Tito Mboweni former South African Reserve Bank governor has stirred up a hornet’s nest with a provocative post on social media questioning why African women wear Brazilian or Indian hair.
Mboweni wrote on Twitter: “As I go to dinner, debate why African, South Africans have Brazilian or Indian hair today. I am not making a judgment on anybody. Please don’t burn me at the stake! Black consciousness is required on the Hair Question. Why this foreign Hair?”
Last year, South African singer, and actress Marah Louw weighed in on the debate on hair politics, saying, Africans need to embrace their hair because, “You will never find white people wearing our hair”. Louw was a guest on the DJ Sbu Breakfast show where she shared her thoughts on the “bleaching phenomenon” and “black self-loathing”. “You will never find white people wearing afro wigs, black afro wigs to go out and stuff, unless it’s a [themed] party or the circus,” she added.
The late South African jazz maestro Hugh Masekela was such a strong advocate for natural hair, and he refused to take pictures with black women who didn’t wear “natural” hair. Masekela was openly, and unapologetically against black or African women wearing weaves, or extensions. The Sowetan in 2015, quoted Masekela as having said: “As someone who runs a foundation that seeks to restore culture and identity, I refused to take photos with people with weaves. And I tell them that myself.”
Mboweni’s comment questing why African, and South Africans have Brazilian or Indian hair has ignited a debate on the right to choose one’s hairstyle, beauty standards, and identities of black women, and how the identities are shaped. The post has been criticised by some users on Twitter as an attack on women’s right to choose their preferred hairstyles without feeling attacked, embarrassed, or shamed. “Let people (more specifically women) be, and allow them to exercise their own preferences. No one is harmed by their choices, and there are much bigger issues to worry about than this one,” @GwenLister1 wrote.
Another user @Ntemza_1DA_ responded saying “Actually when you really think about it, people do get hurt, people’s perception of themselves people’s, perception of what a beautiful black woman should look like etc, none of these are physical all psychological and a psychological hurt can last for generations”.
Do Africans appropriate white standards of beauty?
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context.
A mutual exchange only happens on an “even playing field”, whereas appropriation involves pieces of an oppressed culture being taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from, and who lack the cultural context to properly understand, respect, or utilize these elements.
Therefore as the social structure and power dynamic situates black people far below white people, any cultural exchange happening on this figurative ladder exists in a context of superiority and inferiority. In other words, white culture is imposed on, and not adopted by, black people.
Read: South Africa: Education authorities to launch an inquiry into racial discrimination at Pretoria Girls High
And yet skin bleaching and weaves are a staple in post-colonial Africa at a time when the African narrative is shifting to one of cultural liberation.
In the past there have been scarce positive, honest media and pop cultural representations of black women. Because of this, generations have had to interpret whiteness as that which is normal and human and in some countries that bleaching was a way out of all the suffering. This is the disease of white supremacy and ultimate imposition.
The lack of positive and boldly African representations is proof that on all levels and industries blackness isn’t valued or accepted under white supremacy. Africans themselves therefore have to adopt white standards in their own continent for ‘survival’. For example employers in beauty oriented fields are more likely to fill their quotas with women who are closer to the white beauty standard. Even when it comes to dating, men who have been socially conditioned by music and televisions color barrier opt for fairer skinned love interests.
The black beauty standard
Despite the still strong bindings of colonialism and neo-colonialism change is happening. Countries like Ghana have banned skin bleaching products making the practice harder to execute. Breakthrough stars such as Lupita Nyong’o are changing the landscape of the beauty industry, a fete made possible in conjunction with international models the elk of Alek Wek, Khoudia Diop and Philomena Kwao.
In matters hair the natural hair movement that has taken over mainstream and social media is liberating all black women globally by normalizing the black beauty standard. Women are embracing their hair as something unique and beautiful as it is.
The future of a black beauty standard is one that will emphasize skin colors and hair types that include all black women, especially those of darker skin who have so far been marginalized.
Analysis on cultural appropriation and black beauty standard provided by TiA writer Kylie Kiunguyu