Hair and Complexion – An article by Melanie Burke

After my last post, I have had a plethora of amazing conversations with like-minded women (and a few men). A conversation that stands out in particular (via email) was with someone I hold in high regard, Melanie Burke. Melanie is, among so many other things, a business woman; a mentor; a motivator; a leader; an inspiration and a brand new naturalista. She wrote the following article 10 years ago for an in-house newsletter at the company she worked for back then. The article is called “Hair and Complexion” and it was published in the O Magazine as well. As a chocolate toned coloured woman, I relate to it wholeheartedly. I feel that it is an important piece and after 10 years, it is still very relevant in our society today. I encourage you to read the article below and feel free to share your comments. Melanie writes:

I have made it my life’s ambition to stand out in a crowd, to be different, to be talked about because I choose not to conform to the norm. When I was younger I thought the word enigma described me accurately. Today I realise that I had the word right, but I missed its meaning completely.
 Being me was an imprecision made more so by being coloured. There was always an underlying unspoken set of characteristics about being coloured. Like the whole issue of hair and complexion. Why was my sister and I treated differently? We were born from the same parents and yet no two people could be more unalike. She has fine hair and mine is course, she has fair skin and eyes and I, well I am dark.

Melanie Burke after her big chop in March 2014

Was it acceptable to be considered unattractive, a goffel? Was it tolerable that my hair became the focus of my existence? Being at the seaside or enjoying an afternoon at the swimming pool was never about having fun, always about my hair. My sister was a waterbaby, simply because her hair was fine. Was it custom that instructed mothers to warn their sons and daughters “to think about their children” when they dated someone who didn’t have what they called hair and complexion? Was it our legacy to teach our children to be ashamed of whom they are? What a burden this places on the choices of childbearing adults. To procreate without knowing what the combination of one’s mixed blood would produce creates a whole new opportunity for trauma.
 What do you do when your child wants to know what hair and complexion is, especially when they don’t have it and their looks cannot be traced to either of the parents? How do you explain that they are automatically placed in the hierarchy that exists purely on the basis of hair and complexion? And that the rest of their lives are predetermined by this? I can be censured for my attitude, but how can I teach my children to be proud of the mixed blessing we have received when as a community we are bigots and still hang our heads in shame at our colouredness and the wonderful diversity that this offers?

Melanie with the legendary actor, director and playwright, John Kani

Stay Gold



  1. 04/22/2014 / 13:24

    Oh, I can totally relate! My mother was rejected by my father's family because she was dark. My father nearly got arrested because a police officer thought he was a white guy dating a coloured woman back in the 60's. Anyway, I came out looking slightly yellow (in no way intended to offend any race – my undertones are really yellow). We're a real mixed bag, my siblings and I…My brother, the eldest, is dark and sported a jerry at one point (my parents being the most judgemental, "have no idea where his hair came from"), my sister, second eldest one, takes after my mother's side, darker skinned and hair that I envied for years. Then there is my sister, with the auburn wavy hair and freckles who takes after my father's side. We all have different hair and skin tones, but bloody hell, we all look alike! However, my father's family dished out insults from day one about hair, skin colour etc. Even claiming my eldest sister wasn't my father's. Its ridiculous how obsessive Capetonians in particular are about it. A hairdresser I walked into recently, insisted I do a Brazilian…I walked right out. My husband sadly is obsessed with long hair and freaks whenever I talk about how I am going to chop my daughter's hair when she starts school…it's hair…it grows back and does not define us. As our sister India says "I am not my hair". I want my daughter to grow up not selecting playmates by skin colour and hair texture.

  2. 04/22/2014 / 13:27

    I love the fact that you "get it" Trace. We start by educating our daughters. Let's break the cycle.

  3. 04/22/2014 / 13:45

    Lovely article, we need to celebrate our diversity as Coloured people & be proud of all the shapes,colours,hair textures we come in, it is hard though because it is like we are non existent in our country & this world

  4. 04/22/2014 / 13:46

    So true Andrea. Thank you so much for your comment.

  5. lucinda
    05/02/2014 / 10:41

    Love your Blog Mandy. Soo true about Capetonians being so judgemental in regards to looks especially hair. I could neva understand the obsession with hair. Hence I've been living in the UK for over 7 yrs now where I'm sporting my frizzy hair now more than ever. And I can just be me unlike in Cape Town shopping malls where people stair u to death if u look different.

  6. 05/02/2014 / 11:28

    Thank you so much for reading my blog, Lucinda. My daughter and I make a game out of how many people stare at me. The naturalista movement is growing in Cape Town. Albeit slow, it's growing.

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