Columns 29.8.2016 03:56 pm

Afro hair horror story: It just ‘had to be straight’

When the comb becomes your great nemesis.

There were two things I feared as a primary school pupil in the early 90s. It wasn’t Okapi the bully, who always found it necessary to tease me about my bellbottom khaki trousers. The problem was also not Rigombo demanding to see what was in my school lunchbox.

The real terror was the morning comb horror most black schoolchildren are familiar with. Your curly hair just had to be combed straight. It was a commonly agreed view that curly hair was not clean, and you had to comb the cleanliness into the curly “untidiness”.

“Ouch! ouch! ouch! It hurts!” were the daily morning exclamations we’d all make when the violent comb ripped across our socially constructed curly “embarrassments”.

The torture wasn’t only this morning routine, as it included teacher Mabuza, who would wait at the school gate with a stick to examine how straight your hair had been combed. My hair, being naturally super curly, would not last even 15 minutes before returning to its normal state. By the time I’d reach the school gate 30 minutes from my rural school, I was back to looking as God intended – which meant having to endure three lashes from Mr Mabuza, who had a “clean” bald head.

Former Pretoria Girls’ High School pupil Mishka Wazar is right in telling 702 radio presenter John Robbie that this is not a question of discipline in institutions of learning in the wake of the racism furore at the school, where black female students were told to straighten their “untidy” Afro hair.

This is an issue of identity, culture, and self-expression. If some are allowed to have straight blonde hair, why can’t others be allowed to have curly hair, which is only natural? If school disciplinary rules don’t recognise diversity, then they need to be looked into.

She’s also right in arguing that Robbie also “has no right” in telling black women what they can or cannot do with their hair. Although the constitution guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, we need to understand that this is about the lived experiences of having to go to school with an enflamed scalp in a bid to straighten hair that was never meant to be straight.

Defending school rules that do not recognise diversity is not pragmatism, it’s just a clear sign of someone thinking he or she is omniscient even on matters they know nothing about.

 

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