When a hairstyle becomes a teacher
A few weekends ago, a group of white girls attended a party dressed as Bob Marley with fake dreads, T-shirts bearing the Jamaican flag and beanies, and danced to reggae music. The party invitation stipulated that people should come dressed as a thing or person with the initials BM.
Snapchats and WhatsApp messages were sent around sharing the fun at the party. Upon a closer look at the pictures, one of the black girls in the group of friends pointed out that something was amiss — white girls dressed as Bob Marley looked like cultural appropriation.
A few days later, a white girl came to school with her hair in cornrows, courtesy of her roommate, a black girl. A few of the black girls spoke to her about wearing her hair in cornrows and the issue of cultural appropriation, and she decided to take the hairstyle out.
By the time I joined the conversation on the Monday morning, the girls had been having their own conversations about the incidents. Some girls had apologised for the outfits worn at the dress-up party, but others, not understanding cultural appropriation, wanted to dismiss the offence they had caused.
Feelings were hurt. Emotions were high. I wanted to dismiss cultural appropriation as an American concept, which is used in a different context. But we had a grade meeting at the school during which the girls watched the video made by Amandla Stenberg on YouTube, in which she discusses the question of cultural appropriation — in an American context.
I’m still mulling over this question: Is the term cultural appropriation relevant in a country where white people ought to be assimilating African culture after years of being told that African culture is inferior?
But the black girls keep pointing out: Who is telling the white girls these hairstyles are cool: Kylie Jenner? Kim Kardashian? Other white people who are seen as being cool when they don a black hairstyle — hairstyles that are seen as untidy or unprofessional when worn by a black woman?
The girls proceeded to have a conversation about cultural appropriation in general and, more importantly, what it means in a South African context. Superficially, it’s not easy to pinpoint what the issue is: Is it about the hairstyle, the dress-up party, white privilege or assimilation?
The responses of the girls — both black and white — indicate that young people in South Africa are grappling with difficult questions about identity and what integration means. Moreover, St Mary’s is creating a space for the girls to have these discussions
The conversation has also been illuminating in terms of addressing the stereotype about racial relations among privileged black girls who are seen as apolitical coconuts lost in a white world.
Black girls are making attempts to understand their heritage and identity and they are engaging their white peers about theirs. This is not an easy conversation to have but I have been moved by how the girls have been articulate and courageous in saying things that are often left unsaid.
These are some their thoughts, in their own words.
Sandile Parirenyatwa (17)
I think there are three levels when it comes to the subject of cultural appropriation:
Level 1: Cultural appropriation
This is when a person adopts or uses elements of a culture to which they do not belong. It is when symbols that have a huge meaning or incredible value are used with little or no regard for their true purpose. Cultural appropriation is someone going to a dress-up party wearing “Jamaican colours’’ and a dreadlock wig and calling themselves Rastafarian.
Rastafarianism is an actual religion that many people follow. There is a specific reason why they wear dreadlocks, and using them as part of a dress-up is highly disrespectful. It is like a Jewish person going to a party as a priest and wearing all the religious symbols and attire just for “fun’’. It’s disrespectful.
Level 2: Cultural appreciation
Cultural appreciation occurs very rarely. In fact, most of the time when it does occur, even then it is just used as a cover-up.
This is when a person who does not belong to a certain culture uses elements of that culture for a specific purpose where the elements are rightfully used.
For example, if you are invited to a Hindu wedding and you wear traditional Hindi attire or a sari, this is appreciation because you are appreciating the bride and groom’s culture while celebrating their marriage.
But if as a non-Hindu person you go out to lunch or dinner in a traditional Hindi outfit or a sari just because you feel like it, that is not appreciating the culture because you are wearing the attire without fully encapsulating its true meaning.
Level 3: Cultural assimilation
This is when a person who does not belong to a specific culture uses elements of that culture to survive day-to-day life.
People generally confuse the fact that black women have weaves in their hair as cultural appropriation instead of cultural assimilation. For a very long time, black women were never taken seriously with their natural hair. It has been seen as “unprofessional’’ and “edgy’’ and today is even referred to as being “hip’’ when it’s worn naturally.
It is partly because of this that black women have turned to weaves and relaxers so they can look as similar as possible to the concept of white beauty.
But when a white woman wears cornrows in her hair, it is cultural appropriation because the hairstyle that black women are judged for wearing is being appropriated and sometimes is mocked by a person who is not judged in the same way.
Amy Codrington (17)
In post-apartheid South Africa, many issues surrounding race get tip-toed around as nobody wants to offend anyone else.
In my opinion, though, it is impossible even to begin to understand what offends other people if we don’t talk about these issues.
