The Hair Issue

Issue # 1 // March 2014

afro

On a recent visit to Sandton City Mall, a tall black man I had only known for a few hours stood next to me, and in an uncalculated effort to break the awkward silence between us, looked down at me and asked, ”so Mili, what’s the plan with your hair’’? My eyes slowly turned to aim at his and arms folded, I let a few tense seconds pass before cocking my gun. ‘‘What do you mean’’? I asked. 

Imagine a giraffe dodging a bullet. Imagine how its clumsy legs and too tall neck would aid the shooter’s attempt at bringing it down.  It’s too damn slow.  ‘’Oh no I just mean are you going to do dreadlocks or are you going to leave it like that?’’.  I calmed down and took my bullet back. He didn’t intend to be offensive. Sometimes, because my immediate world is shared with artist, writers, musicians and other conscious lefties, I make the mistake of thinking that everyone is like that.  We were in Sandton City, the bastion of commercial prowess and the natural habitat of vanilla ambitions. 

‘’I’m not going to do anything with it, the plan is to leave it like this’’, I said. And I walked off feeling irritated that I had to explain myself. Maybe it was an innocent question or maybe my instincts were right, to him, my appearance was incomplete.  I went to share this moment with my friend, a friend who two months prior, had sat me down and said ‘’No you’re not’’, when I told him of my plans to relax my hair, when I had felt the same sentiments as the giraffe man about my natural hair.  

I had asked him as a litmus test of how the rest of my conscious leftie friends might react to me relaxing my hair after 12 years of keeping it natural.  In some of my circles, everything is political and essentialism is a salient member of the conversations, conversations that usually interrogate ideas around who we are, here and now. We are black and conscious all day.

Photograph by Antoine Schneck of Burkino Faso Exhibit

Photograph by Antoine Schneck of Burkino Faso Exhibit

Last year I braided a Bumper Curl like hairstyle onto my hair and it ended up looking like a curly weave. My Congolese hairdresser decided it would be a good look for the glamorous event I was attending.  On the first day, I Instagrammed a picture of my Bumper Curl Don’t Curr and raked in the likes and complementary comments from my followers, most of whom I don’t know.  On the second day, I went to the event as someone’s date and when I arrived, I fit right into the garish aesthetics of Midrand, where the event was held.  On the third day I met my conscious leftie friends for brunch and when I arrived, hoping they would say something nice about my hair, they all observed my new look and instead, one of them said ‘’nice dress Mils’’.  I didn’t get the validation I had hoped for because the truth is, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this hair myself. I had been blinded by the exblockquotement of being the date of a guy who had told me numerous times that he just wanted to ‘’kick it’’, someone I had very little in common with, someone I was posing as a one night-trophy for.

On the fifth day, I woke up and cut off the hair. There had been a moment of clarity that morning when I couldn’t find a single outfit to go with this plastic mop hat.  That afternoon I went to see the same conscious lefties at one of their houses. When I arrived, the others were there. Before I could say anything, they were huddled around the kitchen table, some of them hunched over with their hands on their stomachs, others with their arms outstretched trying to pity hug me and the rest literally running around the table, out of breath with laughter.  ‘’What the fuck were you thinking?” was the general rhetoric and as we capsized with laughter, I knew that I was in the right company. That hairstyle truly was the furthest thing from who I really am.

Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua

Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua

So it came as no surprise that there would be judgment if I suddenly embraced the creamy crack, as if relaxing my hair would mean relaxing my aversion to pop culture’s promotion of a single type of beauty.  ‘’Wow, the system’s got you too?’’ asked my friend, with a perplexed and plea full smile on his handsome bearded face. His response was extreme but I had anticipated it.  I had known better than to come without preparing a list of my reasons.  I zoned out while he rained on me, arranging my reasons and when he finally asked me why, I gave him my reasons:

I want to try a new look for the sake of the hairstyle

I haven’t relaxed my hair since I was 17. I’ve looped the natural, bald and braided looks since then and I’m bored.  I just want to look as fly as Bee Diamondhead for once in my life.

Why can’t I just be free to do what I want? I’m a conscious black woman but why should that restrict my freedom to be cute?

