Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Pencil Test

"'If you're black and pretend you're Coloured, the police has the pencil test.'
'The pencil test?'
'Oh, yes, sir. They sticks a pencil in your hair and you has to bend down, and if your hair holds the pencil, that shows it's too woolly, too thick. You can't be Coloured with woolly hair like that. You got to stay black, you see.'"
(cited in Bowker & Leigh Star, 1999)



Race is pure fiction. And a racist system needs fictional classifications, it needs arbitrarily chosen criteria for the different "races", ridiculous criteria that justify inequality. In 1950, the Population Registraction Act and the Group Areas Act were passed in South Africa. These classifications determined the so-called racial group one belonged to and where one could live, work, ... People were divided into four groups: Europeans (White), Asiatics, Coloureds (mixed "race"), and Natives ("pure-blooded individuals of the Bantu race"); Coloureds and Natives were subdivided. Apartheid meant that "people had to be unambiguously categorizable by race", which of course they were not. As a result, different aspects of apartheid law classified a person differently. Jazz musician Vic Wilkinson, for instance, crossed the race line five times. His "race" changed e.g. when he married women of different ethnicities and moved to different neighbourhoods.

Theoretically, "reclassification" was possible. If a person was labelled Coloured and wished to be labelled White or European, they had thirty days to appeal the classification. The average waiting time, however, was 14 months during which the person continued to live as "Coloured". If - during that time - they enrolled at a Coloured school (as they had no access to a White school), this was later seen as legal evidence that they were Coloured. Even "associating with someone of the wrong group could become evidence of membership and thus of race." The reclassification system was "completely internally inconsistent", categories were conflicting, a mixed criteria of "appearance and general acceptance and repute" was used. Questions such as "Do you eat porridge" or "Do you sleep on the floor or in a bed" were asked to find out whether a person was White. Complexion, eyes, cheekbones, earlobes ("Natives have soft lobes") profiles, and hair were examined. Many underwent the pencil test. If the pencil fell out of a person's hair, they were not classified as Black (Bowker & Leigh Star, 1999).
"Many people did not conform to the typologies constructed under the law: especially people whose appearance differed from their assigned category, or who lived with those of another race, spoke a different language from the assigned group, or had some other historical deviation from the pure type. New laws and amendments were constantly being debated and passed (see, e.g. Rand Daily Mail, 1966). By 1985, the corpus of racial law in South Africa exceeded 3,000 pages (Lelyveld, 1985: 82)."
"The Director of Census was in charge of deciding everyone's racial classification, on the basis of the census data, and, where necessary, other records of vital statistics. Horrell notes: "But this classification is by no means formal. Section Five(3) of the Population Registration Act provides that if at any time it appears to the Director that the classification of a person is incorrect, after giving notice to the person concerned, specifying in which respect the classification is incorrect, and affording him or her an opportunity of being heard, he may alter the classification in the register" (1958: 4). So in the case of apartheid, we have the scientistic belief in race difference on the everyday level, and an elaborate formal legal apparatus enforcing separation. At the same time, a much less formal, more prototypical approach uses an amalgam of appearance and acceptance -- and the on-the-spot visual judgments of everyone from police and tram drivers to judges -- to perform the sorting process on the street."
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Interesting/Related:

- South African schools under attack over Afro hairstyles ban (2016), LINK
- I was fired for refusing to tame Afro, LINK
- The Paper Bag Test, LINK
- Being African: What does hair have to do with it? LINK
- Good Hair (trailer), LINK
- The -ism Series (4): Racism, LINK


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- Bowker, G. C. & Leigh Star, S. (1999). Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; link
- photograph of Diana Ross via

4 comments:

  1. This is really hard to believe.
    Many thanks for commenting, Karen, Wim, and Kenneth!

    ReplyDelete