As a white person, I have lived with the “white guilt” of apartheid for many years and I am often afraid to express my opinions in the fear of them being seen as invalid in comparison to a black girl’s opinion, as my race was formerly associated with “the oppressor”.
Although things have changed, I don’t want to feel like this anymore. The dream in South Africa is of a “rainbow nation”. But I don’t think this is possible if nobody talks about issues surrounding all our different cultures.
Recently at St Mary’s we have been talking about cultural appropriation, with a specific focus on white girls wearing “black girls’ hairstyles”.
Before coming to a conclusion about my beliefs, I was challenged in a huge way. Initially I was irritated that other girls had approached my white friend for wearing cornrows.
I felt that it was not fair to make her feel as though she was “appropriating” another person’s culture by wearing the hairstyle when actually she was trying to appreciate the hairstyle.
I believed that at St Mary’s we are all very accepting of each other’s cultures. But I wanted to learn why so many people had been offended by the incident, so I did some research about cultural appropriation and what it was in this particular context.
I found myself feeling slightly small, as I had never realised that the issue regarding hair was a touchy one for many black girls for many reasons.
It was very interesting for me to learn that, even though we go to St Mary’s, which I thought, as a school, was so accepting of natural black hair, there are many black girls who still feel as though they’re not appreciated and they want to feel confident in their natural hair before white people wear their hairstyles.
This made perfect sense to me because I know that the remnants of apartheid still linger in everyday life and I want the black girls in my school to feel completely comfortable in themselves and not as though white people are trying to impose on their culture.
Nonetheless, in the context of St Mary’s, I feel as though there needs to be an understanding and acceptance of the fact that many of the white girls, including myself, want to learn about different black cultures and
to take part in cultural assimilation and exchange. I do not believe that the way to building the dream of a rainbow nation is to further divide ourselves.
I hope that black girls come to a place where they can help white girls to be respectful in participating in different cultures with each other and vice versa.
Xalati Mabuela (16)
The concept of cultural appropriation, to me, is a social barrier put in place to avoid the misuse of another’s culture and also to re-establish a certain level of respect for cultures outside of our own.
It is very complex, especially when one takes the history of the world into consideration. The notion is then
a form of affirmative action. I believe that setting social boundaries and rules helps to overcome aspects of people’s culture that have been stigmatised when practised by those belonging to the particular culture, but are more acceptable when done by those who are not part of that culture.
There are many grey areas when it comes to identifying the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Personally, I believe that the distinction is how those pertaining to the culture react to how the culture is being referenced and the angle from which it is coming.
One needs to understand that the culture does not belong to them and, if one is received with acceptance by those who practise the culture, it can then be considered a form of appreciation.
The majority rules, although the opinions of the minority matter. For example, if one person thinks a person has appreciated their culture and two people think it is appropriation then I believe it is appropriation. The two people who have said it is appropriation have the responsibility to understand why the other person thinks it is appreciation and vice versa. One’s opinions need to be fluid.
If one’s opinion is questioned and cannot be validated, then it should change because everybody is working towards having opinions that are fair for all.
Cultural appropriation does not have a standard set of rules to abide by, but one can err on the side of caution and, if there is any doubt, just don’t do whatever it is that might cause a stir.
On life and why we get high
Durban, the warmest place to be — if you believe the touristy billboards — is a mix of tourist-friendly beaches, capitalistic expansion and gigantic metropolitan townships. One of the busiest seaports on the continent, it is also a node for drugs to enter or leave the country.
The underbelly of its freeway junctions were, until recently, a mass of drug dens devoted to wunga-heads but its sprawling townships have become home to another curse.
It is ecstasy, known locally as indanda and qoh. Between late March and early April 2016, local newspapers reported seven deaths and more than 40 hospital admissions caused by a deadly batch of Ecstacy. Some of the dead and more than 30 of the 40 were of school-going age.
The township complex of Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu (INK) is described in municipal documents as the second-largest agglomeration of poor neighbourhoods in South Africa, with high levels of social dislocation, poverty and crime.
In this article, three schoolgoing teenagers speak about using qoh, even if they speak about it in the past tense. Their names have been changed.
Zweli Mpungose (18)
I started taking drugs, qoh in particular, from watching my friends. They would just change. Some would go into a deep joyful silence. Others would be just very generous. So I thought I would test it out.
I started about three years ago. I was 14.
When my friends would be planning to have a get-together, it was always a part of the discussion. I guess pills have always been there but they were not that popular, especially in the township.
My first trip was pure bliss. I had never felt anything like it. I would be listening to beats and I would hear things I had never heard before in music I am familiar with. It was much more enjoyable. That’s why it goes so well with gqom because of the way it is produced. I would also fall into these deep, satisfying silences.
