By Sonto Pooe
The United States of America is close to passing the Crown Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which seeks to end hair discrimination in schools and work environments. The Act must still be approved by the Senate, and President Joe Biden has urged lawmakers to swiftly pass the law.
The US legislation will ensure that black students are not prohibited from attending or participating in school events because of their natural hair; that black employees are not subject to pre-textual firing or negative employment actions because of their hair texture or style; and that black people are accorded dignity and respect in choosing to embrace a natural hairstyle.
Should similar legislation be introduced in South Africa to eradicate ignorance or perceptions around natural hair? Despite several campaigns to create awareness and educate society about diverse types of hair, ignorance and discrimination linger. Maybe legislation is something to be considered.
Perhaps this is due to the media that so many people are kept in the shadows about natural hair. Thanks to years of seeing images of relaxed hair in advertisements, movies, or TV series, people have become accustomed to believing that natural hair is “unkempt.” As a community, are we partly to blame as we relax or texturise our hair so often that when our natural hair starts to grow through, it is regarded as “weird” or “uncommon”?
But natural hair deserves an objective view. It does not behave in the same way as Caucasian hair. It grows in different directions and sometimes has a gravity-defying mind of its own. While dress codes and uniforms most definitely have their place and instil a sense of respect and solidarity, they must be considered within the demographic framework of the country. Any institution that still bans or limits hairstyles that are natural to black hair is blatantly discriminatory.
In August 2016, a learner at Pretoria Girls High and her peers began their campaign, Stop Racism at Pretoria Girls High, against allegedly racist hair policies at their formerly all-white school.
It is encouraging to see that there are young girls willing to fight the good fight. It shows their inherent confidence, and owning their authenticity has been instilled from an early age. I hope more parents teach young girls the importance of loving and accepting their natural looks. Some may choose to texturise their hair, which is fine if it is a personal choice.
Collectively, we need to get away from the “good hair/bad hair” stigma that perpetuates that only a loose curl or hair that is closer to straight hair is beautiful.
We cannot get away from the fact that hair bias has not completely been eradicated. For many, it is a reality, and there are very real sensitivities relating to the labelling and perception of black or ethnic hair, the most visible sign of blackness, second only to skin. It is gratifying that there have been no recent incidents relating to natural hair and how “it should look,” but that does not mean it won’t happen again. We should be comfortable in an environment where our children, today or tomorrow, have freedom of hair choice and will not be confronted by hair preconceptions.
We live in a diverse society, and that diversity should be celebrated and encouraged. It is about freedom of choice. Black culture has always celebrated expression through hair, whether it is natural, relaxed, straightened or styled as braids, Afros, twists, knots, or cornrows. Black people should not be made to feel that we need to straighten our hair to be deemed professional, smart, or disciplined. But again, there should be a choice rather than strict parameters of how hair should or should not look.
Our natural hair forms part of our identity. It is our choice how we choose to portray that identity via our hair. Hair needs a guarantee of freedom of expression, freedom of identity, and freedom of diversity. If legislation is the only way of entrenching that guarantee, so be it.
* Pooe is the founder of Nativechild