Hair we go again and again!

The first and only time I went to detention in high school was because of my hair. So hair is a sensitive topic for me as it is for many black and brown people. I have avoided writing about hair issues because it seemed to me to be one of those minefield topics that have no perceivable solution. But change starts with me, and with you and conversation about these difficult topics. As the saying goes “evil prevails when good men (or women) remain silent”. I share these hair traumas not to be a victim or to call-out perpetrators but to give real-life examples of these incidents to help educate my fellow non-black/brown humans.

I was a student at a predominantly white Catholic school. It was the custom of the school to hold Feast day mass celebrations in the open quad area, out in the sun, with no hats. On one such feast day our Headmistress – a German nun, went around the quad full of seated girls “inspecting” the black girls’ hair for “oiliness” by placing her hand into our hair and observing if there was any oily residue on her fingers and palm. You see, it was her opinion that it was the black girls that made the text books dirty because they “oiled” their hair and then they would scratch their scalps then touch the books resulting in damage to the school textbooks. So I and approximately 6 other girls whose hair was moisturised (not oiled) were lined up and sent to the office to receive our letters informing our parents that on a particular date we would have to undergo manual labour as part of detention. That was my first memory of what I will refer to as “haircism”, but it would not be the last incident throughout my tertiary education and my working life.

In 2003 I went to China on a language and culture exchange programme between University of Zimbabwe Confucius Institute and Renmin University of China. It was a phenomenal experience as our group of 10 got to visit most of China’s notable tourist destinations and top of the list for me was walking on the Great Wall of China. But there was one problem. Everywhere we went we became tourist attractions ourselves. We were often clandestinely photographed. We could be standing or walking and someone would suddenly be standing next to or in front of us taking a picture with us in the shot. The local children would try to touch my skin and my hair too. Some students from Remnim who by then considered themselves my friends would often ask for permission to touch my hair, and yes, I obliged to be polite.

In 2017 which studying for my beauty therapy qualification one of the exam requirements for the two international qualifications was that a therapist must have sleek hair tied up in a high bun. No afrocentric hairstyles are allowed. No afro, no short haircut, no cornrows, no braids and definitely no dreadlocks.

Post qualification one of my white spa owner colleagues expressed her annoyance at her black therapists who would wear long straight wigs (tied of course as a therapist must not have hair “flying around”). Her view was that as a safari spa owner her therapists must look as African as possible and not try to be white. I did correct her misconception by telling her that they were not trying to be white (or Indian or Chinese or Spanish or any other race) any more than a woman wearing trousers meant that she is trying to be a man. Wigs present many of us with convenience (glam on demand), versatility and protection for our hair from the elements. Period.

Two months ago I took my Maltese dog for a specialist grooming treatment. In conversation with the white S’paw (spa for dogs) owner she complimented me on the clean state of my dog – showing I was brushing and cleaning him at home. She added that she has seen some Maltese dogs whose hair “looks terrible like Rastafarian locks”. She had not even noticed that my daughter who was standing right next to us had a 22inch long faux locks hairstyle at the time. My daughter and I gave each other the knowing glance and endured the rest of the civilities.

On September 4th, my daughter sent me a screenshot of a ClicksSA post. My jaw almost hit the floor. I could not believe that the advert was current, in fact I thought it may have been from 10 years ago. I have come to expect individual ignorance but did not expect ignorance at the corporate level so blatantly displayed in social media particularly at this time when the #blacklivesmatter movement (which some have rebutted with #alllivesmatter) is still so fresh in our collective minds (or so I thought). I cannot understand how the Tresemme advert was approved in both organisations without anyone seeing how grossly inappropriate it was. Do they understand what normal black/brown natural hair looks like? Comparing black/brown and white hair is like comparing carrots and potatoes (because they are both vegetables) or apples and oranges (because they are both fruits). Labelling one bad only because it does not look like, feel like or taste the other. As there seems to be such elemental gaps in understanding the black/brown hair dynamic I have decided to give some hair etiquette tips to non-blacks/browns who may be interested in understanding the black/brown hair terrain.

5 hair etiquette tips for non-black/brown people

1. Do not assume that one hates her hair because she exercises her ability to adorn any hairstyle including straight or curly weaves or wigs, faux locks, faux afro, cornrows, braids or even shaving it all off and going fashionably bald.

2. Do not assume that one wants to be white (or Indian, or Italian or Chinese or Spanish or Peruvian) because one is able to artificially replicate straight hair (of any colour and length) as her hairstyle of choice for that moment.

3. Do not ask a black or brown woman if “that is her hair” – she chose it, she bought it, it is on her head, it is hers!

4. Do not assume that locks (real or faux) are dirty.

5. Do not touch a black/brown woman’s hair or even ask permission to touch it. We don’t want to touch yours lets maintain those boundaries.

The ClicksSA apology shows good etiquette. You make a mistake, you take responsibility and you apologise. But I wonder what the relevance of the donation to women and children in poverty is to their hair faux pas. Are they again making basic comparisons incorrectly? How does funding women and children in poverty relate to a black woman who is not in poverty but has been slighted by the “haircism”? Their apology left me more confused. Their CEOs open letter, however, felt more sincere to me personally. The immediate and urgent training of Clicks employees on diversity and inclusivity as well as the increase in black natural hair products sold in their stores paves the way for real change.

I read a recent Harvard Business Review report on the HR roles of the future. Included in their list were roles such as Genetic Diversity Officer, Human Bias Officer and Director of Wellbeing. I believe the future is now! These roles are now essential for organisations purporting to value diversity and the removal of bias (both conscious and subconscious) in all business functions for the safety and protection of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions and ages.

The ClicksSA bad hair day opened old painful wounds, but it also paved the way for difficult conversations to be held and possible real change to occur.