Essentialism is the notion that there is a set of visible qualities that mark and govern a certain group of people or things.  In order to be a member of said group, one must possess certain qualities.  This is a very simple definition of a very complex concept, one that has been used to try to describe a ‘’collective black identity’’, which in and of itself as a concept, does not exist.  That said, there are socio-economic and cultural trends, shared experiences and experience based insights that can be used to apply identity traits to groups of people. For instance, slavery and apartheid succeeded in naturalizing the idea that lighter skin tone and any quality resembling the constructed ideals of ‘’whiteness’’ was inherently superior, pure, intelligent, beautiful and more desirable than anything that was darker skin toned and further away from the constructed idea of ‘’whiteness’’. This was an essentialist notion because it purported that if your skin tone is this way, then you will naturally be all the things that those making the rules associate with that skin tone. Essentialism can be applied to gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation and class. It is essentialist thinking that maintains oppressive ideologies and policies of one group over another.  All human beings have used essentialist policies to justify oppression of one group by another throughout history.

Regarding my choice of hairstyle, should I have to keep my hair in an Afro or plait it or braid some typical ‘’African’’ hairstyle to prove that I am black?  Black people have had to fight to attain the freedom to exist freely, at least in the past 500 years.  We have national and global icons who fought for black people to have the freedom to be. Biko and Mandela lived and died so that I could make choices as a free black girl, not to live a life restricted by the burden of being strong, resilient and hard done by as a black woman. I just want be young and wild and free like the white hipster kids who are perpetually Instagramming photos of themselves partying as if the world will end tomorrow if they don’t party it the fuck up tonight.

Does straightening my hair mean that I’m subconsciously self-loathing?

Black hair is versatile for a reason. There may be some people out there who wear weaves and wigs because they have an inferiority complex about the way they look, who may not see the beauty in how they were naturally created. There are others who are simply doing what their hair allows them to do, which is to try different styles for the sake of fashion and style.  I’ve been wearing my hair naturally, with braids and plaits from around the continent. I now simply want to exercise the right to choose. Where does one draw the line?  Have we not reached a time when relaxing has actually become part of the identity of black beauty? How many other races relax their hair the way we do? It started off as black people adhering to the popular white ideals of beauty but 90 years later, surely people have different reasons for straightening out nature’s doing/mistake.

Photograph by Antoine Schneck of Burkina Faso Exhibit

Photograph by Antoine Schneck of Burkina Faso Exhibit

I love you but who are you to tell me what to do with my hair?

The Hair Police have some good points to make regarding their observations about a white ideal of beauty being socially and economically preferred over other types of beauty.  This is not a mistake. It is deliberately designed by a system that depends on making everyone feel like shit in order for it to survive.  But I know the workings of ‘’the system’’ and I’m making an informed choice, not because I’m blindly following hairstyle trends. Winnie Mandela wears a wig. If this is about all black women in, does she of all people not deserve to wear whatever hair she likes?

The system my friend was referring to is the well-oiled machine that has for the last 400 years relinquished ‘’blackness’’ of value and instead, institutionalized the meaning and connotations of ‘’black’’ to equate to dirt, incompetence, lack of intelligence, poverty, the undesirable, underdeveloped, lacking, bad, corrupt, criminal, violent, overly sexual, beastly, animalistic, ugly and every other disparaging word one can fish from a pool of constructed negation.

The system is responsible for black South Africans normalizing the use of such terms (most of which are in Afrikaans) as ‘’kaffir hare’’, ‘’kroes hare’’, ‘’Bushman hair’’, ‘’steelwool’’ ‘’peppercorns’’ and other terms that deem the texture of hair undesirable.  No one has ever said ‘’Oh that’s such nice kaffir hare you have’’. 

The system is responsible for black South Africans problematizing their hair, thinking that their hair needs to be constantly worked on in order to be beautiful. I’m not the only one who used to think that I was ugly unless my hair was relaxed or something was done to it. Combing the type of hair that I have, type 4b, the hair that most indigenous Southern African ethnic groups have is like sticking pins in a sponge and trying to remove them simultaneously using vertical or horizontal strokes.  Good luck.  Historically, the Tsonga and Xhosa for instance, kept narrow combs stuck in their hair as a way of storing their snuff spoons, which were on the other end of the combs. Isn’t the severe pain that comes with combing natural hair an indication that maybe it doesn’t like to be combed?  Evolution and mixing with other cultures is a good thing and I’m not advocating for people to walk around without grooming and with things sticking out of their hair, I’m simply saying let’s check ourselves.

The system is responsible for politicizing black hair, for causing Twitter wars between the Pro Weave and Anti Weave brigades, for polarizing black women’s choices according to hair type, for immersing the world in limited ideals of beauty and radicalizing the resisters. 

The system is responsible for the widespread trend of transactional sex in urban metropolises like Joburg and Durban.  Weaves are big part of attracting a certain type of man for young impressionable broke black girls.  I have been told by such girls that they go to a club like Hush or Cocoon with hungry purses, show up dressed up with their weaves bellowing through the smoke and they make a bee-line for a fat pursed male target.  Said target will invite the girls to his table, he will supply drinks, cigarettes and other accouterments and at the end of the night, someone with a sexy weave will pay the real price.  These relationships continue, maintained by airtime, transport, money, holidays away, whole apartments, schoolbooks, cellphones and computers from the man in exchange for sex and company from the girls.  The scale ranges from the airtime and data hungry amateurs to the Mini Cooper driving pro’s.  Those guys are not looking to hold on to an Afro during meaningless sex, they are looking for sexy weaves to validate and hold onto their brand of masculinity. This story is so old and clichéd I wish it wasn’t still so relevant. And obviously this is a very generalized observation. This does not apply to all men and women who go to such clubs.

Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua

Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua

The question then becomes, are our choices really individual choices when we live in a world still largely dominated by white ideals of beauty? When the standard of beauty speaks to one type of aesthetic? What price are we actually paying for our flared choices? For the millions of little girls and boys who inhale popular culture and see long straight hair as sexy, successful and desirable, who is responsible for showing them that the opposite is equally sexy, successful and desirable?  Is it the one-eyed media machine? Or is it us who have gone through the system that eats at our pride, the one that chews our hairlines? Is it ok for us to eat our freedom to such an extent that we unwittingly promote a perception that results in us looking the extreme opposite of what we actually look like?

There are no straight yes or no answers to these questions. Like all matters relating to identity, myriad complexities prevent the use of blanket rules for everyone.  Nobody should tell you how to style your hair if you are a grown person – whether it’s your boss, a partner or your friends. That said, it’s important to make informed choices.  It’s important to be able to discern between a funky fashion trend and subliminal negative messaging against your person, no matter who you are.  Our current problem is that the majority of black people are singularly focused on the stylistic and trend related side of our choice and are oblivious to the ubiquitous agents of the system that exist to oppress them from the inside out.

ENDS

Then I kind of changed my mind a few weeks later. Here’s the latest about #TheHairIssue

Image credits
Combs: Misha Taylor for Kisua Online
Portraits: Antoine Schneck, A Hyper-reality of Burkinabé

// Comments (21)
  • Sabu says:

    I absolutely love this piece!! last year I wrote my Honours thesis on the hair styling experiences of young black women in contemporary South Africa and so many of the issues you’ve raised in this piece I was confronted with while collecting my data, it was such an awesome topic to have researched but by the end I felt even more overwhelmed than before because I hadn’t fully acknowledged just how complicated and politicized my own hair had become (yeses!). But now I know, and this new informed position is both exhausting and liberating all at the same damn time.
    Thanks for this Milli and congrats on the new site!
    xx

  • Aisha M. says:

    Wow. What a well thought and well articulated article. I haven’t enjoyed such a piece in awhile. Here I was supposed to be working and I came across your tweet and couldn’t stop reading. It’s a topic I believe we all think about at least once in our lives but unfortunately not many of us give such deep consideration. I also wear my hair natural after believing for years that I wasn’t cute enough without the relaxed hair or weave. Now I’ve chosen to remain natural, others feel it’s right to judge me for choosing to wear a weave or braids to change up my look every once in awhile.

    I strongly share your sentiment of no one having the right to tell you how to wear your hair if you’re a grown. We need to stop putting ourselves in that position of believing we have a right to influence another grown woman on how she should rock her hair and arm ourselves with the correct information when we make our own decisions on how to wear our hair.

