by Nosipho Mathaba
“Unprofessional”, “untidy”, “ghetto” – Words used to describe the natural hair of a black woman. For years, the roots that grow from a black woman’s head have been deemed inferior. Shamed for their afros, cornrows, bantu knots and dreadlocks – black women have been taught that in order to function in society and feel beautiful, they have to conform to Western standards of beauty.
It does not stop there, black women face this oppression in workspaces, schools, films, songs, advertisements and many other spaces. This oppression in society reveals something more important about how all societies worldwide view black women and their hair. It forces black women to confront the fact that their hair will inevitably be reduced to a political debate.
As women in general, hair “is a distinct marker of womanness, gender and identity.” However, it goes considerably deeper for black people and women of colour.
“We do not go ‘natural’ we return. Natural, is where it all began” a magnificent quote by an unknown author. A quote that thoroughly explains the significance of the relationship black women have with their hair. In Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair, the authors (Tabora A. Johnson and Teiahsha Bankhead) state that black girls and women fiercely attach their identity to the relationship they have with their hair.
Studies show that black women attached meaning to their hair related childhoods. Participants shared a common message that was categorically received, “your hair is your crown and glory.” This is not the same for white women and girls. As a young, black woman, I bear this deeply. Growing up, I attached who I was and who I was becoming to my distinctive hair. Growing up in a white dominated school, I distinctively remember having identity issues because of the racist hair policies that existed and still exist. Just the concept of “getting your hair done” holds much weight for a black girl or woman. Statistics show black women spend the most on their hair than any other ethnic group globally.
According to Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair, African and deeply symbolic hair extends itself to culture and everyday lives of black people. The Jamaican culture is a valuable example of this. In the Jamaican culture, dreadlocks possess significant meaning. They symbolize the rebellion ex-slaves took against colonial rule. Eurocentric colonial powers crudely referred to dreadlocks as “dreadful”. African hair is deeply rooted in self-expression of black girls and women.
While all of this is valid and accurate, it is with great sadness that despite this blatant cultural significance, hair is used as a way to further discriminate black women. If you devote particular attention to the social and political attitudes to black hair, it is impossible to deny that black women have been made to feel ugly. In 2020, the peak of “black girl magic” and “brown skinned girl”, we are confronted with yet another setback.
Clicks SA advertised a black woman’s hair as “dry, damaged, frizzy and dull.” This advert is an insult to the lives of black women and shows that the corporate world is driven by white supremacy and refuses to unshackle itself from South Africa’s traumatic racial history.
During Apartheid, hair was used to torment black people. The “pencil test” was used to determine how “black” a person was and how much oppression would be brought upon them. White authorities under this regime would determine one’s racial identity based on whether the pencil fell out or not. In American culture, we witness this explicitly during slavery.
"One of the examples of this [justification] was ‘look they don’t even have hair’ - European people have hair. They have wool. Animals have wool. They’re more like livestock”, articulates Emma Daribi in her research. Daribi is a historian, presenter and author of Don’t Touch My Hair. From that quote alone, black people become the “other” and their humanity is callously ripped away.
Hair is part of fashion and exists as a significant marker to womanhood and identity for all women. However, it is more intertwined in the self-expression and the culture of a black woman and has historical denotations which seem to exist today. They exist in institutions which further oppress the very essence of being a black.