The issue of hair has long played a role in SA's divisive history

A Clicks advert on hair products that has been labelled as racist has raised the ire of the EFF.
A Clicks advert on hair products that has been labelled as racist has raised the ire of the EFF.

Hair we go again.

Next time the hair question explodes in our country, take a good look in the mirror. Yes, there will be a next time, just as there were previous times, such as the 2016 hair protests that brought shame on two former white schools, Sans Souci Girls’ High School in Cape Town and Pretoria High School for Girls.

But first, let’s clear away the underbrush before someone sets premature fire to the argument about to be made. The Click’s advertisement was racist, period. In our long and troubled history, hair was made central to the judgment of racial purity (or otherwise) and, on occasion, served as one measure of racial classification. The pain runs deep, and I know it from close quarters. I certainly understand how that “ad” could raise political temperatures.

The response of the health and beauty store was, however, superficial if not inflammatory. In a panic, Click’s dumps TRESemmé products, “accepts” the resignation of a senior executive, and suspends all employees involved in the advertising campaign. A manager promises diversity and inclusion training. This is called damage control, an attempt to placate the red berets stomping at the door and, of course, to protect the customer list. Those actions resolve nothing for all along the production chain, nobody picked up the racist advertisement in development.

EFF members gathered outside Clicks stores across the country in protest against a racist hair product advert which the retailer posted on its website.

In other words, the racism that produced the “ad” was normalised within the company; my colleague at Stellenbosch University, Professor Thuli Madonsela, calls this “a classic case of unconscious bias”. I sometimes wonder whether it is not also conscious and of course systemic in Clicks as an organisation.

Now to the mirror. Why do we still straighten our hair? It is one thing to be outraged by an “ad” that still sets up white hair as the acceptable standard, but it is surely wrong to then rush off and continue to buy hair straightening products. Now, I accept that men and women can do with their hair what they want to. But I suspect that in our subconscious many of the hair-straighteners want their hair to look white. In other words, we fall for the lie even as we protest it.

The hair we are born with is a gift to be adorned, not an inheritance to be scorned

I am quite sure that if the EFF had not made a spectacle — and they have their own opportunistic reasons for coming out of political hibernation — that advert would have passed without too much comment. I can line up cousins and aunties from my extended family (and you can too) with hair-straightening products concealed behind the shower curtain. Yes, they no longer apply a hot iron to the hair, but ideology and technology still pair up comfortably in the pursuit of whiteness as the desirable standard.

When the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote his enduring book, Decolonising the mind, this is what he was talking about. His immediate subject might have been literature, but the big idea was to privilege African culture and identity at the centre of our aesthetics and indeed our development. When decolonisation came marching onto university campuses in 2015, it unfortunately arrived in the form of political spectacle (burn, break down, threaten, collapse) rather than as a deep interrogation into the ways in which we sustain white culture, identity and privilege in our universities.

Because decolonisation was wielded as a blunt political instrument in student protests, it was never going to be sustainable as a change strategy and, unsurprisingly, was quickly replaced by the next fad on campuses, 4IR (the fourth Industrial Revolution).

For Ngugi, the change strategy was the mind, and therefore one based on re-education. Decolonising the mind means teaching children to value who they are, where they come from, and what makes them whole. It means accepting that the same language can be spoken in different ways; that the practice of our faith can be meaningful outside western forms of religion; and that the hair we are born with is a gift to be adorned, not an inheritance to be scorned. It is when we assign that strong sense of value to our inherent worthiness as a people or a culture that we can respond with confidence and self-assurance when some disturbing event rattles our identity cages. Like a stupid advert from an unthinking company.

We really can do better than spontaneous combustion every time there is an offensive, racist act in school and society. Yes, the rage may allow us to vent and the ravaging of buildings might exact some sense of retribution. But then what? Nothing. Or as the comedian Marc Lottering puts it, Hair today, Gone tomorrow.

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