Let's Talk About Black Hair!
First of all - I'd like to preface by saying Happy New Year (in the month of March.. I know lol) but better late than never right? I hope your year has been off to a good start! If it hasn't there is still 9 months of the year to go! Enough time to have a baby if you're quick about it
Black History Month was in February and Women's Month is this month, so what better topic to write on than Black Hair, a common theme for both months?
Before I delve into the intricacies of black hair, did you know that a lot of women who wear hearing aids, choose their hairstyles carefully? For many of us who do not want people to know we wear hearing aids right off the bat, we do not wear or do hairstyles that show our ears. This was actually something I did for the longest time. I didn't realize I usually made this unconscious decision until a fellow hearing aid user I follow on Instagram mentioned that she wore ponytails as a conscious choice as that would mean that everyone would see she was wearing hearing aids. I thought that was pretty brave.
Last year I decided to have my hair put into large corn-rows right before I went on vacation as it was the most convenient style due to the fact that the weather of the city I was going to was quite hot. Wearing my usual weaves/wigs would have been too uncomfortable. It was mid-way into the hairdresser making my hair that I had a moment of panic, "my hearing aids! everyone is going to see them" However, it was too late by then, and I didn't have the time or the money to stop. Honestly, even up until now I still have moments where I think, oh they're going to know I'm wearing hearing aids before I check my thoughts and relax and tell myself "it's fine, it's not a big deal" Another hearing-impaired friend who messaged me later after she saw the hairstyle said wow that's so brave of you - "I definitely couldn't do that" This is just one way that my hearing loss could potentially dictate my everyday life as it is something I need to take into consideration when choosing hairstyles.
Now having hair as a black woman is a very nuanced and somewhat personal experience that we don't really talk about outside of black women's "safe space" However, I recently gave a talk about it at work and thought it would be great to share some of what we talked about here.
Before I proceed I will share Michelle Obama's experience with wearing her natural hair in the White House to give some context on what it means for black women and their hair in a space we share with people from other races.
(Key moments relevant to this article to watch are from the beginning to 1:07 and 2:04 to 3:44)
It's quite wild the first lady of the US is not exempt from this quite frankly annoying issue. It has to be understood for a large number of black women in the Western World - that keeping our hair straight and acceptable has been ingrained in some of us for the longest time. It is also part of "code-switching". From when we were kids, some of us have chemicals put on our hair to straighten it and make it look more acceptable and presentable amongst other things. (the upside of this is that it can make our hair a lot easier to manage, but I wonder if this is due to a lack of products or services being made available for our hair. that's another topic for another day) A few years ago, if a black woman were to wear her natural hair in a public professional space she would be considered bold which quite frankly is a little crazy.
Personally, I very hardly wear my natural hair out in public spaces. Likely in the comfort of my own home. If I did not have braids extensions on and I had a guest I am not close to coming over. I would definitely have my wig on. When I'm at work I have my wig on, even when I work from home. I find that it's less distracting for everyone. There's actually nothing wrong with my hair, it's fine and healthy and decent hair, though I wish it was longer that's pretty much it. I suppose there's a lot to unpack regarding this aspect. Even when I switch between different wig styles I try it gradually so it's not too much of a shock. I mean switching between mid-length and light brown hair to long and jet-black hair the next day will certainly raise questions even unspoken ones.
To understand why this is even a conversation, let's briefly go back in time to understand the history of black women's hair.
In Ancient African communities, hair was more than just your style, it told you about where you came from and who you were. It also indicated your marital status, age, religion, wealth, and rank in society. During the slave trade, one of the first things slave traders did to captured slaves was to shave their hair. Considering how deeply spiritual and culturally important it was, it was a particularly humiliating act with the intent to remove their connections to their culture. When it grew again, because they did not have access to the materials they could use to take care of their hair, what was once a source of pride and identity became tangled and matted and hidden under cloths.
During this period, the concept of Texturism came about. During the era of slavery, a person's hair (especially if they were the offspring of white slave masters and slaves) could determine their value and working conditions which in turn impacted their overall health and comfort. Eurocentric beauty standards dictated that coily hair and dark skin were unattractive and inferior. What was seen as “good and attractive hair” was characterized by straighter, more European features. Lighter-skinned, straighter-haired slaves often were favored
In the 18th century, there was a law that was passed called the Tignon Law It forced Black women to cover their hair in public as there was a perceived notion that black women became a threat to white women's relationships with French and Spanish Creole men.
