The problem isn’t black hair, it’s racist schools


“The problem is that [white] people do not understand black people’s natural hair and they don’t understand what it takes for a black girl’s hair to meet their standards,” 20-year-old Noncedo Zondi, told me when I recently polled people about their schools’ hair policies.

One young woman told me that her school had repeatedly referred to her hair as “exotic”. But what exactly made her hair exotic? Is it the fact that her previously white-only school did not recognise her hair as acceptable? Was the fact that her hair grows out and not down a fault to be corrected?

I perused the codes of conduct of 30 South African schools to see what the general expectation was for learners’ hair. Some included regulations like:

“No unusual, attention-attracting, exotic or fashion hairstyles (e.g. spikes, dreadlocks) or shaving of the head is permissible.”

“Outlandish cult hairstyles are not permitted.”

“Exotic hairstyles are not permitted. Some traditional variations may be permitted at the discretion of the Principal.”

This repeated use of the word “exotic” bothers me. According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary “exotic” means “very different, strange, or unusual / not living or growing naturally in a particular area: from another part of the world.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “exotic” as “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country”

Clearly, for many schools black children’s hair is associated with peculiarity and alienation, as if this is a Scandinavian country with a black population of 1%; and not South Africa with its 80% majority. I am shocked that in 2014 there are schools that refer to natural hair using the word “exotic”. (And by natural hair I mean black people’s hair, because as far as I am aware we are the only race that needs to describe our unprocessed hair in this way.)

Whatever the rationale, it is racism in the disguise of school rules concerning neatness.

It has been ages since the last time I used chemical relaxer on my hair but I still remember how painful it was. The relaxing of my hair would happen around the time schools would be reopening; sometimes it was for a class photo or a similarly important day.

The relaxer was to make my hair neat for school; I had to look presentable even if that meant risking chemical burns to the scalp.

My grandmother, who was not a fan of burning children’s scalps in the name of neatness, opted for a simpler and faster method – she would just shave off all my hair. My mother would be upset every time I returned home from Nkoko’s [my Setswana Granny’s] house with a shaven head. But I would choose a shaven head over relaxed hair any day.

Sadly, little girls are still made to conform to this idea of neatness today. Recently, a woman told me how her daughter’s daycare teacher had asked her to make sure the little girl’s hair was “neater” – code for relaxed. This came after the five-year-old had developed a rash on her scalp and gone to school with her hair unplaited, in an afro.

The continued disregard for black hair in schools is racist. Twenty years after democracy, some schools have become more racially diverse but the rules have not changed; teachers and schools are not willing to accommodate black people and their hair in its most natural state. That is the real problem.


  1. Interesting assertion from Noncedo there: how do ex-Model-C hair regulations for black girls compare to township-school hair regulations for black girls? In my experience, the township-schools are far stricter than the ex-Model C schools. Perhaps it’s not racism after all…

  2. It’s racist? Not everything is about you, you know. This obsession with controlling what kids do with their hair was prevalent in South Africa’s militaristic schooling system a long time before 1994. Today, my young nephews are going to school with exactly the same hairstyle I was forced to endure in the 80s (contemptibly referred to as “waslap” style by it’s sufferers) simply because anything else gets them in trouble with these “moral guardians” people actually still entrust their children to. It’s utterly ridiculous and shameful to me that in (supposedly) post-Apartheid South Africa we are still desperate to control what children do with their hair. It’s their damn hair!

  3. Well, when I was at school, many years ago, your hair either had to be very short, or in a plait or a ponytail (low in the neck). The moment a short bob grew longer, you had to tie it up. Long, loose hair was completely forbidden. And that was for white girls!

  4. Schools such as Pretoria Girls High are telling black pupils to relax their hair to make it ‘neater.’ That’s the equivalent to telling white girls to perm their hair so that it doesn’t fall out of a plait or ponytail.

    (My hair is silky- straight, always fell out of plaits etc)

    Except they don’t tell the white girls to perm their hair.

    So yes, it’s racist.

    ‘Long, loose hair’ is never going to be a problem for natural black hair. If an Afro is clean, groomed & off the face, the school has no leg to stand on.

  5. My question – why choose a school with these dress codes and policies? Why not find a more ‘liberal’ teaching environment where the teachers do not work 12 hour days, prepare work, actually TEACH EVERY day instead of toi-toying, striking and consequently producing abysmal academic results instead of a world-class education? Life is not always fair – deal with it NOW if you want a job in the future.

    • Liberal Gill? These are young women. Who else is going to stand up for them if they don’t do it themselves? Sure there should be guidelines around what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of styles but I for one have zero idea about what it takes to look after black/ethnic hair. My long red hair was easily tamed into a ponytail. Do you have any idea? And also, these girls are behaving in a way that shows me they are ready for their voice to be heard, they will fight for what’s right, they will continue to push our Constitution into fairer and a more just path, these young women are brave and I am proud of them. Your racism is shameful.

    • Oh Gill, really? Unfortunately most people don’t get to choose where to go to school, the system (nearest) and the budget forces them. You might have a luxury to do so but most people don’t.

    • Attention young black girl.. Kindly apologise to all the Gill’s of the world. You have to apologise for the fact that you (should) have the freedom to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head. Standing up against the racism you experience every day is a great inconvenience for her.

      • Karabo,
        Nobody is chastising these girls for wearing the hair “the way it grows out of their head.” The school has standards on hair being a certain length. A black schoolgirl can wear her hair naturally, but it must be of regulation length. A white or Asian girl’s hair length would be regulated in the same way.

  6. I don’t see racism here. Not everything that is denied for blacks is racism. Discipline derives from rule and regulations and in any school or institute there is codes of conduct, dress codes, etc. All one needs to do is find the place according to your NEEDS not wants.
    Ps. I’m not white and have a pittekop myself.

  7. i braided my hair and got told by many black girls it not allowed only black girls are allowed to. (where is the racism there, everyone can do what ever with their hair). i then became a teacher and on a daily basic got threatened by black learners and got told they will walk out of matric and into a job because they black, they dont have to work for anything. one even told me when they get a job they are going to fire all the whites. where is the racism? it very easy to throw the racism card. when i was at school, you could say “Im proud to be black or indian or coloured” BUT if you said your proud to be white, you where told you where racist. this BEE bull also needs to come to an end, i went to school with blacks had the same opportunities same studies, my family was not wealthy. why cant i get a job because of colour of my skin, yes do this for the older generation that was affected by apartheid but not todays generation.


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