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OPINION: Hair and Hugh Masekela

An ongoing conversation about black women's hair has re-emerged following Hugh Masekela's statements about not taking pictures with women who wear weaves or do not wear their hair in its natural state.

In a recent column in City Press, Masekela explores the history behind what has influenced our ideas about 'good hair' and 'bad hair'. He explains how African people's hair is "an amazing psychological jigsaw puzzle regarding their identity, image, self-esteem and heritage". This oppressive hair hierarchy is linked to race, the pursuit of straighter hair during apartheid and its hair tests to determine race, resulting in derogatory terms and splits within communities, and embarrassment and shame over texture. Our hair choices, then, is built on the politics of race-based oppression alone.

But the question Malcolm X once asked: "who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?" has many interlinked answers. We are taught through various mediums and messages to dislike our hair in its natural state. Masekela's way of participating in this discussion, dictating the behaviours and practices of women, without acknowledging that he does not have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to walk through the world as a woman, has meant that the multiple power relations at play are not considered.

While Masekela also comments on men who straighten their hair, his comments have primarily been directed at black women.

However, we cannot think about women and hair without exploring the 'culture of beauty', and how it is shaped by many hands and impacted from multiple angles. The billion dollar hair and beauty industry is built on women-as-consumers, particularly because women's 'value' and 'function' in society is so intimately attached to appearance.

To think about the question of hair, we have to consider what has become thought of as desirable and beautiful, too. This implicates a whole range of factors: a billion dollar industry and its advertising; patriarchy and its ideas about attractiveness; how race and racism has shape beauty norms; the corporate world and school's codes of conduct and what is deemed 'respectable' and 'neat'; the lack of products that truly care for natural hair on department stores shelves; and how we as individuals reflect and play into this. All of this culminates in the choices that we make. None of this can be untangled.

Where Masekela's explorations of history lead him to a publicly stated decision about not taking photographs with women with weaves, contributes (where intended or not) to a patriarchal culture that tells women what to do with their bodies. That vilifies black women for the choices that they make with their hair, without taking aim at the system that complicates their choices, or acknowledging how complex it is.

We land up Waiting for Godot. Endlessly caught in a Beckettian-tinged, tired discussion about weaves versus natural hair, rather than opening up a new space and conversation where we can explore hair practices in a deeper and more nuanced way. Where we consider all of the factors that impact women's choices. Where that choice itself is questioned, as we acknowledge that it is more complicated than a personal choice to wear a weave or relax our hair that is unconnected to history and untethered to the world we live in.

But Masekela is not alone in his statements. Daily, women are told 'how to be women', from multiple sources. This plays out against the backdrop of ideas about 'the right kind of women'. Men, media, other women, workplaces, family and friends chime into what can feel like an endless onslaught about how to curate ourselves. How to live in our bodies. How to be.

These kinds of statements do not allow us the space for the critical discussions that we need to have, about the identities of women of colour and how they are shaped. Importantly, they do not allow women who have weaves or relaxed hair the chance to step into the discussion without judgement. They do not create a safe space to share deeply personal parts of themselves without feeling criticised for something they are no solely responsible for.

Instead of opening the path for a meaningful, open discussion about this, women feel attacked, embarrassed, shamed and persecuted. And as a result, they are silenced by the very people who claim to be fighting for their marginalised identities.

The practice of Masekela's statements, not taking pictures with women with weaves, takes aim not at the structure or institutions, but at the individual. While it is important to interrogate the structures that impact our decisions, it cannot be done in a way that blames women for a system that they participate in, as if they created it alone.

We cannot abdicate responsibility for the world we live in, as if it is untouched by our own hands. As if we came into it with a perfectly formed politics, and do not consider the entangled web that shapes who we are, and creates particular human beings: coloured by many things that include the size of our bank accounts, skin, hair texture, sexuality, the genders we are assigned at birth, and our physical ability and appearance, and mental health.

History is important, but history is also about a web of power relations. Exploring the politics of hair is fundamental to interrogating what it means to live in this world and occupy particular bodies. It is precisely through considering the history that informs women's choices about their hair that leads to a realisation of how complicated this choice is. We cannot think of choice as removed from a structure that shapes it.

While Masekela states: "I do not wish to stop anybody from the choices they make or the cultures they want to serve themselves as fodder for", the judgement implicit in the statement already infringes on that choice, and essentially does the very thing he claims to not be doing. His power, both in society and as a man, is not interrogated, but critically it is used to shame and embarrass women for their hair choices, for the purposes of drawing attention to a white supremacist system that shames and embarrasses them for their hair texture.

Even if that is not the intent, part of the impact of statements and actions like Masekela's is that women often feel pushed from both ends, vilified because of what they do or don't do to their hair. Influenced to make certain hair choices because of the messages received daily, but shamed for that choice. As women or men, particularly because of an interrogation of the politics of hair practices and history, we can be guilty of responding from a place of elitist, self-righteous place of condemnation. As a result, some women feel locked out. Shut down. Silenced, before the conversation has even begun.

We have to consider hair-as-politics as part of a deeply connected system of oppression, and attempt to undo all oppressive structures at once, because they are entangled and play off each other. This means we have to acknowledge their interplay, rather than focusing on one aspect of the discussion. We cannot focus on one project (like race) at the expense of another (sexuality or patriarchy). Because no one thing can wait.

There is a slow, shifting tide as more women are considering the texture of their hair, but that will be stemmed by statements that righteously blame women for their choices, and keep them feeling like perpetual outsiders to a conversation about their own lives, their own hair, and their own bodies.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.