During the civil rights movement in the '60s - the afro became a symbol of self-empowerment and activism. It also became a popular statement of power, pride, and resistance. Some felt hair straightening reflected a history of forced assimilation, so embracing their natural textures was a way of reclaiming their roots. Iconic Black activists, scholars, and artists like Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simone rocked this hairstyle symbolizing the enduring fight against racism.
Institutional bias against Black hair still exists today. The Perception Institute’s 2016 “Good Hair” Study suggests that “a majority of people, regardless of race/gender, hold some bias toward women of color based on their hair.” A 2020 Duke University study also found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived as less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for job interviews than candidates with straight hair (who were viewed as more polished, refined, and respectable).
Source: The Well
With hundreds of years of repression (which has largely become unconscious), you will find in place a significant number of black women who have accepted and adapted (very beautifully I might add) to the Eurocentric standards. This has created an industry worth billions considering how much black women spend on artificial hair. it is actually quite fascinating, all due to learned behavior passed down from generation to generation. It is not uncommon to know women who have spent thousands of dollars just on getting decent-quality hair extensions. The intent is to make people think it is actually your naturally grown hair :)
Another interesting thing about the Eurocentric standards is how far they permeated even West African workplaces. When I worked in Nigeria briefly, Some financial institutions made it very clear that you could not have your natural unpermed hair at work (i.e chemically unstraightened hair) It was seen as unprofessional and unrefined, and you could actually get sent home from work due of this.
There is great news though - The CROWN Act in the United States is the law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination that is keenly felt by black women in the workspace. This was introduced in January 2019 and has been implemented in 20 states in the United States. Canada unfortunately does not have an act like this yet. This is important as over 20% of Black women 25-34 have been sent home from work because of their hair. The Act is to ensure that women are afforded equal opportunities and are considered based on their qualifications, NOT their hair. It also supports black women coming to work in their true and fully authentic selves (Whether with their natural hair, whatever state it may be, or extensions should they wish to do so but as long as it is their choice)
One thing though about natural afro hair, it creates some beautiful bonding moments for black women's relationships. One thing my sisters and I do is to make sure that our mum oils our hair whenever we see her (this is basically putting shea oil or hair cream in our hair to moisturize it. It can take about thirty mins plus to an hour depending on how dry your hair is). Another way is taking other's braids extensions out of our hair (or getting corn rows done) this is usually a great way to catch up with each other. It can be done during movie nights or catch-up nights. This activity usually takes about a couple of hours. I usually don't take these moments for granted at all.
*The Great Serena Williams and her beautiful daughter Alexis Olympia
There are so many facts about black hair that surprises people from other races. Here are some of them (feel free to add yours in the comment section!)
It can take up to 24 hours to get your hair done (if you're doing braids and it's a single braider, for e.g - the last time I had my braid extensions done, it took 5/6 hours with 5 women doing it)
For women with natural hair (not chemically straightened) it can take about 2-4 hours to properly wash and treat your hair (at home) depending on what level of treatment you want to do.
Different black communities have very different perceptions and values about dreadlocks and sister locs - some Afro-Caribbean communities hold it very sacred and treat it with the utmost respect. However, in West Africa, it can be seen as irresponsible and can make you a subject of discrimination and as far as unwarranted attention from the police. I believe the tide is slowly changing though as I do see a lot more people with dreads and sister locs in West Africa.
Not all black women have thick hair, a significant number of them suffer from alopecia. That's another topic for another day.
We do in fact wash our hair :) not just every day as this is harmful to our hair and strips our hair of the necessary oils that we need to keep it healthy and strong. Each black community and black woman has a very personal hair care routine.
Black women often have trouble finding shops that stock the right products for their hair. For example, the nearest black hair shop to me is about 45 mins drive from me and I live in what would be considered a city.
I will sign off with a thought-provoking video between Tracie Ellie Ross and Oprah that really moved me.
Until next time!