Black women’s hair: A political battlefield

Photo by: Wherbson Rodrigues.

The recent TRESemmé Clicks advert portraying black women’s natural hair as ‘dull’ and ‘damaged’, has brought up the hair politics that black women battle with every day. Our hair is still policed in the workplace, schools, and many other social spaces we find ourselves in. In 2016, young black girls protested Pretoria High School’s racist hair policies that banned natural hair. My own high school experience was no different; my school banned dreadlocks out of concern that we used mud to mould our hair, and the mud would stain our white shirts and make us look untidy. No amount of convincing would make the school rethink its policies, so your options were to straighten your hair with harmful chemicals or hide it with extensions.

Not shocked, but angry

I am not shocked by the TRESemmé advert. I expect nothing less from whiteness and an economic system built on the oppression of black people. But I am still angry that this has happened again, especially in such an overtly violent manner. I am angry over the timing – the only time we have in the year to openly and comfortably celebrate Africanness has been tainted. I am angry that whiteness does not rest, not even in Heritage Month. Reading social media comments on the matter, my anger turned to disappointment, as some black men felt confused by our outrage because our role models are women such as Khanyi Mbau, who often wears her hair straight, long, and blonde. They pit the two struggles against each other; natural hair versus wigs/relaxed hair and did not miss the opportunity to share what their preferences are. 

When they did this, to me they were no different than the TRESemme advert; they just traded the Western view for a male view and further reinforced the idea that black women are ugly. They turned wigs, a harmless form of expression, into a debate as to whether women with natural hair are more beautiful than ‘fake’ women with wigs. They missed the point. The point is that we want to wear our hair the way we want, without fear of external factors such as workplaces and schools that will label us as unprofessional or messy for having natural hair. We also do not need the criticism that comes from black men who question our Africanness or genuineness when we wear wigs.

The hair politics of black women’s is long, complex, and contradictory – on the one hand, revolutionary theorist Bantu Biko problematises black women’s positionality in societal beauty standards. He states:

They (black women) use lightening creams, they use straightening devices for their hair and so on. They sort of believing, “I think, that their natural state which is a black state is not synonymous with beauty and beauty can only be approximated by them if the skin is made as light as possible and the lips are made as red as possible, and their nails are made as pink as possible and so on.

Black women historically made to feel ugly

It cannot be denied that black women have historically been made to feel ugly, with those who are considered beautiful being those whose appearance resembles whiteness. So, for a long time, black women were forced to wear their hair straight, do their makeup in ways that bring them closer to whiteness, and perform many other Western beauty practices reinforced by popular culture and society as a whole. The contradiction is that we have a long cultural history preceding colonialism of adorning ourselves with ‘extensions’, colouring our hair, beautifying our skin.

Even today, older, married Shembe women still practice an old beauty routine that also symbolises status and social position in society. They grow their hair long, dye it a reddish colour, stretch it so that it looks straight and can be pulled fair enough to be woven into a hat-like structure that almost resembles inkehli, a traditional Zulu hat. It was also not uncommon for African women to use shells, feathers, animal hair, etc., to add length to their hair. I would argue that modern-day wigs are an evolution of these old cultural practices.

The way wigs were forced on us so that we fit Western standards of beauty was problematic, but black women have transformed this practice and made it their own in ways not that different from how black Americans reclaimed the ‘N’ word. Our hair only becomes a political battleground when we are forced to choose how we wear it or are made to explain why we wear it one way over another. Black women have the right to wear their hair any way they want, without having their beauty questioned by whiteness or black men and society. I hope that the next time (unfortunately, there will be a next time) whiteness questions our beauty in the way that TRESemmé did, black men will come to our defence instead of perpetuating the false narrative that one type of black women is more beautiful than the other.

Opinion article written by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.