Politics of Black Hair (part 2): Social Regulation of Black Hair Texture

This piece, on the social regulation of black hair is the second part of my Politics of Black Hair series that was featured in the Earlham College student-run newspaper.

Historically, Black hair has frequently earned a reputation of being “unruly” and “unmanageable” with specific focus on it’s oftentimes kinky texture. It is such labels that aided the development and dependency of many black women upon hair chemicals (a multi-million dollar industry1 ) that promised the popular and socially accepted Eurocentric ideal of “good hair”, albeit temporarily. Perpetuation of ideas on what “good hair” must look like and how far black hair is from this idea, has worked to produce much of the social bias that many black people face within the workplace, school and in daily interactions.

Although the natural hair movement, has helped to sensitize and draw awareness about the beauty of black hair, there are still inherent problems with the way black hair texture is viewed. Because acceptable hair texture has often leaned towards the Eurocentric ideal, hair that could at least somehow “pass” as mirroring or attempting to mirror this Eurocentric ideal has usually been accepted within societies, both black and white. In Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, we are taken into the complex and oftentimes expensive world of Black hair care and the lengths at which black people must be prepared to go, in order to achieve a socially acceptable image of themselves and more specifically, of their hair. Although the natural hair movement, has helped to sensitize and draw awareness about the beauty of black hair, there are still inherent problems with the way black hair texture is viewed. Because acceptable hair texture has often leaned towards the Eurocentric ideal, hair that could at least somehow “pass” as mirroring or attempting to mirror this Eurocentric ideal has usually been accepted within societies, both black and white.

Regulation of Black hair in the workplace is one of the most blatant forms of discrimination against people of color but also against the natural state of Black hair. In their opinion editorial entitled, “When Black Hair Is Against the Rules2 ” (2014), Ayana Byrd and Lori L.Tharps, authors of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” (2001) demonstrate how the US Army’s decision to revise its appearance and grooming policy, disproportionately affected Black women and their hair. The 2014 policy was said to “refer to hairstyles like cornrows, braids, twists and dreadlocks” while “severely limiting or banning them outright.” Specific language within the policy also referred to these styles as “matted” and “unkempt.”3 Although the policy has since been revised, such action conveys a clear message to black people: The US Army will not accept your natural as it is, alter it or prepare to face the consequences. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that social regulations on Black hair are perpetuated by Black and White people alike, who staunchly believe in the inherent inferiority of black hair. However, the best-kept secret still remains: Black hair should not need reform, rather it is the unhealthy ideals of Eurocentric beauty, unequal racial structures and power dynamics that need to be abolished.

 

Politics of Black Hair (part 1): Black Hair and Petting Zoo’s

As a young girl my mother’s decision to make me wear my hair in it’s natural state (without any chemical products) largely made me an anomaly amongst my caucasian friends but a symbol of celebration for its length and volume amongst my black friends.

I would grow up to expect the “oohing” and “aahing” of non-African’s at the sight of my hair, followed by the occasional, “can I touch it?” or “how often do you wash it?”. I will admit, some experiences were better than others but not one left me feeling necessarily good about myself or the attention that my hair provided me simply because I did not see individuals of other races being riddled with questions about the “management” of their hair. Disclaimer: In making these statements, I do not attempt to speak for the entire Black race or individuals who share hair textures that deviate from silky and straight. Although my experiences concerning my hair stem far beyond the time I have spent in the United States, I will have to admit that living in the US has opened up me to several new dimensions of the black hair discussion.

The attention that black hair garners whether in it’s natural state or in other styles such as wigs, crotchet braids or braiding extensions has often left me weary. Weary of explaining the “how’s” and the “whys”, weary of defending that black women’s decision on how they choose to wear their hair should be left to each woman as an individual and not a collective and weary of feeling like an animal at a petting zoo. The general inability for black hair to simply exist without question or analysis is frustrating, to say the least, and although there is so much discussion on the topic, so much ignorance still pervades the issue. In her internationally acclaimed novel, Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie demonstrates the difficulties that the protagonist, Ifemelu faces in deciding how to wear her hair and the consequences that arise from either wearing it naturally or using chemical products. Although Adichie helped to provide a platform for the discussion of the politicization of black hair, much more needs to be done. So my advice to anyone who feels the urge to grab a braid or quiz a black woman about the texture of her hair is to Stop! you are not at the petting zoo.Black Hair Collumn

You were beautiful before they told you

You were beautiful before they told you.
Before they molded you into the temple of their becomings.
All you see now is a price on your soul.
But please take a moment to realize,
that the broken pieces are not a mess.
And as the sun falls into meditation;
as it makes intercourse with the moon,
translating the words pressed over your heart,
into a melody we never thought to listen to-
You should hold tight to the webs of faith set before you.

You were beautiful before they told you.
Your blackness is a narrative few will choose to understand.
It is not an apology nor a monologue.
The beauty of your kinks and locks in conversation with the curve of your breast,
Requires a special appreciation.
So do not despair,
when you are sold below the price of beauty,
on a market which places perfection as a necessity.

You were beautiful before they told you.
You are not an idea nor a single thought but rather a discourse of many colors.
I could tell you this until the end of time.
But do you see it?
You must resist the desire to desist from breaking free.
These chains that print self-loathing over the bridges of your ancestry,
Have blinded you.
And now the shadows in your eyes,
make it impossible-
for you to feel the sunshine,
dancing under the soles of your feet.