Recently a young South African girl named Zulaikha Patel made headlines when she got in trouble at her school in Pretoria for wearing her hair natural – an afro. There was a protest held by students from Pretoria Girls High School that made international headlines and could be seen all over social media. The idea of afro hair being deemed as inappropriate in countries on the African continent seems crazy, but unfortunately this is still the reality. European beauty standards influence the whole world and Africa is not an exception. This is a result of European colonization and it’s tool of negating beauty standards of other cultures. In recent years there have been similar incidents in the US where the army banned “black hairstyles”, a 12 year old was threatened with being expelled, etc. it seems like every few months there’s a similar story floating around in the media. Natural afro hair is sometimes called “unprofessional” or “inappropriate” in certain settings.
That the way ones hair naturally grows from ones scalp can be considered “inappropriate” or “unprofessional” is a pure insult. When do straight haired people ever hear that their hair is “inappropriate” in a certain setting? When have you ever heard about a group of straight hair people having to organize a protest to fight for their right to wear their hair the way it grows naturally out of their scalp? It’s in these situations that we can’t say that hair is just hair. It’s situations such as these that make it clear that hair is so much more than “just” anything. It is a definition of race and also a political issue.
The way afro hair is received in Scandinavia is not as extreme and in your face as in South Africa or the US. But many Afro-Scandinavians speak of how they do adjust their hair to fit in, both Scandinavia at large but also in particular areas of society such as the workplace. In 2014 Salem Yohannes from Sweden wrote her Bachelors thesis in Political Science on “black female hair and professional norms” titled “Don’t Touch My Hair”. This thesis gained media attention and she started traveling around Sweden talking about hair and race. This was a very innovate topic to choose to write about, and what Salem Yohannes discovered was that women of African descent in Sweden did experience exotification and racism triggered by their hair. Some women chose to change their hairstyle because of this.
It is clear that the European standards of beauty affect us all as Africans, regardless if we are in the majority (as in African countries) or the minority (as in the Scandinavian countries). Our hair is still a hot topic in many ways. Perhaps one day in the future a big afro will no longer attract curious looks, strangers grabbing it and ignorant questions and comments. Perhaps in the future, an afro will be just as unexciting as long straight hair and be completely ignored, even here in Scandinavia.