Hair police are on the prowl

2015-08-23 18:06
Hair policy at some schools has been discriminatory towards many black children. Picture: Agnes Mahonko/City Press

Hair policy at some schools has been discriminatory towards many black children. Picture: Agnes Mahonko/City Press

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Controversy around black school pupils’ hair dominated the national conversation this week when a lecture about so-called coconuts in black neighbourhoods touched on how hair policies in schools were created with the white child in mind. Zinhle Mapumulo asked a few pupils and principals for their thoughts

Panashe Chigumadzi, a Ruth First Fellow, gave the lecture at Wits University on Monday. She talked about how hair is a big focus of control at schools, regardless of race. 

“It is a marker of the power of schools to regulate and discipline,” she said. 

“However, there is a particular racialised dimension at play here. The hair regulations, like many other school policies, are created with the assumption that the pupil is a white child. 

The assumption of pupils with ‘hair that falls’ and ‘hair that is neat’ and, if it can’t do so naturally, it can and must be made to do so.” 

With her short, natural hair, Mpho Mahonko was able to escape what she calls the “Sunlight hair washing humiliation” at Wordsworth High School in Benoni. But most of her friends with relaxed hair were not as fortunate. 

The 16-year-old watched in shock as the school’s principal, Dr Annelize Horn, handed the pupils Sunlight dishwashing liquid and ordered them to wash their “greasy hair”. 

Horn was dismissed by the Gauteng education department early last year after being found guilty of misconduct relating to the hair-washing issue and other racial remarks she made to pupils. Since her departure, the school’s hair rules have changed – but not by much. 

“They’re allowing corn rows now, but no braids. The use of gel and hair cream is still prohibited,” Mpho says. 

“The teachers have also put up pictures of the corn rows we are allowed to have – ones with straight lines of plaited rows going towards the back. No fancy ones are allowed.” 

In November 2013, Mpho says Horn told them “our hair was filthy and disgusting. She said it was unhygienic that black girls washed their hair only once a month.” 

Mpho says while she had no problem with the school’s policy, she was bothered by the fact that Horn addressed only black girls about their hair. 

“She could have asked us first why we relax and apply gel to our hair. We would have told her that this was the only way we could manage it. 

“I was fortunate to escape the Sunlight hair-washing humiliation because I had natural hair. I know how humiliated my friends felt when they returned from the bathrooms with wet hair.”

Parktown Girls’ High, Johannesburg 

At Parktown High School for Girls, the rules are simple. Banned are “extreme hairstyles”, such as pupils with the sides of their heads shaved, or images or letters shaved into their hair. Pupils with shoulder-length hair or longer – whether it be braided or a weave – need to tie it back. 

Principal Anthea Cereseto says the rules are there to ensure “girls look neat and more like learners than adults”. Hair is part of the school’s “corporate identity”. 

“Once a person is in a uniform, be it in the corporate world or a school, certain rules about how they look must apply,” she says. 

“When I teach learners, I expect to see their facial expressions to know if they understand what I am teaching them. No hair must be falling in their faces during school hours.” 

Parktown Girls is very strict on hair colour. 

“If you are white and have blonde hair, there should be no pink highlights in it. For black girls, we also expect their hair colour to be black, or as natural as possible, but no blonde or yellow hair on their heads like soccer stars,” Cereseto said. 

Last year, a white pupil arrived at school with a clean-shaven head, saying she was “tired” of her hair. She was ordered to wear a wig until it grew back. 

Vukuzakhe High School, Umlazi 

Pupils at one of the country’s top state high schools know their hair must be cut short and “look natural”. Braids are completely out of the question at Vukuzakhe, and so is tinting. 

However, exceptions are made for Rastafarians, who are obliged to wear dreadlocks, and members of the Shembe Church, whose religion dictates that they do not cut their hair regularly. 

Principal Doris Fulela says: “A learner should look like a learner, not an adult or teacher. 

“Imagine what would happen if we said learners were allowed all sorts of hairstyles in school?” 

Fulela says there was only one pupil who had long hair in Vukuzakhe High. 

“We allowed him to have his dreadlocks because he was a Rastafarian. 

“His parents wrote a letter requesting that he be allowed to wear his dreadlocks, as required by his religious practice,” she said. 

“Other children must have the shortest hair possible. 

“For those who are Shembe members, we allow them to grow their hair, but it must be patted down so it doesn’t grow out and block the view of a child behind them,” Fulela says.

Zizipho Saba (11) was called out of class last year during a routine check for head lice at her school. Her crime?

Wearing braids. 

When she stepped outside, two white teachers were waiting for her. The first question they asked was: “How many times do you wash your hair?” 

In her naivety, she responded by saying once or more every three weeks. She was then ordered to remove her braids and wash her hair as soon as she got home. 

And that’s exactly what the then Grade 5 pupil at a Cape Town primary school did. 

“I didn’t take offence at all because they often did it with other kids,” she said. “I got home and told my aunt that my teacher said I must remove my braids and wash my hair. When she asked why, I told her that the school was doing checks for pupils with head lice.” 

Her aunt duly removed the braids and cleaned her hair. But her mother, Nathi Saba, who lives in Johannesburg, was furious. She couldn’t take up the matter though because she was too far away. 

“What infuriated me was that Zizipho has very coarse hair and the only way to manage it is by braiding it. It was not the first time she had had this hairstyle at school and for her teacher to insinuate that she had head lice because of braids was uncalled for,” she said. 

“Zizipho is a child and it is understandable that she took no offence, but I believe that summoning her out of class in front of everybody was not the best way to address the situation. Other kids immediately assumed she had lice because she was called out.” 

Zizipho said at least her classmates didn’t tease her when she returned to school without her braids

Read more on:    schools  |  hair

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