A White man’s burden: civilizing black hair

2016-08-30 16:21

One feature of colonialism in South Africa has been that colonists regarded black people as ‘uncivilized people’. Hence, they appropriated to themselves the ‘civilizing mission’. This mission’s design was the creation of the hierarchy of races; placing whites on top, while darker races were ranked below in order of their darkness- subsequently, placing blacks at the base of the hierarchy.

The consequence of the race hierarchy is the cultural context where blackness exists as the antithesis of [White] beauty. The ‘civilizing mission’ privileges straighter hair- while, systematically devaluing black beauty ideals (cornrows, dreadlocks, afros and Bantu Knots). Additionally, the ‘civilizing mission’ creates a smoother path to economic success for whites; while creating barriers from access to employment, to access to loans of education for blacks.

However, the ‘civilizing mission’ never ended with neither colonialism nor with apartheid, because civilization and culture, as Gobneau said, are the exclusive creation of the superior races- superiority and inferiority are not due to environment but innate.

As such, the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilizing blacks means that young black girls who attend Pretoria High School for Girls need to be urgently civilized into beautiful, ‘professional’ young women just before they leave high school in order to optimize their economic prospects. As a result, their school’s rules forbid African hairstyles such as afros, Bantu knots, dreadlocks and braids. The girls claim that they are told to chemically straighten their hair and that it's frowned upon if they wear natural styles. Additionally, they claim their blackness is being discouraged.

Surely, as blacks we should be grateful our sisters and daughters are being optimized to greatness. However, the ‘civilizing mission’ never declares black hair as ugly, unacceptable or professional. Black hair is ugly in black terms- on a black head. Black hair is acceptable in white terms- on a white head! The ‘civilizing mission’ makes black hair ‘cool’, ‘progressive’, ‘liberating’, ‘funky’ and ‘hippie’ for white people- but ‘too ethnic’ for black people. Appreciating (as they) black hair from black culture does not transcend into valuing black people. Black people are neither beautiful nor valuable- but our hair is cool- as long as, white people wear it. This way the ‘civilization mission’ is fully achieved- black people spotting and subscribing to white beauty standards- while, black hair is fully civilized by being worn by the ‘civilizer’ and prohibited to black people.


Politics of black hair: Cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?

However, claiming that white girls have the right to take freely from disempowered black girls trivializes the continuous violent historical oppression of black hair. Police officers were called on young school girls protesting against the policing and stripping away of their black hair.Cornrows on a little black girl are symbolic of her ghetto lifestyle- those same cornrows on a white girl are chic, edgy and innovative- but most importantly, are symbolic of a progressive liberal. A progressive liberal who’s main protest to accusations of cultural appropriation is that her free speech is policed and violated. “I should have the right to express myself however I want to in a democratic society. You do too,” she simultaneously reprimands and advices.

Secondly, black girls whose black hair is appropriated do not have the institutional power to force you to stop. Young black girls at the Pretoria Girls High would have been suspended and called racist if while protesting they spotted white girls with braids and demanded they untie their hair- something, many young black girls have confessed has been done to them by their teachers at this school. Instead, these young black girls can only protest against being compelled to strengthen their hair.

Perhaps, more problematic, is when black girls rebel and wear their black hair styles appreciating their rich history and African roots, they are said to be inspired by white celebrities. For example, when Blac Chyna styled her hair in Bantu Knots, People Magazine credited the knots to Bjork (an Icelandic singer and songwriter). Likewise, Marie Clair praised Kendall Jenner for rocking ‘new epic’ cornrows. These are just two examples from vast examples in pop culture. To a white South African, these may seem like arbitrary American celebrity examples distant from what is happening at Pretoria Girls High. But are they?


A blog called Princess Hairstyles, owned by a white blogger teaches white young girls how to do black hair.


When Black women have to fight for acceptance with the same styles a young white woman can be admired for, what message does that send to Black women and girls? Well, young black girls are teaching young black girls how to do the ‘Kylie Jenner braids’.


Also, what white people belief is worthy to be borrowed is often so narrow that it perpetuates negative stereotypes rather than increases racial appreciation. Braids in white terms are ratchet, flamboyant in colour and messy and that’s what Kylie went for. (Notice: she even wearing African art in order for you to see she is ‘appreciating’ black culture). Likewise, the Pretoria Girls High’s code of conduct prohibits student from wearing braids that do not match their natural colour.

The ‘civilization mission’ is about showing love for black culture- but remaining prejudiced against black people. And calling black people racist when they call white people out for cultural appropriation.


A more explicit example of the disrespect of black hair is a popular youtuber called DaveHax, whom the Daily Mail call "clever" for demonstrating that you can Style your hair, then chop an onion! The bizarre kitchen hack that ensures you get perfectly diced and sliced vegetables every time... using an afro comb

The significance of the afro comb and black hair is deliberately misplaced and the afro comb is reduced to a mere kitchen cutlery... What has happened at Pretoria Girls High is an unsettling reminder that the ‘civilization mission’ never ended with neither colonialism nor with apartheid- taking black hair (it's significance and symbolism) from black people is not over.

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