By Nia Louw
I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if we were never colonized by Europe. If we were given a fair chance, would we rather have invaded them- later having white women buying afros and perming their hair- would there still be hate? I am old enough to understand that the past can’t be changed and that conflict is a part of life, but there remains a glint of childish naivety inside of me that wishes there was equality from the beginning, I close my eyes and fantasize about the possibilities, I do this when my teacher’s ask me for my English name or when I am told my hair is too wild for school, I do this because I am tired of fighting.
I am tired of harbouring this anger that exists inside of me only because I am black; because I am black I have to fight. How can I stand contently as the cashier at the grocery store lets the white man behind me pay first? How can I say nothing when I am called a kaffir through somebody’s racist rage? How can we not fight when there is so much we still need to fight for?
We have been fighting for equality for so long, dreaming about it, yearning for it, but how can we achieve it if when we are so deeply buried in denial? They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem; we must recognise that The End of Apartheid was not the end of apartheid. The laws have been changed and the buildings remodelled, but racism remains like a dark cloud looming low over our heads. It is the concept, the thinking pattern that must be altered, but how can we fix what we do not think is broken?
Besides my many encounters with racism I dread having to face it each time, I abhor being reminded of its presence in my life, like a sharp rock in my shoe, piercing with each step. It weighs us down through every facet of life, its influence fabricating doubt in ourselves, leading us to question our hair, our complexion, or behaviour. We are repetitively told that light skin is beautiful and that straight hair is favourable and because it has been fed to us so much we start to believe this notion, how can we ignore what is constantly in our ear? How can we attempt to listen to anything else when the voice of racism is the loudest?
There a form of racism that many schools and teachers still fail to acknowledge; the moderation of our hair. We are constantly told by teachers to tie our hair, or cut our hair or tame it. Natural hair is not encouraged at school, when girls arrive with afros, they are told to tie it up. Teachers are unaware of the pain they inflict with this command. They are not aware of the work it takes to flatten our hair simply because our hair is not meant to be flattened. We are not taught to embrace our hair, but rather taught to despise its coarseness, the frustration we feel when we are forcing our hair into ponytails, slowly morphs into a bitter self-hate, and a strong envy for the type of hair that is praised. We begin to long for the type of hair that can be guided effortlessly into a ponytail, the type of hair that is easily flattened, the type of hair that is not ours. There is constant pressure to reform and process our hair, it is no longer seen as a problem once relaxed- teachers look past you rather than stop you, they no longer reprimand you each time they see you, you start to feel like less of a problem, you start to feel acceptable. Unfortunately for me, I could not comply, I could not sit silently and reform, I became a problem. No child, no matter how naughty they are, relishes in being told that they are a problem. It was difficult defying the teachers- leaving my hair in an afro, questioning their rules, stating my opinion- because I was labelled as a bad child, teachers who hadn’t taught me would sneer as they spoke to me, having heard about me from other teachers, attempting to intimidate the rebellion out. I felt alone in my fight, my mother would come to the school when a teacher made a racist comment, but when she was not there and I had to face them alone I was afraid. At times I could not argue, I sometimes felt small, as if my fight was not worth fighting. I wanted to give up. One day a teacher said to me, “You have no right to go on the way that you do.” And that was when I realized that I had to carry on fighting, because if I did not they would never recognise that every child has a right to fight for what they believe in.
Racism is an insidious presence in society; it runs deep in the roots of every culture, etched into the scriptures of all history books. Some think that it will be too great a task to remove something that is so deeply rooted in history, but I believe that as long as racism has been around, the defiance of racism was omnipresent in its company.
Thank you for this opportunity.