I could only click with a woman if she was also tripping. I was soon taking it every second weekend.
When I started having sex, soon after I started taking it, I found that it actually shrinks your penis and inhibits your sex drive. But, for platonic fun, it is the best.
Because some of my friends’ parents would work night shift, we would sometimes go to their house under the pretext of studying. We would take pills and end up bunking school or going to school high, having not slept, with music blasting through our headphones.
It didn’t make me bunk school that much because I would pop half to be able to buzz enough to make it to school. I couldn’t bunk because my mom doesn’t work all the time.
Even though it was, like, R50 a pop, it would deplete our pocket money because we would end up taking, like, three pills in one night, because, like alcohol, it wears off and you want more. When your high fades in the middle of the night, it’s depressing. Other kids would borrow money right there in the party, or do whatever they have to.
I know of kids who have died from taking it. Here in Inanda it has happened. I know at least three people that I knew here. What I heard is that it could be the pill called Mercedes. Apparently it can give you a three-day high.
Also, more people are taking this now, so some don’t follow the protocols. Like these kids in KwaMashu that died. It was this Mercedes pill. You’re supposed to take like half of that pill, not the full thing. If you take the full pill, if you are weak, you die. The girls that died here in Inanda, just last month, were on that pill.
Phumlani Nkabinde (17)
I do not only take qoh. I also smoke weed. But the popularity of qoh has to do with people knowing that it is there as an option that goes well with -drinking.
People know exactly how it will make them feel — they will be more sociable in some cases, but they will definitely want to dance their life away.
If I am on weed, I do not like people’s company. So the ecstasy is like a protective shield where I can have fun and be confident in front of others.
You can have bad trips. That’s just a part of the process. But that happens if you are in a different township and you have to get your stuff from someone you are not used to.
Sometimes there’s an expression used where they say “ubishile”. It describes an intense trip that can cause physical discomfort. Some bite their tongues or get quivering jaws and need gum. Sometimes you can “bisha” and it’s fun if the drugs are good quality and you’re with people you know. But to avoid that, I buy from people I know.
If I visit my dad in Jo’burg, I will do what the kids there are doing. In Jo’burg, I know guys my age. For me, it’s just a matter of relieving stress of school and just home bullshit.
As far as I know, drugs have always been around. I can’t speak for their infiltration and how they enter ekasi.
When I was young, there was a song by Thebe called Goodman, he was apparently a dealer in pills. It’s the same thing. Maybe then it was purer, but now there are a lot of chancers because people are seeing a business opportunity. It’s just like the cocaine. A lot of people call cat (methcathinone) ntash but ntash is cocaine.
Thirty years from now, they will call qoh by another name.
What makes it more available now is that people that work buy it for younger girls that go to school. A lot of my friends end up taking it that way.
If you can buy 10 pills, worth R500, you can get a discount and only end up paying R350.
People usually associate weed with wunga so the pills hold more status.
What I can tell you is that, as far as the recovery period, this shit is the worst. I can sleep for 10 hours, by way of recovery, and that’s unlike me. I will be dehydrated and feel horrible about myself. But when the next pill comes my way, I am not passing it up. Life is short.
Thulani Ngcobo (17)
I started noticing this is a trend here around 2009, somewhere there, when these four rooms became drug dens.
I actually sold it for a few months and then left it alone. I was selling to my friends in high school. They are the ones who are into “explosions”, which are house parties.
It was basically for people who didn’t like taverns. It was a chilled-out type of vibe, more indoors.
But, at the same time, while people are chasing that intimacy, it can completely fuck with your brain. It can make you live like you have money when you know you are actually dead broke.
You can give someone your cellphone to keep if they ask for it, you can feel so deeply connected to people as if you have loved them your whole life.
You can have such incredible compassion or stupidity that someone can tell you they are HIV positive and you will still sleep with them. You will say, no, I won’t get it in one day. That’s how far it can take you.
So imagine the danger that that can bring. So it’s “shap” but it’s also a flop.
For me, normality only returns once you leave it alone because it takes a while to exit your system.
For me, the lethal aspect of it is partly the thrill of it and it is tied to its availability. It is home-made, it’s a cheap thrill, so you can’t vouch for its consistency. One minute there is 50% of an ingredient, the other minute 60%, [but] when it hits 80%, we are singing Amagugu at your wake.
For me, I take it because I have
no other way of rebelling. We, the Zulus, were once a great people but what do we have? We manufacture nothing and all our rivers have dried up. All we are left with are townships, as large as Umlazi, as small as
Clermont and 50-million ways to kill us. That’s why other people I know do it. It’s a search for respite in hell. I can be in heaven until daybreak.
– Kwanele Sosibo