An "Ethnic" Hair Phenomenon

Angela Williams University of Western Cape, South Africa


May 13, 2016

A quick introduction: I am an African American woman, who entered into young adulthood during The Natural Hair Movement. This is a social movement that started in the 2000s, which encouraged American women of African descent in the United States to rock their hair in its natural curly, kinky texture, and leave perms as a relic of the past. Currently, this movement has spread to different parts of the world, and has roots in the United States. To the broader society, my hair would be referred to as "nappy," "Black hair" and "ethnic." To the natural hair community, my hair texture is 4C. I am aware of the #TeamNatural being a movement based in the US, so I often used the terms “ethnic” to describe my hair texture to salons in South Africa that do not carry compatible stylists for me.

The first time I got individual braids here, I was amazed by how awesome they looked. I tried a blondish color for the first time. The braids were done neatly, and they were not heavy in terms of collective weight. Most importantly, the braiders did not braid tightly. Thus I was not accompanied by the usual headache that I would be plagued with whenever I got the same style done in the States. From my experiences in the States, I have concluded that most braiders have a technique informed by the ideology, "tightness equals neatness."

This ideology makes getting one’s hair braided more painful for days, perhaps weeks at a time. I know now that it does not have to be this way. After getting my hair braided in South Africa, I doubt that I will ever get my hair braided in the States again.

Before I got my hair braided for the second time in this country, I decided to get my hair washed, blow-dried, and flat-ironed. My initial thought was that I could easily find an "ethnic" hair stylist in the area. I am in South Africa, a majority Black country, right? However, finding a salon was not easy. When I googled hair salons in the area, they had advertisements showcasing white women with straight, long hair. These salons also did not offer the flat-iron service, which is what my hair would need in order to be straightened.

With no luck online, I asked my Resident Advisor, a Black South African woman, how did Black women with thick hair like mine get their hair straightened? She referred me to a "Coloured" Salon, meaning mostly Coloured South Africans owned and worked there. It was her assumption that they would be able to service me because they would be trained on how to properly straighten my hair texture without chemicals. She also told me, "Good luck girlfriend." (She had never had her hair straightened there because she usually gets a perm or braids.) Little did I know that I would actually need that luck moving forward as I set up my appointment at that salon.

The day came of my appointment and I had anxiety because I still did not have faith in the salon or stylists. So much for being optimistic! When I first walked into the salon, no one made eye contact with my two Afro-Puffs and me. I suppose, in the South African Context, I was a bit of an "ethnic hair phenomenon" because I could possibly be a Coloured woman, but I had the thick natural hair texture of a Black South African woman. To many, I was clearly a foreign woman. After verbally making myself known, I was told to have a seat in the back while my stylist would be ready for me as soon as she was done with her current client.

When it was my turn, the stylist shampooed and blow-dried my hair in less than an hour, which is unheard of in the States. She also did not have the best bedside manner and hardly talked to me. I’m not sure if that was her personality or if she was not too excited to clean my hair. I could have left, but I did not have the right equipment at home to replicate the services. Eventually it was time to flatiron my hair. I checked her technique and noted how she grabbed pieces that were too big and ran over them with the flatiron at max two times. Sure my ends were straightened, but my roots were not. By the time she got to the top of my head, I realized that the finished product would be distinctly different from a flatiron in the States. When she was done, I checked the mirror and noted that I could have done a slightly better job at straightening my hair if I had the right tools at home. (Actually, I would have skipped the salon process all together if my blow-dryer did not spark the wall outlet.) Trying to hide my discontent, I thanked her and gave her a tip because my hair was clean and detangled and my ends were trimmed.

To no surprise, by the time I reached my house, any type of press I had was gone, and my mane was frizzed. The Cape Town air was not humid and it was not raining. She did a horrible job. Why was that? I had paid good money, and I was probably charged more than the average customer. Perhaps I should have researched more, or went to a place that was more expensive, even though it was hard enough finding this place. To understand my experience, I concluded that most Black South African women get perms, braids or weaves. Not many of them have their natural hair straightened without a chemical relaxer. I remembered how in the majority Black and Coloured townships I visited, I only saw braiding salons. The Main Road, the street near my house, only has braiding salons as well. I did a quick survey a few days after my failed finished product and noticed how the women, who had a similar hair texture to me, either wore a weave, had a perm, sported braids or adorned dreadlocks. When I went to the local pharmacies and grocery stores, I noticed how the hair products were geared toward perms, weaves, or braids. There was no Cantu Shea Moisture or Miss Jessies (brands for natural hair products in the United States). I am glad that I found an abundance of raw coconut oil, which is what I usually use on my natural hair. If I did not, I would have been out of luck in the hair department.

Overall, my experience at the salon has made me interested in learning more about the hair culture and beauty school training in South Africa, and more specifically in Cape Town. I knew that the hair scene for Black Women in South Africa would be drastically different than in the US, but I cannot help but to be disappointed by the lack of knowledge and products that are catered towards natural, thick, not-chemically altered hair in a majority Black country. Cape Town is great for anyone who wants to get some dope box braids. If you want to get your natural hair straightened with no chemicals, don’t.

On a positive note, I will leave you with some hair care tips that are good for anyone moving to a country that does not have a Natural Hair Movement.

  1. Research and ask around! Someone should know something. Anything.
  2. Bring your own hair products and machines. If you have no patience, time to open up your own hair salon! Just make sure you have an outlet converter so you can plug in your hair equipment without sparks flying.
  3. Have patience!