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Combing through the politics of hair

Why are we still talking about hair? Well, the answer is it still affects how brown and black people are perceived and the opportunities they access. So, we'll talk about it till we no longer have to
Thu, Mar 25, 2021

The new made-for-television film SWIRL is a love letter to hair, particularly hair in the Cape Flats. Writer and director Quanita Adams (Sara se Geheim and Arendsvlei) says: "My hair is my politics, my feminism, my fashion, my vanity, my defiance, my identity, my defence, my everything and my nothing in particular… it's complicated!"

The inspiration for SWIRL came from Adams' 43 years of living with her hair and the phases they've been through together. "The film is not meant to school people on the politics of hair; SWIRL is an intimate look at this one woman and her journey with her hair."

The film tells the story of Elaine's (Chanelle Davids) frustrations with her hair at an early age and explores ideas around 'good hair' and looking 'decent'. She builds an illustrious career doing for others what she had to do unto herself – she keeps their hair in submission.

The great hair debate, or to relax or not to relax, has always been a difficult topic, and I never really understood – me with my 'easy', non-political hair. We label and judge people on their hair, and much more so, I hear, in the black and coloured communities.

"So much of how we are seen and perceived in the world is attached to our hair," Adams says. "These stories need to be told, and this is just one. I really hope that it starts conversations."

So, what is the deal with hair? Hair has been used as a political tool. "To very damaging and hurtful effects," Adams says.

Black women have been discriminated against for centuries because of their culture, skin and hair. Everything associated with being white has been seen as superior. The apartheid government's pencil test was a metric to decide your racial identification, which in turn governed your choices, if you could call it that, of family, life partner, schooling options, etc.

Your hair preordained your possibilities in life – how you would be defined racially.

As a white girl at a school in the '90s, most other girls looked like me. I didn't even know that something like the pencil test existed, to not even mention the conversations around gender, history, class, race and privilege that it would eventually lead to.

The racist politics in schools – primarily where the hair of black pupils is governed to the point of cynical laughability – can (and should) be discussed at length, or at least until it doesn't need a conversation anymore; until it doesn't matter if your hair is relaxed or natural, curly, straight, challenging to work with or easy as pie. In the boardroom, classroom and living room, hair matters, but it shouldn't.

"Even now, the way you get treated often comes down to what your hair looks like. There's a quote in the movie that is all too familiar in our community when babies are born. One of the first questions is, 'hoe's die kind se hare?'" Adams says.

"And there is this idea that the straighter your hair is, the better your life will be, the more privileged you'll be, you'll be taken seriously. We need to keep exploring this nuance, and we need to acknowledge that it is a big deal.

On this topic, I speak from a place of ignorance, as I have never been judged based solely on my hair (we won't mention my '70s-inspired hair crimping phase in high school). I think white girls just don't get the big natural vs relaxed hair debate because we haven't had to live our best lives thinking about our hair choices' political, professional and familial implications.

"There are even people in our families that don't understand what it means and what it takes to choose to no longer chemically straighten your hair," Adams says. "The people of colour still engage in these damaging judgements, particularly on young women – and young men too! I've had some frustrating encounters with older generation uncles and aunts who just don't associate natural hair with success or beauty or decency."

And this is the conversation that we need to change.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has strong opinions on chemically altering your hair, writing: "Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you."

We need to have these conversations so we can stop having these conversations.