October 27, 2020
Ahead of a new Channel 4 programme, the Singer explains why hair and identity are inextricably woven together for people of colour
Shingai Shoniwa: My hair isn’t intimidating – it’s an expression of who I am
I would describe myself as a Brit of Bantu heritage. Due to the colonial borders that were put in place in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of Bantu people were separated into different nations. My grandmother is from Malawi, previously called Nyasaland. They made a sharp border with Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and the east Portuguese protectorate, now Mozambique, which is where my grandfather is from. My parents were born in Zimbabwe, but I grew up in Lewisham, south London. I was lucky that as a child I was encouraged by my family and community to wear my hair in its natural state – my Friends and I wore styles such as Bantu knots and cane rows with pride. Even my white friends would get the odd braid or two. Getting your hair done as a little black girl felt like an expression of love and nourishment. It would be styled by my gogo – my grandmother – or my mum, or an auntie, or anyone in the community, really; there was a support network for Women of colour who cared for the hair of the children around them. The reaction from other kids towards my hair was positive – they thought it looked really cool, like an alien. But when it came to adults, and certain institutions, there was a more negative reaction.
At secondary school, that negativity increased. We were bombarded with chemical products from America, and teachers questioning whether our natural styles fitted the “hair code”. Things got more pointed once I entered the workplace. I worked at a posh department store in Kensington as a teenager – a very old, respected establishment. I had cut off all the hair damaged by those toxic chemicals, and put it into plaits. One day, I was pulled off the shop floor. I was making a sale – being my usual happy self – when I was marched off by three members of staff. They said there had been complaints about my hair, and that it could be seen as intimidating. It was, they said, more respectable when it was straightened, and they gave me two options: to have a stranger style my hair in the “grooming” department or be sent home. I stayed calm and said I would leave, but I went home and cried. I was so scarred by that experience. To me, the idea of grooming was for pets, not for humans.
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