Mikhail Petersen, who grew up in the coloured community, was taught from childhood that he had “bad” hair. He reflects on how he learned to love his textured hair by refusing to be associated with colonial standards of beauty.
From a young age, I learned that I did not have “good” hair. My loving mother would affectionately tell me stories of how curly and soft my hair was as a child, but how the texture of my hair changed dramatically after my first haircut.
To say hair is big issue in the coloured community would be a gross understatement. As a young child I was made aware, through the talk of my aunties, that there were clear distinctions between those that had good hair and those that did not, especially in the coloured community. The affectionate term “kroes” comes to mind. Even then I knew that “kroes” hair was bad and that straight hair was good.
I remember going through a stage in my life when I wished my hair was straight. This was because guys with straight hair were cooler and got all the girls. On a trip home from a primary school hockey game, the texture of my hair was a topic of conversation and teasing. At this point in my life, I had decided to grow out my afro which, naturally, resulted in me being called a myriad of names that I will not get into as to avoid revisiting childhood trauma. My pre-teen life was mostly characterised by looking in the mirror hoping and longing for “better” textured hair.
Mothers of children with so-called straight hair, I find, are often not too fond of them bringing home boyfriends or girlfriends with “kroes” hair.
A friend relayed a conversation he’d had with his mother, discussing what kind of girl he could bring home. She proclaimed, “I do not care who you bring home, you just can’t bring home a girl that has kroes hair.”
I guess her mandate was that her grandkids ought to have straight hair. Their straight hair had to be protected and maintained through the family’s future generations, at all costs. Therefore, marrying of a women whose hair was not straight might be comparable to treason.
These sentiments are not isolated. A female friend of mine once unequivocally told me she could not date a guy who did not have straight hair. This perplexed me because she did not have straight hair. However, I continue to find that perplexing moments like these are common in conversations with my people regarding the topic of hair.
When discussing future loves or romantic interests with friends, a slightly older and married friend of mine exclaimed that she always saw herself dating a black guy, “but one like from the romantic comedies I love to watch” (i.e. Tyrese Gibson).
She remarked that while this may not have happened, she did manage to marry a coloured guy with straight hair. What interested me about this remark was how she said, “a coloured guy with straight hair”- as if it was an achievement. Another friend also sometimes makes reference to the “wonderful” texture of his hair. Every time he does so, I awkwardly try to swiftly change the topic.
Surely my people should be more concerned with what’s inside the head than what’s on top. Perhaps I am of this view just because I do not have straight hair and therefore am doomed to marry a woman who, too, doesn’t have straight hair and together the two of us are destined to create children which do not have straight hair, continuing to create kroes-haired offspring for generations to come.
As I grew older the issue of my hair stopped affecting me as much because I ditched the afro look as it required a lot of upkeep. I also realised that while I may not have the best hair and as a result may not be the greatest hit with the girls, I shouldn’t want to be associated with someone who is vain enough to base whether they would date someone on the texture of their hair. I stopped being concerned with issues surround hair texture when I had a change of understanding associated with my political consciousness. This made me realise that as a black man, politics of hair go far beyond vanity, but instead involve more sinister issues which centre around self-hatred, which is a cycle of violence which needs to be broken. And that, instead of being ashamed of my kroes hair, this was a crown of my black heritage that needs to be embraced.
Why are my people so fixated with the texture of our hair? I believe it is our self-hatred as coloured people. This self-hate is born out of colonisation, slavery and apartheid. Fanon noted that black people were indoctrinated to associate beauty with whiteness, so in order to achieve beauty, one had to achieve whiteness. Therefore, the closer the texture of one’s hair was to the white man’s, the more beautiful one was. Which would explain why my friend’s mother would have this strong aversion to him bringing home a girl who had kroes hair.
I think that it is important to reject western standards of beauty and it is through learning to love ourselves – “bad” hair and all – so that we can stand up defiantly against imposed notions of what is beautiful and what is not. These imposed standards are deeply hurtful to the self-image of people of colour and only perpetuate the cycle of self-hate. Bold and unapologetic self-love will help us break these damaging cycles of associating whiteness with beauty. A solid point of departure would be to brazenly internalise the liberating notions, promulgated by Steve Biko in his famous phrase, Black is beautiful.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.
Mikhail Petersen is a vacation intern at the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation.