Athambile Masola

The hair debate must end

Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

By Athambile Masola

While watching Gillian Schutte’s documentary “It’s my hair…I bought it” Part One, I decided that the hair debate needs to come to an end. It’s banal and redundant. Talking about black women’s hair needs to stop being a question of national importance. Our hair is not all of who we are. Why have I never seen a documentary about white women and their hair? Because it’s not important and white women are not placed in a situation where they are disembodied and their hair becomes a symbol of who they are as individuals.

In Schutte’s documentary she uses a women’s conversation and a diary entry by  Khanyi Magubane. A group of black women are just having a picnic and seem to be talking about their hair in someone’s garden on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There’s also the disturbing presence of a white women (at least she appears white in the video, she could be black for all I know) who is silent throughout the documentary, but she nods and smiles as though she were part of the conversation. She has a glorious mass of hair upon her head but she doesn’t comment about her existential crises when it comes to her hair. This scene sets up the documentary as an opportunity where black sisters are educating people of other races about the strange, ungovernable and inscrutable ways of our hair.

What was also worrying about Schutte’s documentary is that black women participate in this discourse of hair politics. This is equally problematic. I realise I may not know the full context of the documentary and whose idea it was to create it, but there’s something disturbing about listening to black women who choose natural hair (or relaxed hair without the weave) take the moral high ground and judge women who buy weaves and straighten their hair. The conversation is also about the experience women have in the work place where they are expected to dress a particular way. One of the women in the documentary comments about why people do not choose to wear their traditional clothes in corporate environments. This is an issue about institutional culture and conforming to the norm rather than challenging it through diversity. This conversation can be held without reducing the issue to hair.

The hair debate is also held amongst black women who have embraced their “natural hair” and comment on “those women” who wear weaves and haven’t seen the light. This sets up a division amongst black women where there is a sense of judgement amongst ourselves about who has their black cards and who doesn’t. Those who wear their hair natural are seen as more authentic yet those who buy their hair are seen as sell-outs who are unhappy, insecure and reaching for the illusive “Western” mould for beauty. Is this really fair? None of the women in the video have a weave (perhaps we’ll see that happen in Part 2 of the series). Why reduce a black woman’s sense of self to her appearance and even worse, to something as banal as hair?

My disdain towards the hair issue was heightened when I read an article by Melissa Harris-Perry, “My daughter, myself”. This is a reflection about Melissa’s relationship with her 11 year daughter Parker. The main aim of the article seems to be Melissa’s way of sussing out her daughter’s angst about what it means to be young in America. When she asks her daughter about what she likes about herself, amongst other answers Parker responds by saying  “I love that I can wear [my hair] natural or in extensions or pressed. I have really great hair.” It takes an 11 year to put the pieces together. This is the crux of the hair debate: black women have great hair! This obviously smacks of “I’m black and I’m proud” discourse, but children often have a better sense of what is important when it comes to the simplest things, even hair.

I could have a different hairstyle for each season, just like any woman who can afford to change her hair colour at the salon. Making hair a political issue reduces black women to an exhibition as though being a black woman with or without hair makes one a problem in society. “Well no wonder she’s so poor, she spends all her money on her hair!…Well no wonder she can’t find a man, she looks like a man, she has no hair!” These are the value judgements made about black women when we reduce them to their hairstyle. The hair issue speaks to the obsession there is about women’s bodies and how we should look in order to be seen as acceptable.

My hair is not a symbol of anything, it’s just hair and right now I’m too lazy to attend to it so it looks like a bad example of dreadlocks. I cut my hair at least once a year because I don’t think I have the temperament for hair salons (the fumes make me dizzy) nor do I have the money nor time to get someone to do my hair. Even when “soul sisters” have dreadlocks, many still opt for salons to style their hair periodically and this can cost up to R300 per appointment, which is equivalent to braids and perhaps the cheapest weave on the market. The point is, it’s just hair and it’s fun experimenting with it until we have someone telling us what we should and shouldn’t do to our hair. Even when it’s my own mother who believes, ubuhle bentombi zinwele zakhe.


9 thoughts on “The hair debate must end”

  1. I’m 20 years old and my mom is a hairstylist. I don’t think our hair as black women has been an issue for us,people who make it an issue are either men, writers or some white people among others. I mean ever since I was young I’ve done tons of hairstyle including weaves,dreads,braids and now I have braids with beads(which some people I have met associate it with sangomas). I’ve come to accept that there’ll always be an association of some sort with the hairstyles that I choose to do. So definitely I AM MY HAIR.


  2. I am afraid I have to disagree here.
    I also have written a blog about this subject:

    Yes, it is unfortunate that our hair has become a subject of much discourse. Yet the roots of the problem go way back to the slavery and colonial times when white was good and black was bad. White women are not discussing their hair as you say because white women do not have the same controversial and shame-instilled hair history as black women do.

    For all those who use relaxer or straighteners my question is why do you do this? The most common answer is always because it is more manageable or because it has become a habit or because this has been the norm since childhood.

    Manageablitiy is the reason why we use poisonous “creamy-crack” on our hair because we do not bother to invest time and love in learning how to deal with our own hair. The silent message weaves and creamy crack send out is: caucasian type hair is more manageable, neater, prettier, more modern, more acceptable on the work floor and therefore better.

    I think this discussion must not be silenced. I want my daughter to grow up loving her hair and to discover and enjoy the versatility of negroid hair. However, this discussion should on no account be carried out in an accusing or derogatory manner. We are all sisters and the overal aim of any such discussion should be to raise awareness and to uplift one another.


  3. I think the only way these perceptions and judgements will end is by continuing to discuss and question…I won’t lie,it has been a divisive issue for ages but I think the fact that we can sit and talk about it,have debates without pulling each other’s hair out(literally) or casting aspersions back and forth shows progress on our part.Let us remember that these are not just purely superficial issues,but legitimate struggles dating back to a time when being black with your “kaffir haar” and dark skin was considered unattractive.Can Themba wrote once about the rise of hair straightening and skin lightening in the 60’s when black men(In places like Sophiatown) started having affairs(more and more) with white women.The need for black women to burn their scalps and bleach their faces came from a rather jaundiced view of white women being perfect and pretty.Some might argue that even today,black women have inherited and continue to suffer from the psychological effects brought about by our Great-grandparent’s self-deprecating ways,we’ve really come a long way in accepting who we are as individuals and thus,have embraced the diverse ways in which we look and dictate how we want to look depending on how we feel.Women will be women(regardless of race ) at the end of the day and the 21st century woman knows that variety is the spice of life, thus, takes full advantage of her freedom to be who she wants to be and change her hair depending on her mood.We are not our hair or our skin.


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