  • WHOA!
    Milli this is one intense article you wrote – my eyes are burning from sitting so close to my laptop screen. I have kept my hair relaxed my entire life, tied in a pony/bun and on occassion do braids. I have never had a weave. I have been teased by family and friends numerous times for how “boring” I am with my hair (since I only ever leave it in its “natural-relaxed” state up in a bun, blowdried down, and scarcely in braids). I have never longed for a weave, extensions, or wigs. The comments of how boring I am with my hair and the jokes of me being called “Miss ID” (because my hair style never changes, and as a result I eternally look like my ID book -lame right?) would get to me here and there but I never budged. Simply put, I love my hair. I take care of it. BUT – I have managed to grow such a long mane of hair, which people confuse for a weave when it’s blowdried out (with a roller brush like they do in the larny black salons) I find myself being offended when people tell me I should have been coloured, but for my dark compexion or when I have a random unexpectedly run her fingers across my scalp in an attempt to see whether or not I am in fact wearing a weave. Why I get offended I am not quite sure – I mean, technically I should take it as a compliment that black people think I am wearing a weave and when white people tell me I “have good hair for a black girl” right? Wrong. The hair issue is so politicised and so loaded – it is not easy to be proud of your relaxed “natural” hair; it is not easy to be proud of your “kroes” hair either. So where to from now?

    PS – thanks for this.
    Love the site

    Zimmy*

  • Slomokazi says:

    oh wow.
    love your writing, and the fact that you’re writing so much more indepth.
    I really agree with the notion of a grown decision, which is completely different from a young, media-induced and social stereotype decision.
    personally, I’ve kept my hair natural ( relaxer free) for 14 years, while my bestest and sister kept hers relaxed. we’re just different (and yet similar) type of people. When people looked at us together, I would get the ‘consiocus’ label and she would get the ‘glamour’ label.

    What’s weird though is that growing up, she’s always very informed and conscious regarding issues of blackness and such. Of course, my creative conscious people would assume she wasn’t informed, because of her hair choice. But what people who assume things, lack inside info and they didn’t know the struggle and pain she endured when a comb attempted to meet her hair. So she happily wore weaves and kept her hair relaxed ever since.

    Fast track to today, we are both mothers of daughters. Her daughter is 4 years and very impressionable.
    My niece said to me a few months ago, that she didn’t think my hair was pretty unless I had it in braids – because only long hair is pretty. This and a few other similar comments over time, started to eat away at my sister and it’s a difficult place to be in. She had decided that she was not going to encourage her daughter to relax her hair, as already we were dealing with a situation where my niece didn’t appreciate and or love her afro.

    It’s such a complex situation, and in the case of my sister who has really knotted and course hair, because most people don’t really know how to look after and maintain their natural hair in a way that works for them personally. I’ve got a few hair regimes that I follow, but am still always looking to learn more, and thanks to the internet it’s becoming easier to keep expanding our knowledge. Anywhow, she has decided to keep her hair natural for atleast this year and she is dread-locking my niece’s hair.

  • Lebone says:

    Sjoe! You’ve managed to say so many things that I have thought and felt but could never articulate. This hair thing is hard sometimes. Ive been natural for over 14 years. For most of those years my hair has been locked. The last of my locks was undone over a year ago. In that time my hair has been in braids 99% of the time. First there’s the stress of making sure my ‘fro is never “flat on one side”. On top of that I don’t like the attention ut attracts. I just want to wear my ‘fro ans blend into the background. I started a new career about 6 months ago. I get to facilitate a lot of meetings and since its a whole new field and I’m still trying to find my feet, I don’t want to be pre-judged just on my hairstyle, so I keep things “normal”, meaning braids. It’s probably an excuse but I feel like I would not only have to get past my limited knowledge in this new field, but also the perception that I imagine comes with a ‘fro. Each time I undo them, I panic after a few days and want my security blanket back on.
    I also have been dissapointed by my 10 thumbs. All those styles I envied while I had locks are now impossible for me to do. The only thing I can do is twist or plait “maphondo” so thats what I stick to, with or without extensions.
    I keep hoping I will get over whatever it is that I imagine gies through people’s minds when they see a fro, but its going to be a while before I pluck up the courage to rock a ‘fro for work.

    Btw, yes dreadlocks can be undone. I’ve done it twice already on locs that were more than 3 years old. It just take lots of conditioner and time

  • Thandi says:

    Lebone I resonate with your comments. About a year ago, I went for a job interview. I went in wearing a stylish wig. My reason: I wanted to look normal. I didn’t want to be negatively pre-judged based on my hair. I aced the interview and got the job. I continued wearing the wig for about a month or two, just to blend in. It was only after seeing one of the senior black females that worked there rock a short natural look that I had the confidence to follow suite. I rocked my natural hair ever since.

