BEAUTY // IN DEFENSE OF BRA HUGH

I’ve been watching this debate for a while, listening to all sides of the argument, scared to speak against my femininja friends and people I admire because I don’t want to be defending what some are calling misogynoir. But after listening to him unpack his reasons on the radio this week, I mustered the courage to put into words what I’ve really been thinking about this whole thing since it first got the media’s attention earlier this year. My view has been unpopular with my most trusted intellectual friends but I still haven’t been convinced to jump on the #BraHughMustFall bandwagon. And here’s why: [please forgive my structureless prose, I wrote this in the middle of the night immediately after listening to the interview frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

A lot of the people who criticize Bra Hugh for refusing to pose for pictures with women wearings weaves don’t and will never wear weaves themselves for political reasons.  Rather, they choose to focus on the patriarchy in this matter instead of the subject it opens for discussion. I get why and to a certain extent, I agree with the argument that ‘’While we understand why this is your stance Bra Hugh, you’re spreading the diseased fungus that is patriarchy and that’s not okay’’.  This is because it’s not okay to judge people based on their looks and also because it hasn’t really worked to change their minds about weaves.  In an ideal world, we should shut him down for this discriminatory stance on this subject, but every time I get to this point of the argument, something in me asks but can we as black people really afford to dismiss him entirely? We don’t live in an ideal world.  We live on earth where the condition of black people in this here location is abysmal.

Instead of focusing our attention on the undeniable error of his maleness in what he has been saying for years, how about spending time on the actual subject this issue is about, so as to take this conversation to a point where we can actually start thinking about the choices we are making when it comes to how we wear our hair, which to me are always consciously or unconsciously political? Yes it was problematic and patriarchal that my male friend Siphiwe, almost two years ago, dared to tell me that I can’t relax my hair. But I will be forever grateful for that ferocious argument because it catapulted me into a totally new sphere of being – I actually sat and thought about my hair and myself from a different perspective for the first time, and in essence, that is how I became truly conscious of my blackness and femaleness. That is what inspired my writing that WAM Speech, that is what inspired my documentary (which we have recently received funding for), that is what inspired sitting on hair panels deconstructing this whole thing, that is what inspired the founding The Feminist Stokvel. It inspired an everlasting change in me. I’m not grateful because I was a dumb woman who needed a man to tell me, I’m grateful because he cared about me enough as a friend to inform me a little more about the choice I was about to make, simply because he knew better than me about that. Was it paternalistic? Definitely. But should I dismiss it because of that? That would be shortsighted and blindly righteous.  How patriarchy, racism and classism play themselves out on black female bodies every days is nuanced, complex and totally impossible to unscramble so this is not me giving license to men to tell women what to do or to make judgments based on their ignorance or paternalistic saviour complexes.  It is me saying, can we perhaps consider the fact that this particular politically conscious septuagenarian might actually have some, even if it’s debatable, merit in his choice? Where do we draw the line between two types of oppression which play themselves out on the same body?

As intersectional black women who have to be hyper aware of all the ways the world oppresses us for being black and female and for so many of us for being members of the LGBTQI+ community, for being poor, for being disabled – if we live our lives expecting our emancipation to have a ticked box linear progression, we are going to stay longer in the same oppressed place defending some rights just because of where they are coming from. This is like the friend of mine who says she will never quote a white author in her work because of the author’s whiteness. I disagree with her stance because of the vast amount of knowledge she is going to dismiss merely because it came from a white person. That said, there is some merit to her stance because it brings to question the marginalization of other literary voices in the largely white literary world.  It’s useful and legitimate in its radical insensitivity.  She has the right to do that, the same way Bra Hugh does regarding his stance.

But if we are not going to entertain the ideas of somebody just because the person saying them is a man and by virtue of that he is categorized as patriarchal, we stand to miss the opportunity to think deeper about ourselves and our wretched condition. Nobody who has really thought about the politics of blackness can deny the disjuncture and disparity in the black person’s image and his or her essence. Our essence of brokenness because of the oppression we have suffered is largely worn as our image, a borrowed image whose references are outside the real image of how black people look. It’s not always the case but a lot of the time, we don’t like to see our true selves because we’ve been told we suck. Indian people don’t wear Afro Textured Hair weaves because Indian people have not for hundreds of years been told that their natural hair is unacceptable, undesirable, unpalatable, unkempt, uncivilized and ugly. They didn’t have to do the pencil test. They don’t have to think about whether their hair texture might lose them a job opportunity. They don’t have to think about the texture of their hair when they are negotiating their beauty expectations from family members or potential husbands. They don’t have to be forced to wear Afro Textured weaves if they want to be mall promoters. But black women do. There’s a lot more attached to having weaves than just looking a certain way. On one hand this trumps Bra Hugh’s discrimination because he adds discrimination to an already discriminated body but on the other, it tells us how intertwined hair and beauty and how we present ourselves is with our oppression.

Furthermore, how many other horrible things are done to discriminate against black women every day but they don’t trend on twitter, we don’t get as mad as we do when an old man who has been saying this for decades, merely says he doesn’t mind people wearing weaves but he doesn’t want to take a picture with them? Where is our precious protection of the black woman’s right to walk in the street and just be herself in the instances of street harassment every day? The argument that this is like Bra Hugh saying he doesn’t want to take pictures with women in mini skirts doesn’t quite cut it for me because all types of women wear mini skirts but black women are the only ones that have to deal with this side of wearing weaves.

