Abolish anti-Blackness: Hair and racism in South Africa
How a racist beauty advertisement reinforced colonial ideas that present Blackness as abnormal in relation to whiteness.
In September, popular South African health and beauty retailer Clicks sparked widespread anger after publishing an advertisement that reinforced Eurocentric beauty standards in a country still suffering the effects of its painful racist past.
The online advertisement, commissioned by TRESemme, a haircare brand under Unilever, portrayed photos of Black women with natural hair captioned by the words “dry & damaged” and “frizzy & dull”. While on the opposite side of the spectrum, it showcased white women with hair it called “normal” and “fine & flat”.
People were outraged; angry posts filled social media, crowds gathered to protest outside Clicks stores, and thousands called the company out for discrimination. Many others shrugged off the anger as just a “hair issue”, but the advertisement was much more than that. It was blatantly racist – a direct reinforcement of the anti-Blackness constructed by colonisation, that stripped Black people of their human dignity by positioning Blackness as “abnormal” in relation to whiteness.
This is something that stretches back to the 1600s when European colonisers used whiteness as the model of humanity and deemed Blackness as inferior – an idea that became deeply embedded in the minds of both Black and white people over the centuries.
The racism in the Clicks advertisement – just the latest public iteration of the messaging that Black women are forced to face on a daily basis – took me back four years to the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh movement, which I co-founded in 2016.
As Black pupils at Pretoria High School For Girls – a historically whites-only institution – we protested against the school’s racist policies, starting with its hair policy that favoured whiteness in its framing of neatness and professionalism.
The policy stated that all hairstyles had to be “conservative, neat and tied at the nape of the neck” while braids had to be “1cm in diameter”. No allowances were made for natural Black hair, like Afro hair, which was verbally prohibited by the headmistress at the time. “Afros and dreadlocks are not permitted in Girls High,” she had said.
Beyond the policies themselves, the enforcement of these rules had echoes of apartheid-style policing: Institutional white authorities – in this case, teachers – would use derogatory terms including the “K-word” – South Africa’s equivalent of the N-word – against Black girls, describing Black hair as “dirty, untidy, demonic, uncontrollable”, and likening it to a bird’s nest.
At the time, the school prohibited the use of Indigenous African languages by Black girls when speaking to each other. Informally, it also prohibited Black girls gathering in groups by asking us to disperse and accusing us of “conspiring” against the institution, and it clamped down on pupils addressing the existence of white privilege in the institution by giving us warnings, demerits or detention when we raised the topic of racism within the school. These were all issues our movement protested against.
In the early 1990s, when South African schools first desegregated, Pretoria Girls High and many other white institutions opened their gates to other races. But the dominant Eurocentric culture of these schools was not so easily changed. Black children who walked into these historically white spaces seeking the “quality education” that was not afforded their parents’ generation, left carrying large amounts of trauma because of the unequal treatment, exclusion, and discriminatory cultural standards they were forced to endure.
When our movement called out the racist policies at our school and took it a step further to advocate for the decolonisation of South Africa’s wider basic education sector, the message gained traction with young Black people in schools across the country.
From wider discriminatory hair policies that ultimately force us to erase our Blackness, to the exclusion of our African languages in school subjects and recess spaces, to the Eurocentric syllabus which – starting from kindergarten – is the first form of indoctrination that socialises us to view our Blackness as inferior by teaching us that “skin colour” is “light peach” and showing us book characters who are mostly blonde and blue-eyed, the issues resonated with every Black child who has been subjected to harsh institutionalised racism at school.
This while the geospatial divides in South African education also reinforce systemic racism: Black schools in townships and rural areas are left to fall apart with inadequate access to resources, while historically white institutions prosper with first-class resources and prestigious physical and financial conditions.
And all of this has been allowed to take place in the “democratic” Republic of South Africa, which won some gains at the end of apartheid in 1994 – such as the exchange of political power and the erasure of racist laws – but has not yet eradicated the systems it entrenched.
Decades since the end of apartheid rule, and four years on from the movement at Pretoria Girls High, the Clicks incident again raises questions about why Black bodies continue to be disrespected and how a direct insult to Black lives is able to make its way to publication in 2020, in a country that is majority Black.
Sadly, the reality is that South Africa has deep unresolved socioeconomic racial tensions that stem from the negotiated transition from apartheid to “democracy” – a divide that has prevented it from fully arriving at the “post-apartheid” destination it promised in the early 1990s.
The system of apartheid that was once constitutionalised did not end just because the law changed in 1994. Instead, it was privatised and institutionalised – and its effects continue to negatively shape the lives of Black people socially, politically and economically. Although the political system was reformed, it means nothing without a shift in economic power and radical social change. Without the complete abolition of the systems apartheid created, the structures that separate Black people from equal opportunities, education, employment and access to wealth and land will continue to exist.
