A story about white hair and children (and other things)

Black children who live in townships may have more opportunity, more freedom of movement, and better education (although the better education is questionable even taking Bantu Education into account – more on that later) than during apartheid, but what they do not have is experience with many white people. I know this because I draw a crowd of black children whenever I attend parties or church services there.

I have always relished the opportunity to spend time with children, and these sweet kids who stare at me solemnly until I smile at them or pull funny faces (and other things grown-ups unused to children do) make my heart feel all mushy. In addition, I have felt very strongly for a long time that everyone needs to spend a lot of time with people different to themselves or they just perpetuate those general stereotypes and prejudices that are passed down through the generations. I make an especial effort, therefore, to let these particular kids play with my hair and look into my eyes and even touch my face. I want them to see what white people are like (just people with different hair) and to feel more comfortable with difference.

Just like many of the stories I have told myself, this one is not entirely unproblematic. A string of children came up to hug me one by one the other day, each of them being real little girls and telling me how much they liked my shoes, and my dress and my hair, and one of them declared she liked everything about me. Then, they ran away to keep playing, and there was one girl left, who regarded me a little more seriously. She gave me a hug, stepped back, and simply said, “Sweets”. I sheepishly explained that I did not have any sweets in my bag, and she went away.

I joked with Zwe’s Mum that that is obviously what white women do in that part of town: they visit the township, soak up the admiration of little black children and hand out sweets in return. The white benefactor lives on and, clearly, I had not fulfilled my role.

Then, another young woman (a spunky fourteen year-old who wants to become a doctor) started playing with my hair and I felt uncomfortable, as she said that she wanted hair like mine because it was so soft. I felt conflicted for being not just someone people marvel at for a minute and then move on, but someone who is viewed by little black girls as a role model. As a teacher, I like to think I am a role model. I try to be a good person and to prompt young(er) people to question their assumptions, but I do not want my appearance to serve as an example.

Perhaps she said she wanted hair like mine in a similar way that I look longingly at people with curls, and it is less to do with race than it is to do with fashion. But little black girls have to read books about and watch shows about enough white girls and traditionally “white” beauty (long, straight hair and pale skin) and I think my hope is naive. Young black women need black female role models: women who look how they want to look, and are proud of their hair, whether they choose to use it to provide a base for a weave or to mould into an Afro. I felt rather foolish because I suddenly felt as if I was part of the problem. 

So lately, I have felt less part of an extended community, and more as someone who has moulded herself unwittingly into a white “saviour”.

I will keep playing with and talking to children of all races, and I still believe in the importance of spending time with people different from myself, but as long as my history is written on my skin, I need to keep questioning even the unwitting effect I have on others.


Image source: Mary Slessor was a missionary in Calabar (now a buzzing metropolis situated in South-East Nigeria). Some of these missionary and “civilising” impulses are still very present in certain charitable organisations, even local ones that should know better. Some of my so-called “born free” students still talk about “savage” early African cultures. Considering this (and what I have said above), I thought this picture was particularly appropriate, even if it makes me queasy.