A significant portion of my childhood was spent under the hairdryer, my head burning from the chemicals and too-hot dryer. My mom got a hand-me-down dryer that looked like a great big plastic bag attached to a pipe. After washing and conditioning my hair, my mother would spend about an hour meticulously wrapping my hair around plastic bright green or red curlers, then I would spend another hour, maybe two under the spacesuit-like dryer. Then my mother might decide to leave it as is or take a hand-held hairdryer and blow out the hair again to make it straighter.
Every once in a while, I would be lucky enough to go along for trip to the hairdresser. Depending on the business, you could spend up to an hour waiting for the dressers to finish with another client before getting your turn. Then you’d sit with your neck over an uncomfortable basin while the washer digs into your scalp whilst tugging your head from side to side. After the washing and conditioning, there would be a process much like the one at home, only this time you might endure a relaxer, a chemical process meant to remove the kink from hair and give it that much-longed for straight look.
A tale known to many a black woman
And then there were times when it was all undone in a matter of minutes in mist or an unexpected downpour. It would leave me in tears.
Ask just about any black woman with kinky hair and they will tell you some variation of this ritual.
In an op-ed in the LA Times, Judy Belk writes: “Even at 6, I was smart enough to figure that out that if my hair wasn’t good, it must be bad. Misbehaving hair.”
It became a knowledge that markers of black, such as kinky hair, was bad. It was wrong. Imagine that one of the first things you came to know and understand was that something about your appearance, as it naturally is, is unacceptable to the world you live in.
It was an accepted truth that I was thankfully eventually able to shake off with the help of some good friends. But even after coming to accept my kinky curls, damn near every time I walked home from the train station to my home in my coloured neighbourhood, there would be a man shouting out in derision “djy, jou bossiekop, gaan borsel jou hare! [meaning: hey, you bushhead, go brush your hair]”. So even after I had begun to accept my natural hair, it was not a norm in the very area I grew up in.
And here’s the thing: this is a struggle that you will not know if you are not a woman of colour.
Part of a larger struggle
Black men might have some idea. White women might have had to fight with the kink during their adolescence too. But that struggle was not part of a larger struggle known to women of colour here and elsewhere in the world where bodies and persons like us were sold and bought and legally worth less than those of their white counterparts.
You did not grow up in a world where every magazine cover shouted at you that your blackness, the hair, the body, the shape was all wrong. So your mother and aunties passed down knowledge of the best hair straightening and relaxing products that usually damaged your scalp. Or the best skin lightening creams. Or the best place to go for a weave.
Black people are taught that we must assimilate to a white world and because so much value is placed on women’s appearances, how we look must go further into becoming white.
So when a black woman speaks to you about her struggles with hair, or when a young black woman protests against the rules stating that she shouldn’t have an afro or braids or cornrows or can’t write an exam because her hair is “untidy” know that this goes to the very heart of the struggles of being a black woman. And respect those who are railing against pillars of a still oppressive system.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t be dismissive. If you’re not a black woman, it would do you best to be quiet and listen and not attempt to spill forth with supposed wisdom on matters you have little understanding of.
- Lauren Hess is News24's Night Editor. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenH_ZA
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