The Clicks advertisement is a glimpse of this privatised form of apartheid – a space where the system has not been completely annihilated, and where the racially exclusionary foundation built by the apartheid regime remains active in the corporate and education arena.
Systemic power in South Africa’s corporate sector still predominantly lies in the hands of white men. White people make up about 8 percent of South Africa’s economically active population, but occupy 65 percent of top management positions. In contrast, Black Africans who are about 79 percent of economically active people comprise 15 percent of top management positions, according to a 2019 report from the country’s Commission for Employment Equity.
After more than 400 years of historical white rule in South Africa, the dominant voice at the decision-making table is still white and, whether by default or design, still speaks to the interests of whiteness. Black women make up 36 percent of South Africa’s economically active population, a significant number that should see themselves present in corporate boardrooms and better represented in the decisions corporations make. Yet the publication of such a tone-deaf advertisement portrays the evident lack of Black female representation in the marketing sector and the mainstream beauty industry. If it were more diverse and inclusive, it would have been able to better reflect Clicks’s consumers – the majority of them young, Black women.
Accountability and justice
In response to the national outrage sparked by the advertisement, Clicks, TRESemme, and Unilever issued public apologies. However, those apologies were not accompanied by sufficient accountability, such as disclosing the names of those liable for the advertisement, dismissing the staff responsible, or disclosing the demographic representation of their companies’ boards – demands that were made by many activists, members of the public, and the opposition political party the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Unilever admitted publicly through its social media platforms that the advertisement was racist but still refused to name those responsible, which showed no will to hold those who perpetuate racism accountable for their actions. In a nutshell, what the company did was pure “damage control” for their brand, as their apologies were not accompanied by any real accountability.
Similarly, in the wake of our 2016 protests at Pretoria Girls High, there was no accountability by the educators who perpetuated racism and no justice for the pupils who were victims of the human rights violations that took place. Although there was an investigation into the school’s racist policies in 2016, then, like now, the outcomes worked in favour of the institution.
The investigation concluded that the policies were indeed racist, but what followed was a reform of the hair policy, rather than the complete abolition of the existence of a hair policy, as we had been calling for – since the mere existence of a “hair policy” allows room for discrimination by granting a handful of – usually non-Black – people power over the expression of Black African identity.
Meanwhile, the specific educators who enforced those racist policies and perpetuated racism were not held accountable for their actions. It was argued that pupils did not have substantial evidence of the racist incidents they reported – incidents which usually took place when pupils were left alone with the racist educator. In the end, the teachers’ identities were kept hidden to protect them.
In both cases, the school protests and the fallout from the Clicks advertisement, accountability by those responsible is important to help pave the way towards justice. Because without it, we allow direct insults to Blackness to be ignored, once again undermining the confidence and personhood that Black people have spent generations fighting to reaffirm.
Decolonise the system
Some have attributed the Clicks incident to the “unconscious bias” of the companies involved, in an effort to justify the advertisement. But the danger of naming it that means that those responsible are not held accountable, and we remain blindfolded to the harsh, long-lasting effects of colonisation and apartheid that South Africans continue to grapple with.
It is no surprise that racists persist in their harmful behaviour towards Black people since there are no harsh consequences or systems put in place to hold them accountable for their actions and to serve justice to victims of racial discrimination. This itself is as a result of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, a process which was not focused on the complete abolition of all systems architected by the apartheid regime.
As a result, South Africa is politically transformed; yet economically and socially, our systems continue to advance the lives of white people over Black people – granting them everyday socioeconomic privileges such as better access to opportunities, quality education, wealth and capital, employment, and representation in every facet of society from the workplace to the mainstream beauty industry to institutions sanctioned by the state.
Over the years, much of the response to racism has been reactionary. But in seeking to abolish the structures that disadvantage Black South Africans, we need to be actively anti-racist every day, working to build inclusive systems created by us, and for us which will advance Black communities in every aspect.
The “norm” and standard of whiteness was historically used as a tool to plant self-hatred in Black people – and its effects have been long-lasting. Even in the 21st century in a South Africa “freed” from the physical shackles of apartheid, the country is still governed by elements of white aesthetics and dynamics of anti-Blackness.
This raises the urgent need for decolonisation as a means for Black South Africans to free ourselves psychologically and reclaim our identities. We have been socialised to be reliant on white approval, which has led to our continuous support of white entities and businesses like Clicks, which serve no purpose in empowering and uplifting Black people and our identities. But we can make a change by placing emphasis on supporting Black businesses and calling for the complete abolition of the man-made, socioeconomic systems of racial inequality that exist as a result of apartheid, and continue to disadvantage Blackness while advancing whiteness.
The Clicks advertisement is much deeper than just a “hair issue”.
It is a glimpse at the systemic racism that exists in South Africa today, and a reminder that it is time to abolish the systems architected by apartheid, and no longer just reform them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.