Defend Truth


What’s going on hair?

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Critics of hairgate seem to be centring all their arguments on hair itself. But conveniently forgetting the other issues raised is a big mistake.

The last few days have seen almost as much commentary going into the subject of schoolgirls’ hair as was seen around the Penny Sparrow scandal and others of its ilk. But through all the discussion, one question has bothered me: why is hair being treated as the primary issue?

Some of the racist incidents referred to by the young protestors included being called by racial slurs by other learners, with nothing being done; a teacher referring to black learners as “monkeys” on at least one occasion; discussions on race in which white learners were the only participants because black learners felt unsafe; and, of course, forcing girls to straighten their hair. These are serious allegations, but the second defenders of the hairstyle police step in, context seems to go down the drain faster than shampoo.

Certainly the argument about being held to racist ideals of beauty is important, and does not occur in isolation. Generations of girls (and boys) the world over have been pressured to adopt standards of beauty that may not reflect the way they were born. That may make them feel unbeautiful, unworthy, unacceptable. This is not restricted to scrutiny of hair, dress, behaviour, and facial features, but also to bodies more generally.

Schools have a fine line to tread here. An important function of dress codes (and codes of conduct) is to prepare learners for the workplace. To be clear, I myself don’t give two hoots what a learner’s hair looks like – and in fact, during the important adolescent phase of individuation, it’s probably helpful to let adolescents of all races be as expressive with their appearance as possible, rather than exploring this developmental phase in a harmful manner. But I can understand the rationale behind wishing learners to look neat and tidy, and unless it’s an issue of broader importance, it’s a good idea to respect the rules of your environment as a basic courtesy.

But courtesy cuts both ways, and the definition of “neat and tidy” is problematic here; a textbook issue of broader importance. These girls are not coming to school with potato peels and Steers sauce in their hair. I cannot imagine for the life of me that reasonable employers would find a clean, well-maintained ‘fro unprofessional. Or any of the other hairstyles in question, for that matter: Bantu knots and braids, for example.

Further, if we are shaping young minds, surely the more important lesson is the ability to respect diversity and prioritise dignity for citizens of all ages – a crucial attribute in any workplace. Especially when it’s the majority of people that are battling against prejudice.

Balpreet Kaur, an Ohio State University student, provides some perspective. Kaur’s case was dramatic in that she represented a local minority and her appearance was less common than your average girl with braids, but the principles remain. She was victimised online for growing facial hair, as well as the turban she wore as a baptised Sikh. Racist, sexist comments abounded. A calm Kaur responded: “[B]aptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us […] and [we] must keep it intact…”  Kaur’s confidence and unruffled approach surprised many, but should not. How powerful a lesson if all young people were taught that their bodies, talents, cultures and basic dignity were all a gift to be treasured and defended. This kind of positive reinforcement is something all children deserve, and will shape them into stronger, more confident adults. You cannot tell a child that their looks, culture, language and other essential parts of their identity are all wrong, and then expect them not to be defensive.

But all this is just one side of the issue. A deeper concern is that in the discussion of institutionalised racism at schools, critics of the learners in particular have thrown all other examples of this racism out of the window in favour of debating hair. And only hair. We also had to have our hair a certain way when I was at school. Don’t make everything about race. You must learn to be disciplined and neat and tidy. It’s just hair. Relaxing rules will cause competition among girls to have the best hairstyle. Does this mean white children can have pink hair? And on, and on, and on. (As an aside: there’s a difference between being allowed to dye your hair pink and being allowed to keep your own natural hair, but that’s another story.)

This reductionist approach is both frustrating and dangerous. It’s frustrating because it suggests that the second you allow anyone who isn’t white to live their life without harassment, chaos will ensue. My God, it suggests. If they have control over their own hair, what will be next?   

It’s dangerous because by making the argument simply about hair, on the most superficial level, detractors are trivialising the issue and pushing lifetimes of pain aside. They’re skilfully skewing perspectives so that the schoolgirls protesting are the ones who appear petty, rather than the authorities who have placed unreasonable restrictions on hair, of all things. It’s the ultimate denialist weapon. They’re simply glossing over many serious allegations of racism that have been made. I’ll say it again: the debate around grooming does not occur in isolation.

In one instance, girls were reportedly told that they could not speak their mother tongue in groups of more than two, because they could be “conspiring”. Conspiring to what? Brush their hair? Is anyone else smelling the apartheid undertones of forbidden “gatherings”? And can you imagine being denied the right to speak your own language to others who have the same home language, in the place you spend the most time? One learner tweeted the wording of her school rules: “No foreign languages”. Are the majority of our official languages, spoken by the majority of citizens, foreign now? These, too, are important issues, and should be ample indication that we’re not just talking about hair.

In this debate, hair is a symbol. It’s an important symbol. But it’s only the first layer of the issue at hand. One thing should be clear: trying to redact related issues and sweep institutionalised racism under the carpet is not going to work. This generation will not be fooled. They’re stronger and wiser than that. For the future of all of us, listen to them. And let them be who they were born to be: confident, questioning, and wearing whatever damn hair makes them feel beautiful. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.