Zama Ndlovu

Black hair gets the 3rd Degree

2012-06-27 08:26

Zama Ndlovu

“Debora Patta can’t be serious,” I thought along with a thousand others at the end of yesterday’s episode of 3rd Degree. I had driven home like a maniac from Johannesburg to Pretoria hoping to make it in time to catch Debora Patta’s 3rd Degree knowing exactly what was about to transpire but wanting to see the train wreck myself.

In a week of the ANC’s policy conference, Debora had bigger fish to fry, my scalp to be exact, and boy was I not disappointed. It was exactly what I expected, another shallow investigation into the “otherness” of black people under the auspices of “provocative” journalism.

I supposed I was provoked last night. Much like a crocodile that had accidentally bumped into an episode of the Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter would. Debora crept up on my unsuspecting head and started explaining my grooming habits to a camera as though I were some wild beast roaming the Savannah in deep dark Africa, paying far too much for something as basic as hair. Then she put it on television, for the nation’s entertainment. I found myself shouting “but I love myself” as the credits rolled.

Now I know how the Skhothanes felt two weeks ago when they were given the 3rd Degree on their expensive urban township culture. That was another thin piece of “journalism” in which young people were crucified for excessive Ultramel drinking and other seemingly incomprehensible conducts that were not contextualised within the broader national and global consumerism context.

Highly distorted

Debora Patta's badly researched and sensationalist report not only perpetuates the impression of the “otherness” of black hair but it was also a shallow and thus highly distorted and belittling "investigation" into a ritual women all over the world share. Women do their hair. Women of all shades, all races, and all classes. Although it can be costly, there is a broad spectrum of cost.

“There are 40 000 hair salons in South Africa, many of them unregistered,” she pronounced menacingly while that ominous 3rd Degree music played in the background as though some creepy things are happening in black hair salons all over the country. The horror stories of people stealing dreadlocks off people’s heads added to the drama. I could almost hear the outcries of “OMG what are these blacks doing to each other?!” across the nation.

In a country where the largest portions of the hair products counter are often dedicated to non-black hair, despite having a population that’s approximately 80% black, Patta's report implied some disturbing spending pattern by black people on hair products.

"R3 000 weaves" as though that's the standard price, and without any contrast to how much money other women spend to provide context.

Honest stories

Earlier that evening at a book review of The Youngsters series, I had been part of an interesting discussion on whether the black middle class was taking over from white media in telling stories on all other black people’s behalf. Many were making the point that being black did not mean that one was qualified to tell another black person’s story, and that a more representative group of thought leaders was necessary in our society to tell more honest stories of our different experiences.

One of the attendees had even suggested that as part of the next series, the publishers consider getting “real people” to write their own stories. “Instead of Debora Patta talking about Skhothanes, why can’t they tell their own stories themselves?” she said.

This Patta debacle is an example of the consequences of letting others tells our stories while we sit as critics of an end product with little power to change anything. If we don't tell our own stories, someone else will, finding opportunistic angles where there are none, and turning differences into otherness as though there's something wrong with our version of self.

We turn into caricatures for another’s amusement. We become animals in a zoo, there for the interest and entertainment of others, but not as people with different but equally important realities.

Telling our own stories

To deny that there are deeply divided views on black hair would be a gross understatement. The discussion is a deeply political one that often sparks heated discussion and deeply entrenched divisions.

The discussion often transcends the boundaries of hair, touching on skin tone, features and other external qualifiers of beauty. It’s one that must be done with sensitivity, little of which was present in last night's show.

But beyond telling our stories consciously, we must start to tell them subconsciously in the little things that are surrounding us daily. I quite enjoy, for example, that the mannequins at Woolworths are dark, albeit they have "dainty" European features. I like that some even have curly hair, nothing as curly as mine but it’s a start. Only through permeating the mainstream culture can we hope to stop feeling like we constantly have to explain or defend ourselves.

I don’t know what it would feel like to be the normal in this country, even as part of the majority, when most things about me are still treated as other. Every time I change my hair, I brace myself for an inquisition at work when “your hair looks nice” would do. Whereas other women’s hair is referred to as exactly that, hair, mine is “ethnic” hair as if “Caucasian” isn’t an ethnicity.

But telling my own story is the start to changing all of that.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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