“Why do you have your hair like that? It’s ugly. You should comb it.”

I do not remember the name of the young boy who said this to me, but I will never forget how his comment made me feel. As a child, I remember touching my hair like it was the first time as if some strange cloud suddenly appeared on my head. I reached up with hesitation to grasp the large puff in awe and then shame.

You never forget the first time you learn you are not only different, but unacceptable.

Last week, young girls at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa protested racist school policies that targeted natural hair, calling it unkempt. Victory came after the protest, as #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh spread across social media. The rules were temporarily suspended while an investigation was launched into other accusations of racism at the school.

Watching their experience reminded me of my own struggles to boldly accept my natural hair and the hairstyles I choose to wear.

Comments about my hair over the years were a mixed bag. People pointed out my hair as “good hair” but suggested I should still “do something nice” with it which often meant wearing a straight style or tied back in a slick bun. My friends with kinkier hair faced even harsher criticism and I watched them hide, fry and lye their hair into silky straight submission in order to avoid being called “nappy-headed”.

Although societal viewpoints on natural hair were never used against me, the unspoken code of conduct for the professional world became very clear as I set out to interview for my career after college. I was advised not to wear intricate braided styles, to tie my hair back or even better, to wear it bone straight for interviews. This message says to me that my hair’s natural state isn’t acceptable.

The code of conduct at Pretoria High School for Girls shares similar grooming recommendations.

At an early age, I wasn’t inspired or taught to push back. Instead, I was taught to “do what you have to do to get in the door.”

This advice, like many approaches to dealing with racism, is the path of least resistance and doesn’t actually create change.

Instead of forcing themselves into a box for the sake of acceptance, the girls in South Africa went against the grain and shut it down. Living out their freedom inspires women and girls around the world to embrace the natural hair and all that it stands for because it’s never just hair. It’s womanhood. It’s blackness. It’s our silent, visible resistance.

Well done.

How were you inspired by the Pretoria schoolgirls protest? Did you reflect on your own natural hair journey? Tell us your story in the comments!

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