When the girls and I decided to tell our natural hair stories, I knew right from the beginning it would be very difficult to express why I never embraced my natural hair til I was in my mid 20’s.
Firstly I’m biracial and there’s a stereotype that if you are biracial, specifically born from a black and white parent your hair will have that perfect curl that looks good and is easily manageable. This stereotype is assumed by both black and white communities for the same reasons; one thinks since I’m part white my hair would be easily manageable since it’s not as kinky as theirs, and the other thinks since I’m part black, my hair benefits to having a natural curl and is easier to manage than the kinky coily hair which is ingrained in my ethnicity. Well that’s not true. I have 4 older sisters, 3 of them who are biracial and have completely different textures from my own hair type. They all range from 3A – 4C hair and we each have struggled in our own way with managing our natural hair. So lets kick out this notion and break the attitude that if you’re from or part of a particular minority group, you are all the same. We are not all the same. Black, White or mixed race.
My name is Neo and I have finally embraced and have come to love my curly coily primarily 3C/3B hair.
It took me a long time to start wearing my hair in it’s natural strand and since the day I started, it has changed the way I feel about myself and has definitely changed my life.
As a young motswana canadian born woman with naturally kinky curly hair, I have been on a 7 year long journey of proudly embracing my own natural curly hair, and it only took me 21 years to finally do so.
So where did it all start? When did my curly crown become a “problem” (or so I thought)? It started at a very young age when I was living in Botswana. I was 7 years old going to school in a primarily black community. I first took notice that I looked different when the other black Batswana kids would clearly single me out as being a lekgoa (a white person) and the white kids would call me black. It was when I started struggling with my racial and cultural identity. Who was I and were did I fit in? Don’t get me wrong, I knew I was part black and part white, but I never quite thought of myself as being any different from the other kids, I mean I spoke both English and Setswana, I enjoyed the same activities as all the other kids, yet when it came down to it, I was visibly different and thus my racial identity was always marginal and that came with being labeled and put into a box. A box I didn’t quite fit into either.
This box had a label and it was called “Coloured”. In Southern Africa being called coloured meant you were either born from a black and white parent, or were light skinned, or from a ‘…heterogenous ethnic group who possess ancestry from Europe and various khoisan and bantu tribes of Southern Africa’. Now I really don’t want to go into an essay of breaking this all down, but rather give you some insight to why, “I” at 7 started then struggling with my identity and how my hair became one of the first things to suffer through the process of developing my self.
My hair had it’s own tag. I endured a lot of name calling as a young child. My hair was big. It was wild and unruly. It looked very much like a lions mane. And as most kids are, they develop names for their peers from what’s familiar to them. Kids can be cruel without realizing it. During those years idols such as Tina Turner and Michael Jackson were everywhere, these idols weren’t admired for their hair, they were loved for their music. As a child, you run around, get scraped and hurt all the time, but when other kids start calling you Michael Jackson or Tina Turner, it was never in good faith, it always had a mean under teasing tone. And that really hurt. Yes, I’m still traumatized from being called Michael Jackson (hint hint Tumi).
The third situation was school. In Botswana all schools have a mandatory uniform. You had to wear a uniform and be neatly presented. Your hair had to be neatly worn. It certainly would have been an issue for me to have my hair out, especially since my mom, nor I had a clue then how to care for my hair. So before I had my hair relaxed, I would spend mornings having my hair painfully combed and pinned into a bun. But when the crying got too much for my mom or auntie to handle, I’d have to get my hair braided into cornrows or braids. I remember how I used to get squimish and keep asking to get up and go pee, because with each tight pull into a braid, the pain was unbearable. I was a trooper, I persevered because at the end of it all, I’d at least not have to touch my head for the next few weeks, and that meant I would be able to partake in activities such as swimming without the fear of this unruly crown of mine turning into a crazy bush.
So you get the gist now. I feel that you need to get a good back story to how a child so young could start thinking that her natural strand is a problem, and now I can tell you about how I got my hair relaxed.
I was 9 years old and as the other girls have mentioned getting your hair relaxed was the thing to do. It was a way to manage your hair on a daily basis. It was a way to feel beautiful. It was a way to fit in. Straight hair was the thing growing up and the majority of people did it. So why not me?! As a biracial child, you tend to start shaping your attitude about yourself by your environment, and especially towards the dominant social culture. I didn’t have a racial identity that I belonged to, so I felt that I had to either fit into one or the other. And since I grew up in Botswana, I felt more connected to my mothers racial and cultural identity. It only made sense to me, that since I had that curly coil, I was more black than white. So why couldn’t I care for my hair the way other black people do. The white side of me certainly wasn’t in my hair.
