When I first read the code of conduct administered at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa, I was mortified. As a mother, with a daughter whose hair at 3 years old would be classified by some as “nappy”, all I could think was “How would I do her hair if this came home from her school?” The answer quickly revealed itself: I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
“All hair must be brushed,” begins the section on General Appearance, “If hair is long enough to be tied back it, it must be tied back neatly in a ponytail, no lower than the nape of the neck, with a navy blue elastic. Ponytails may not be visible from the front…Hair buns must be tight with no loose hair and have to be worn in the neck, and not on top of the head. The hair may not cover the elastic…”
The young women of Pretoria High School responded powerfully with a hashtag and protest, bringing an international spotlight to the racism they experience within their school halls. The school suspended the policy, for now. While I recognize how important it is that the policy doesn’t return, it’s equally important that this story of activism is uplifted and not forgotten.
For a long time, I tried not to “be” my hair. I had countless conversations with myself about not letting this dark mass of spiraled confusion, accented by much frizz, consume me and how I love and identify myself.
A policy like the one at Pretoria High is one I attempted to subscribe to on my own. I pulled my hair back and applied heat, but despite any and all work I may have put in on my head, I would walk away from the mirror with a shrug because I knew my hair still didn’t meet what I had visualized that I saw all around me: sleek, long, “white girl” hair. I knew I would still get made fun of, I knew my hair would still be talked about, and I thought I had to just suck it up.
These standards visualized by me were reinforced by media and the peers (Black and white) of my predominately white school, but what I didn’t know was how this was suppressing me and my culture on a larger scale. In so many words, I see my younger self as the girl that Pretoria High students are fighting for.
“Black children are going through this and their cries are not heard,” Zulaikha Patel, 13, said in a video shared by CNN about her motivation to protest, “So it’s about time their cries were heard.”
When I was in college and had my daughter I finally ditched my flat iron as I watched my hair flourish with every wash. It was then I realized my responsibility as a mother to teach my daughter about her beauty, so that she wouldn’t have to learn from media or her classmates. I didn’t have the time anymore to apply mounds of product and heat, but more importantly I wanted her to see someone that looked like her – naturally.
My first shero, Angela Davis, wore an afro. The afro always symbolized strength and power because it was everything white people didn’t want Black people to be: themselves.
To see a young South African girl standing up for Black children everywhere with an afro as big as the power she knows she has, I felt inspired and hopeful. The students at Pretoria High School for Girls exemplified revolutionary self-love, but also a story of activism we must preserve for young girls around the world, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes.