“It’s just hair”-The Pencil Test

by kcurly on February 3, 2009

in "It's just hair"

I’ll be starting a new category on this blog called “It’s just hair” to point out that it’s not just hair. Kinky, tightly curled hair is a big deal to a lot of people and I aim to find as many examples of that as I can. Here’s the first of ( I hope ) many.

Think “it’s just hair”? Check out this little piece of history from South Africa.

Unlike the United States, South Africa did not consider one drop of African blood enough to make one “black”. With the implementation of the Population Registration Act of 1950 as a part of apartheid, people were classified as either white, black, or, a new group, “coloured”. If there were a question of race, the Pencil test was employed.

The Pencil Test involved taking a pencil and sticking it through the questionable person’s hair. If it got stuck, the person was considered “coloured”. If it fell, they were considered white. (Sometimes there would be exceptions to this if there were other evidence)

With this test, families were torn apart and the new “coloureds” were given special priveleges that blacks did not have including better schooling, housing, jobs. The sad thing is the “coloureds” would sometimes treat the blacks with as much or more contempt as the white population.

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  • Moni

    I just took a class on South Africa with a South African professor where we talked about the pencil test. It was also used to distinguish between “African” and “coloured” people. I.e., for brown or darker-skinned people, if the pencil stuck, the person was African, but if it fell they were coloured. As we know you can have many different textures of hair in one family so many families were broken apart.

  • http://themonotonouslife.com SA

    That is so sad. I tend to be one of those that think hair is “just hair,” but I do recognize how much people of the past (and present) make of it and how it’s still perceived as a negative (to some people) to have kinky/coily hair.

  • http://jillipoo.blogspot.com Jill

    First, I love this “it’s just hair” theme. Brilliant — I fully intend to keep coming back to read more.

    Second, I’m trying to envision what kind of silken mane would *not* hold on to a pencil that was stuck in it? What a truly ridiculous test — right up there with whatever crazy litmus test they used in Salem to determine whether somebody was a witch.

    People do some crazy s$&%. And lives are lost because of it. Just leaves you speechless.

  • http://bronzetrinity.blogspot.com Bronze Trinity

    I think that this will be a great series. It is not just hair to me. There were lots of anthropological and psychological studies done in the US to differentiate people on the basis of hair texture, skin colour, and facial features. The studies were used to determine who was Black so that the Black people could be discriminated against. Its a sad, sad history that most textbooks try to hide.

  • NubianPrize

    I grew up in the 50′s & 60′s with segregation & light/dark skin craziness. There’s also colorism in other countries. All this foolishness reminds me of a quote by Einstein:

    “Two things are infinite…the universe & human stupidity..and I’m not sure about the former.”

  • True White South African

    umm…sorry… you’re actually wrong. I’ve lived in South Africa my whole and I can tell you that: Yes there was a pencil test but not like what you said. You see, coloured aren’t actually black at all, the two actually came from different cultures and they to this day don’t like each other. Before apartheid they, the coloured people, lived in the western cape and maybe in the northern cape but especially in Cape Town and there were a very small percentage black people here (in the western cape.) So as you can see it didn’t tear like all families apart (yes there were mixed families but not like you make it sound.) Just remember, Apartheid wasn’t the african Holocaust! Yes it was very wrong, but what you don’t realize is that in america the same thing was going on at the same time, but it didn’t have a name and it didn’t have WRITTEN rules. Apartheid wasn’t white people against black people, it was a few whites with power against the black nation. In those days the masses white people didn’t actually realize what was going on because the media didn’t cover it so how should they have known. Also, it wasn’t a war. Some black people stood up but alot of white people that were informed also stood up and it was ended because the president, FW de Klerk, ended Apartheid and freed Nelson Mandela. I should know, really, in school we did the whole history of “Apartheid” every year.

    What’s funny for me is that the black people who are racistic towards other nations now, is mainly young people and not the generation that was affected by Apartheid. This old black guy that works at a church says he preferred the apartheid days because he was richer and was paid more and he says he hates our black government because they are corrupt. And they are, our ruling party’s leader stole huge amounts of money (and he was already rolling in it), he had intercourse with an HIV-pos woman and said that he showered afterwards, so he wouldn’t get HIV! He is blasphemic and on numorous compared himself to Jesus. In other words, if he, Jacob Zuma becomes SA’s president on 23 April 2009 then we are all f.-ed and i’m moving out of here as quick as possible.

    BTW the Zulus and Xhosas hate each other more then they hate the white people.

  • http://newlynatural.com kcurly

    Hi Mr or Ms True White South African. I though long and hard about approving your comment, but felt I should reply.

    I understand that those who were classified as “coloured” after the Population Registration Act (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_Registration_Act) lived in different areas, blah, blah, blah. I don’t doubt that they continue to live separately considering apartheid ended in 1994, while the civil rights movement mainly went on in the 50s-60s here in the US. There are still major disparities here after all that time.

    My point of this whole post was the the pencil test WAS used. My sources all said that those in the same family who were classified differently were not allowed to go to the same school, live in the same place…that sounds like tearing apart to me. Think if it was you and your mom or dad.

    I agree apartheid wasn’t the holocaust and I don’t believe I ever said that. It is more comparable, as I just said, to racial segregation here in the US.

    Your last paragraph I’m not going to even really comment on except to say that 1) anecdotal evidence is not always applicable and 2) so?

    I’m not aware of the zulus and xhosas hating each other (and I don’t feel like researching it), but I don’t doubt it. A lot of the African tribes were at war among themselves before Europeans showed up. Just as Native Americans were, just as the Europeans were! Big deal, I never said that black Africans hated white people.

    Really it sounds like you are defending Apartheid. I doubt you were here to check out the latest hairstyle I’m sporting.

  • Chosen

    To a truly white South African,

    Quoting one black person who is more concerned for their own personal gain, rather than the rebuilding of the nation shows you are naive or ignorant.
    I am also sure you and other white south africans are not innocent of colluding with the oppression of darker pigmented people because the news media didn’t keep you informed. You enjoyed privileges your whire skin afforded you and would not risk losing that to represent what is right. This hatred or fear of the power of dark skin is global and its root will be revealed in the very near future.
    If your next president is as bad as you say, then maybe you should run for the hills. But maybe he will be used to purge the country of those who have no right to be there and a new regime can rule the country.

  • Hopewell

    Interesting, you still get that now, coloured people still have this fixation that they are the closest to white, and with that misconception undermine their own intellegence…I am black, african to be politically correct. And never will I undermine anyone’s intellegence, we need to learn from our great history, not regrete it. Yet one is psychologically judged and scrutanised everyday. i only hope that some-day the african definition will be realised. My name is Hopewell Hlabisa

  • Syd

    I’m a middle school social studies teacher and just found out about this test. I happen to caucasian, 50% Irish, 50% French and German, with very thick and coarse curly hair. The pencil was stuck in my hair. Oh well.

  • Mar

    You can actually see this test being done on a girl from two white parents but with black or African American physical features in the movie Skin.

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