”

“This is hair you can’t really brush.”

“Even when you straighten it you can still see the true identity at the roots. Ha ha.”

“There is a name for when the roots show like that. Its called Kinders op die stoep[children on the porch].”

“Lets not forget the weave. The good weave and the bad weave. It comes somewhere between Kroes Kop and Boesman.”

Boesman Kop

“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like bleak.”

“The colour is like dull. Sandy.”

“You will know what we talking when you see it.”

Sponge Kop

“This one I also can’t describe. It looks like you can’t wash it.”

“Like you put water on it and it just absorbs everything.”

“Just big and thick and puffy. Like a hard sponge.”

“Ha ha, it’s like a duck. The water just runs off it. It’s waterproof hair.”

Pitte Kop  / Korrel Kop / Steel Wool

“Okay now that’s like the bottom of the black peoples hair.”

“Some people call it pitte kop or even steel wool. It’s like the hard kind.”

“But it’s still not the worst.”

Af Kop

“This is the worst.”

“I don’t know why we can’t describe it. It’s just at the bottom of the bottom.”

“Let’s not even go there hair.”

No prizes for guessing who was placed right at the bottom: little Nati, the beautiful, black 8 year old girl with perfect natural hair, a cheeky smile and amazing dance moves.

Read: South Africa: Twitter reacts to Pretoria Girls “racist” hair rules

When I heard about the “alleged” racism at Pretoria Girls High School, I was not surprised. What upset me the most was how the cataract of white privilege obscured some people’s vision so badly they were unable to see how this was racist, how this is not just about Black hair.

This hair hierarchy is a metaphor for life. I am so proud of the young women at Pretoria Girls High School for being so strong. I am also so sorry that you had to do this, and that you could not just be a girl, focusing on going to school, learning and laughing – just being you.

This article was originally published by Ground Up, @GroundUp_News.

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