Last night I cried for a long time after getting into a hurtful discussion on Facebook. It was entirely unexpected because I can safely say I didn’t wake up on Monday morning and expect to find myself dropped into a national debate on hair. Zuma, conspiracy theories, citizen activism – sure. I’d buy that story in a heartbeat. So hair? It took me by surprise.
We all know that a national debate is raging on the issue of black girls’ hair styles. Many of us have oversimplified what is clearly a very complex issue – not only because there are decades, if not centuries of beliefs entrenched in this story, but also because the situation at Pretoria Girls High is clearly not a simple hairstyles debate. This is just the tip of what appears to be a very deep iceberg. Just as there is so much more underneath South Africans’ hesitant forays into national discussions about a traumatised country trying to reconcile with itself.
So when someone who has not been affected by growing up with insecurities about their hair, who has not spent hours of their lives getting their hair to conform to a Euro-centric standard of beauty, and who has not, at any point in their lives, been told that they are less than by virtue of their skin colour – when that someone tries to minimise this discussion to “rules” and “facts”, I am once again reminded that without empathy, we are doomed to become victims of deeply entrenched positions that totally polarise us along racial, cultural and political divides.
I for one am no longer up for such a narrow conversation. I am also no longer prepared to debate on social media when I’m minimised for having feelings based on lived experiences, when I’m limited to an interpretation of “facts” as viewed by one person, “facts” that choose to ignore a very recent history of oppression. The racial conversation unfolding in our country is emotional – plain and simple. The majority of this country have lived through things that no human should experience, and they continue to live through them today. Guess what? With those credentials, they’re allowed to be emotional about stuff.
So, let’s get back to some home truths about this situation and address some misperceptions. Firstly, limiting this discussion to whether one black girl’s Afro is too big is not the debate we should be having. One girl’s problem with her hair does not a revolution make. There are clearly other girls who have experienced negative perceptions and suffered under some form of discriminatory practice for it to have advanced to this stage.
Secondly, the bigger picture here is that an environment has been created where these pupils have had to defend their right to be who they are. They are not allowed to congregate in groups of 4 or more. They can’t speak their own language (which, by the way, is a constitutional right) and they are told to straighten their hair to make it look “neat”.
The opposing side is quick to point to the Code of Conduct of the school, which seems very generous in their humble opinions. Here’s the thing, the ANC manifesto looks pretty good too. Unfortunately, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the theory and the reality right now. Whilst we are only going on the word of the pupils, I doubt that they’ve made up a story about being told to straighten their hair merely to garner attention. If you’ve seen images of these young girls comforting each other while they cry, you too would wonder why they’d put themselves at the forefront of this kind of national pressure for no reason other than to rebel against rules. If we can’t believe our children, then where are we really?
Now, let’s get down to a very important part of this discussion: what is the impact this is having on the girls’ education and their right to learn in a conducive environment? For me, this is where the meat of the matter lies.
As most people know and acknowledge, we homo sapiens do not come in component parts. We don’t pitch up to school with only our brains, or to a sports field with only our bodies. We are whole human beings and thus need to be recognised and treated as such. Increasingly, the global education reform movement is honing in on the fact that we need to teach not only an academic curriculum, but a socio-emotional one too. We need to equip children with skills to manage their emotions and their repercussions better, because those who are caught up in the emotional whiplash of mismanaging themselves and their relationships have very little capacity to engage with their education in a meaningful way.
We see instances of this as studies reveal the long-term effects of the trauma of poverty. Even when in a decent school environment, childrens’ brain size and capacity has been so diminished by trauma that the ceiling for achievement becomes very low. Emotions play a strong role in academic outcomes.
So what happens when you make a child feel marginalised and angry because of a race-related construct of what neat and tidy looks like? Not a whole lot that is ultimately beneficial to the child if you ask me.
But what about conformity you ask? What about learning to adopt to social norms and standards so that we can all engage in a corporate culture one day and be wildly successful? The same is true for a white child. If children’s hairstyles become the main thing their educators are worried about, who wins and who loses ultimately? As our world shifts, so too should the way we teach our children to live in this world.
As we now know, wildly successful people are not typically the best at conforming. In a world where educationalists are increasingly understanding that a single standard of success simply isn’t cutting it, where schools & teachers are gaining an awareness that children learn differently and at their own pace, with different strengths to draw from; in this world, we are no longer a factory line. We are becoming a society of individuals who are allowed to express their individuality in unique ways. And it is this uniqueness which brings change and innovation, which creates new and exciting ways to live, work and play.
In the same breath, I agree that there are some rules of engagement. Wearing gang colours or cutting gang symbols into your hair is one of these. I’m sure there are others. The main thing though is to create an enabling environment for learning instead of imposing rules for rules’ sake.
Allow me to deviate one last time before wrapping up. Last week, images from a beach in France spread across the globe. French police approached a Muslim woman on a beach and forced her to remove her Burkini, which was somehow offensive and insulting to the French people. My question is this: was tolerance & peace promoted or destroyed here? Did the Frenchman walk away having improved the world in some way? Or was a single woman humiliated by a European standard that is, quite frankly, simply the end game of a belief system that one culture chose over another? Did wearing a Burkini somehow violate the human rights of any other person on that beach?
In the same breath, does wearing natural hair, whatever shape or form it might take, violate another other South African’s constitutional rights? Does it infringe on their dignity? And most importantly, does it limit or negate their ability to learn and ultimately become successful, fulfilled adults one day?
Our polarised social media debates and demands that others adhere to some interpretation of a universal set of rules for how we engage intelligently on these platforms is not working. The internet is becoming an intolerant, hate-filled thing where people can say what they like with impunity. “Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building.”
So, as you choose your internet battles, especially as they unfold in an incredibly racially charged South Africa, please consider the feelings of other race groups, their histories and their hurts (real, not imagined) before plunging into one-sided discussions that probably have had little to no effect on your life. Take a moment to ask yourself if your conversation is promoting cross-cultural understanding or furthering unity in any way. I’m willing to try, despite my pathological need to be right. Are you?