So off I went begging my mother, which didn’t take much convincing to get my hair chemically straightened. We went to our favourite hair salon, It was owned by this beautiful, expressive Ghanaian woman and she was our hair guru. I recall that when the woman asked me what I wanted to do with my hair, I told her to straighten it, she laughed and said why would you want to straighten such brofwe (white) hair? After our short talk, she picked up the beautiful beginnings hair relaxer and away we went. Despite the annoying burning sensation I was giddy with joy, I remember wanting to scratch the heck out of my head as the chemical was doing it’s thing, but she would continually slap my hand and say not to touch my scalp. Either way, that was the first time I relaxed my hair. The next day when I went to school, I received so many compliments on my long straight hair, from both my black, white and coloured friends. I couldn’t have been happier.
Now, I don’t mean to bore you with more to this part of my story but you have to understand how I hated my curls and to what extent I felt I needed to avoid curls by all means. On one occasion I went in to relax my hair and after the relaxer, my guru auntie wanted to put hair rollers in my hair so that it would have a curly bounce. And call me crazy but I freaked out that they wanted to get my hair curly already after straightening it. I cried as they tried to assure me that I would like it. It took my auntie a good 45 minutes to calm me down and explain that if I didn’t like it after the hair rollers, they would blow it out back to straight. I agreed hesitantly and went through with it. I never looked back. Getting curl rollers after the relaxer became my thing for the next few years.
Now when did I start embracing my curls? It took some time. I started thinking about my curly hair after one of my best girlfriends told me that she loved my hair curly when she caught me with it after a hair wash. I shrugged it off and told her I preferred it straight, and straight to the blow dryer I went.
Then one summer when I was in my second year of University, when I was feeling a little self lost and decided to do some soul searching. I found myself sitting in my apartment at the time with one of my girlfriends (who at the time time had these amazing locks – she cut em – I’ll interview her later for you all so she can tell you about her hair journey). Anyhow, we were chilling out, sipping on wine, her locking her hair and I moisturizing my hair whilst we watched a tv show called ‘House’, when one of our friends came to hang out. He had never seen my curls before and exclaimed “I didn’t realize your hair did that?” and I responded asking what he meant. He elaborated and said “I didn’t realize your hair curled like that. It makes you look so ethnic?”. Lebo and I were stunned and questioning of his tone. He, at that moment reminded me of those kids who says something without realizing it’s effect. I responded back “No s**t sherlock, I am black! My moms black so ofcourse my hair curls”. And as soon as I said it, I innately without realizing it had made the decision to start my natural hair journey.
I didn’t realize it at that time but that was a turning point for me and since then I never looked back. I mean yes I confess, I’ve definitely had 2 slips and put chemicals in my hair but it was the starting point.
Something changed for me. I grew up in predominant black Botswana and experienced university in multi-cultural yet predominantly white Canada. I hadn’t had the chance to acknowledge both my ethnicities and I guess during those years I did learn more than I realised at the time. I struggled with fitting in whilst in Canada at first, but having the opportunity to live there made me realize that I’m both black and white. I’m Motswana and Canadian. We mixed races may not have a box to tick other than the ‘other’ box, because society isn’t there yet, the concept of racial and cultural integration of several identities isn’t understood yet. It hasn’t happened YET . But we have to start somewhere, right? Thanks to the internet, I have been able to have access to so much information. It’s such an adventure reading other peoples stories and suggestions. I absolutely love watching video’s on caring for your hair. It has been an insightful journey and I’ve learnt that something that may work for you, may not work for me and vice versa. I love that I can experiment by mix matching the oils and processes and make my own routine. I love that it changes over time and sometimes what worked once doesn’t work now and I have to figure it all out again. It’s exciting and there is never a dull moment in caring for my hair.
I no longer struggle with my identity. My hair opened up a perspective on the world and about myself that I never could have imagined. I soon will tick a box labeled multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, with a subcategory tick of ‘motswana/canadian’.
When described, most say “Neo, she’s that girl with the big beautiful curls…” and I am happy with that, because my hair is my crown, it is me in so many ways, I am different, unruly, and there’s not a single day I or you wont learn something different about me. And I wear that proudly. And so should you, curls or not. Because Life has all sorts of locks, knots, kinks and curls, and you just gotta know it and love it.
By the way if anyone is interested in taking part in my Photography photobook project called “It Locks, Knots, the Kinks and Curls of it all!” please let me know. It’s a project about photographing people of all different hair types and sharing your short hair journey story. I’d like to publish the photo book in a few years. So if keen. drop me a message. To be clear I will be in Southern Africa from November to January. Will be back in Sydney from January onwards.