2016 was the year Zulaikha Patel took a stand against the discriminatory hair policies at Pretoria Girls High school. A 13 year old at the forefront of a protest, she most certainly discarded the narrative that labels young potentials as future leaders. Such a term is a contradiction to the resilience that characterises us. We are not future leaders. We are leaders. Being a leader is like being dead, you either are or you are not. Ageism is one battle we are yet to fight and overcome.
The protest not only allowed for the dismantlement of those policies, it also paved way for more youngsters to take a stand against other discriminatory laws.
The story of this remarkable young leader received immense media coverage. However, it seems as though some schools were in exile during that whole debacle. The post office might have misplaced the memorandum that was due to them, or they simply pleaded ignorance. They regarded themselves as untouchable, and continued dishing out discriminatory laws.
I reeled with anger when I came across a plea by a number of learners who apparently have been suspended from school for wearing their hair in its natural state. They were told that their hair looked like branches of a tree. This is evidence of how Black hatred remains the order of the day. The stubborn clutches of colonialism refuse to allow us access to the freshened air of freedom of self-expression.
The most liberating words I have ever read are those by Assata Shakur (a member of the American Black Liberation Army) who said, “When you wear your hair a certain type of way, you are making a statement about yourself. When you go through your life processing and abusing your hair so it will look like the hair of another race of people, then you are making a statement and the statement is very clear.”
It is undoubtedly a sad world when youngsters put their studies on hold and march on the streets. They fight against a system that Assata Shakur, Steve Biko, Malcom X and many others fought against, decades ago.
Several unanswered questions have made their way into my mind. Why are Black people the ones required to assimilate? Why don’t the schools get used to the fact that African hair does not resemble European hair? African hair is kinky, and plaiting it frequently can cause receding hairlines.
We have adopted all that was brought before us. In many cases our children’s command of the English language surpasses that of our mother tongue. Should we stand and watch? Watch as they strip us of what little dignity we have left, in the same way our forefathers were stripped away from their tribal lands and forced to work plantations of bondage?
What further fuelled my anguish were the remarks made by certain people, Black people in particular: ‘A school can set its own conduct. Not everything is about racism, because learners in Black schools are also required to plait their hair.’
The fact that learners in predominantly Black schools are required to plait their hair further illustrates my viewpoint. You see, the white imperialist came and told a lie. He called our hair ugly and demonic. Being the gullible people we are, we believed that lie. In an attempt to become ‘angelic ‘and ‘beautiful’ we either cut off or chemicalise our hair. With his sweet tongue he placed us under a curse of self-contempt. And now, we are here, Black people upholding his lie.
Even if it is a Black school and it is Black teachers who dish out such subjugating laws, it does not turn a spade into a kitchen knife. Our enemy is no longer the white imperialist, our enemy resides with us every minute, and stares back at us when we look in the mirror. Being Black does not exonerate one from being an oppressor towards our own kind. Fathers in colonial times sold their own daughters into bondage.
And educators are human. They make mistakes. They are not always aware of what lies behind what they think is normal. They might unknowingly bring personal beliefs onto school premises.
I attend a multi-racial school. Quite recently, the phone of a white learner was stolen. The teachers’ piercing and accusing eyes were directed towards the Black learners. I use this example because a school may have conduct to uphold, but is its conduct worthy of upholding if it inferiorises learners, and sees one group as more potentially guilty than another?
The majority of parents hold the belief that a school is the safest and most loving environment for their children. It is the learners who suffer, because of their parents’ willingness to adhere to rules that enforce the inferiority of their children. And so defiance has become a common trait amongst these learners.
‘But white learners are exposed to similar rules. They may not use highlights or streaks on their hair.’ Rules that prohibit the use of highlights and streaks are in favour of maintaining one’s authenticity. These rules are not comparable to those that require Black learners to plait their hair. Simply put, white learners are encouraged to wear their hair in its natural state, whereas Black learners are discouraged from doing so.
I unapologetically say, do away with European beauty standards. Wear your Afro with African pride, you are after all in Africa. If anyone despises you for that, then nourish and grow it even longer. Do not be a victim of the gifts your ancestors gave you.
It is time we stop grooming learners who embody likeability at their own expense. We want learners who take a stand when they witness an injustice, because we all are LEADERS.
Here are the last lines of a poem by Sean Burke, an American poet.
‘You have policed my Blackness for too long.
So now I refuse to burn my scalp for you.
No longer will I burn within an ember of my authentic me.
As I raise my fist past this mane of matted glory.
YOU WILL Accept ME WITH MY ‘kaffir hare’!’
Tell us: what are your thoughts about natural hair?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.