I’m not saying that Bra Hugh’s way of discriminating against women is the right way that is going to get black women to see the deeper issues of wearing weaves, in fact, it is currently counter productive because people are defending their rights to wear their beloved weaves. But his stance is important because it touches black people in a painful place, a place that allows us to deconstruct what we perceive as normal. We don’t allow white people and men to come to Feminist Stokvel hair soirees and that is a conscious and calculated choice, something that some might call discriminatory. But from where we stand, it is a necessary condition for us to get to a certain level of emotional and mental emancipation. So we need to ask why he chooses to do this and we might go a little further than the pathetic place this argument is currently stuck in. Of course there are black women who deeply love their blackness and choose to wear weaves, that’s exactly where we need to get to – where we can truly be carefree in our choices, but as long as black women are still discovering their natural hair in 2015, as long as there are blogs dedicated to how to wash your hair and you’re 35 years old because you don’t know it, we aren’t there yet.

The point of all of this is not to have tumbleweed arguments on social media or over dinner tables. The situation of black people in our country is way too dire and urgent for us to pontificate, misguided enough to think that having perfectly representative theories without practice will change our condition. Because our priority list as black women especially, is so damn long, we need to start with the first and most important thing and that is to emancipate our minds. As Mathahle Stofile once said to me ‘’those who know have a responsibility to share with those who don’t know’’. Whether we are shocked and whipped into that mode matters but it matters less than attaining the state of mind that can allow you to know yourself better so that you can improve the world around you. Once we have all reached eMbo or Uhuru, I believe there will be a place to have the discussion of how fucked up it is that Bra Hugh doesn’t take pictures with women wearing weaves, but it’s not yet that time.

An afterthought: I also just think there is not one way to approach this problem, there isn’t one golden route to getting black women to be more aware of the various meanings associated with our hair. I believe we are at a time where stands must be taken and this is his and I fully support it on that level, as a stand. We need more, we need other approaches, especially from women, that will catapult more women into having this conversation.

 

// Comments (3)
  • Lebza Shi says:

    Miss Milli B, I LOVE your blog! I get inspired and excited by ALL the posts I have gotten to read from you. I am commenting here for the first time because I feel I need to let my thoughts out. But I first want to use this opportunity to say THANK YOU! you are gorgeous in many ways.

    Now to what made me take the time out to write a comment:

    After reading the whole post, I asked myself about the title you chose for this piece. It is in defense of Bra Hugh, the person and not the stance/ideology/reasoning etc, but Bra Hugh. So I think I will will take it from there. As you know (and have referred to that several times in this article), when a person who is in a position of power speaks AT ‘the other’, the gap of inequality, disrespect and disregard widens. The action does not seem genuine but rather an exercise of power to say ” I KNOW this is wrong for you, I know what’s best for you”. And as you rightly point out, the politics and history at the center our image and hair in particular make it impossible to not embrace afro-centric hairstyles. Indeed, to refuse the weave is a political standing and a symbol of resistance. In the same vein, we question who is speaking and AT whom, to achieve what? (these questions are as important as any political standing) Is there a better way that Bra Hugh could have brought this up? Certainly. Was he seeking to engage a woman with a weave and embrace the totality of her experience, pain, joy and alles? No. This is a common, yet most painful feature of black communities and groups where men feel the need to chastise and humiliate rather than to engage in any genuine way. This is the raw evidence of deep wounds created by racism, colonisation and slavery. This is how the voice of women disappears. And we are worried because Bra Hugh is a man, a public figure who, thinking that he is saving the dignity of black women’s image (I hope!), is in fact subtly adding to their oppression.

    While on the subject of him as a person, look at how he is at the centre of an exploitative capitalist structure (insurance), holding what I would have thought his sacred instrument of creativity that should not be mixed with instruments that oppress the poor, is promoting the needs of Assupul. So I’m not judging him, he probably has his very valid reasons for this choice, but hell, who is HE to tell any woman how to wear their hair??? I am bringing this point up also to illustrate the intersectionality of our oppression, our existence. He strikes me as oppressed, lost and desperate when I see him on that ad. And it saddens me that he is extending his pain to black women, already disempowered in a patriarchal society and many of them way below his financial status.

    Black PEOPLE, we need to love each other bantu. Your pain is mine and so will our joy.

  • Bokang says:

    Hi Milli

    Well done; I also like Lebza Shi’s comment. It seems the road to emancipation is paradoxical. The state of my hair reminds me of this as it is not relaxed nor straight and dry to the touch even after deep conditioning. If I don’t tie it up in plaits and/or a doek every night… well utmost I hope this lyric from Bilal’s song Butterfly applies, “the struggle makes you beautiful”

    Salute!

  • Ntombi says:

    Hi Milli, I love both comments from Lebza and Bokang. I think we have focused too much on politics in this country and have completely ignored the most important part of the a countries true progress which is The Economy. What hurts me the most is that all these weaves/beauty products are owned by those who will never use them. Mili mentioned how Indian women never have to check themselves ” Indian people don’t wear Afro Textured Hair weaves because Indian people have not for hundreds of years been told that their natural hair is unacceptable, undesirable, unpalatable, unkempt, uncivilized and ugly. They didn’t have to do the pencil test”. Yet this big industry is owned by Indian people. The relaxers are owned by white people. The critical thing is that we still don’t “Own the way we look” some people out there who have been exploiting us for many years still make that decision/own it.

    The most urgent matter is to fight for our Economic freedom.

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