    Thanks for a great article Milli.

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Good on you Thandi, it’s sad that you had to ”blend in” though, that you had to hide yourself before you could be you but at least you overcame it. Aluta Continua

  • sbu says:

    I have one word to describe this Super Woow,if this was bisness my investment nd time definetly would be here,I’m super loving this work

  • sbu says:

    This is a SuperBlack

  • Eunice says:

    While at the car wash, this man approached me to say” he sells combs” realising he was teasing, I told him, ” all the combs i use break” this he said referrring to my natural hair. I haven’t combed it in a while, I just wash, condition and put moisturiser and I use my fingers to style it. This has rubbed off on my 14year old daughter, since January this year, she cut her hair and is growing it in its natural state. During this time she has been ingenious, she pretends she is going to the sallon and asks me for money i would have paid for her hair and she is saving it to spoil herself. I havent asked how much she has saved so far, but it must be over a thousand rand!

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Amazing Eunice, what a beautiful story. The power that mother’s hold over their children’s ideas of beauty is is incredible.

  • Tessa says:

    Mili, i love the way you write! Your words not only spark vivid images in my mind, but they also stir a boastful pride in my soul.

  • Busi says:

    Hi Mili- first time on your new site. Love it and congrats.
    I have never really paid any attention to the hair talks- never really felt affected and since my hair was relaxed and occasionally weaved, I fitted right in the somewhat “vanilla dreams” world of banking. In February 2014 I decided to do the Big Chop because I have always wanted an afro; and when my fiancé and I decided on a wedding date in next January- I thought this is the best time to do the chop – come my wedding day I will rock a medium to long afro. Little did I know the questions and interest my hair would attract! All of a sudden everyone I know wanted an answer as to why I would do such a thing as “cut that beautiful relaxed hair”- one person said. Some else even said “how are you going to get married with this hair” I was quite shocked by the reaction- a guy at work said that I am no longer attractive without my long relaxed locks. That comment shook me up a bit- I remember thinking how that is possible that I would lose my beauty overnight because I have less hair- God thing I’m not marrying that guy.
    Only when I started wearing my hair naturally did people suddenly care about what I was planning to do with it. When my hair was relaxed or weaved, I was perfectly acceptable- now that I have natural untreated hair, people just don’t know what to do with me LOL. What I learnt is not to rely so much on other people’s validation- because that comes with a lot of baggage that I’m just not willing to carry. I really love my hair and rock it with confidence.

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Dude, this is EXACTLY why I decided to tackle this issue because it’s not even about other races caring what we do to our hair, it’s our own people – it’s us that have a deep seated self loathing and aversion to accepting ourselves as we are or at least working from there. You’ve just inspired me to post my City Press article on here actually. Thank you and good luck with everything. It’s hard to take a stand, people who take stands become unpopular but you’re doing the right thing for yourself and for your children. Congratulations on your engagement and you are going to look beautiful on your wedding day.

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Tessa, what a sweet thing to say. I’m literally beaming like a dog! Thank you.

  • Vhutali says:

    i get that a lot, stupid remarks from “did you lose your comb” to “you look like you are suffering”, “dont you get paid where you work”, “you look like a men” and i have learnt of the 7 years i have been natural that i do not have to justify my hair to anybody.

    Thank you for a great piece!

    xoxo!!

  • Thando says:

    I know this may sound petty… a big thing about hair for me is about touch ability. I must be able to touch it, without my hands getting tangled or greased with product. My hubby must be able to caress it and kiss my head 🙂 and showers and pools must not be a scary situation. As a result, this leaves me with my natural hair to keep.

    As for the politics, I just feel that as long we love our natural states and not just tolerate it as a transition to another style then we ok. Also its our moral and ethical duty to protect our scalps and hairlines.
    I really dont see anything wrong with trying something new once in a while, sometimes we just need change and hair tends to be a quick fix.

    One of my biggest hopes when I was pregnant with my girl was to teach her to a good relationship with her hair amongst other things.

  • siviwe james says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I laughed, I agreed with you as if you were sitting in my lounge with me and I smiled at the cultural facts which reminded me why I am so proud of my natural hair.

    you took me to all the different coffee table discussions I’ve had with my friends (guys and girls) about black hair and the power it possesses, especially now that black people are forging a new identity in this post modern society.

    thank you.

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